If you’re looking for how-tos on succeeding at a law firm or general advice on practicing law at a law firm, you’ve come to the right place. However, I (Peter) think the principles and tips described have a lot of cross-over to many other professional fields. It may also apply to the job searching and educational parts of being a lawyer
Success in the law depends on 1) developing business (that you perform or delegate) and 2) having substantive legal results.
The reward for good work is more work. If you are trying to succeed at a law firm, this is what you want. You need people to give you work—that is how you maximize the all-powerful billable hour.
This article focuses on achieving substantive results, but there is a lot of cross-over between substance and developing future business. If you are good at the substance of law, then you will generally get more business from your colleagues, even without actively developing new client relationships. In addition, substantive success in the law depends heavily on having a nuanced understanding of what others want.
Law firm secret: The attorneys you will work with do not actually care how many hours you bill. If you bill an insane number of hours to their client, then they may be irritated that they have to write off that time (which might involve uncomfortable conversations with others in the firm). Or they might not write it off, and end up having to bill more time to the client than they think is appropriate. But in general, they will just want you to do what you are asked to do (and a bit more) and bill the amount of time that it actually takes you.
What they do care about is their relationship with their bosses (more senior attorneys, rainmaker attorneys, or clients). Succeeding at a law firm means making the other attorneys happy. Pretty much all you have to do is figure out how to make their lives as easy as possible—i.e., how to help them quickly and easily give their bosses what they want.
Being right matters less than not being wrong.
In law school, you earn points for all of the correct things that you say about the law. In law firms, you do get “points” for saying correct things. But you can also be penalized very heavily for saying a single thing wrong. “Wrong” can mean false, or it can just mean saying something in the wrong way. What matters is how easy it is for other people to work with you.
When you are starting out in a law firm, the lawyers you work with know more than you do. If you get the law wrong, they will not trust your work, and they will not give you more work.
The people that you work for want to keep getting assignments from the people they work for (the attorneys above them, or the clients), so they cannot afford to pass on work that does not look perfect. If there is anything wrong with your work, they will redo it before sending it up the chain. Next time, they won’t waste their time and the client’s money by assigning it to you in the first place.
The number one rule of success in a law firm is to ensure that everything that passes out of your workspace is perfect—ready for your boss to rubber stamp and pass on to their boss.
What does this mean?
- In many cases it is appropriate to literally draft a suggested client email and include that suggested draft along with your finished work product. Even if your boss didn’t ask you to.
- When you transmit your work product, your email should summarize your legal analysis, but it should also be accompanied by source materials and carefully-organized notes (possibly including pasted relevant text from source materials).
- Your notes should have an automated, interactive table of contents at the top. They should always carry simple, clear, and consistent formatting and organization. Clear and simple means the person trying to find a particular piece of information will not be stressed out when they are trying to do so.
For tips on how to efficiently set up and structure notes in Microsoft Word on literally any topic, see our advice on how to conduct legal research
Speak (and write) with absolute clarity and intention at all times.
Lawyers are almost never wrong. You might not be perfectly right all the time, but if you are a decent lawyer then you make certain that you never say anything that you aren’t prepared to later defend. You should be sure of anything that goes into your work product. If you are not certain, say why
If you make a mistake, own up to it quickly and directly.
Senior attorneys know that you are a junior attorney and that you have a lot to learn. But they need to know that they can trust you and they need to know that you are willing to recognize your mistakes and push yourself to do better moving forward. The worst possible outcome is that you let yourself come off as dishonest.
Success at a law firm is about doing well enough and impressing people enough that they give you more work. The people you are working with are in the same boat. If you know what their boss wants, you know how to make their life easier.