key tips 2019 successful biglaw associate attorney

Happy New Year! To Have a Resolution or Not, That Is the Question…

Whether you like New Year’s Resolutions or think they are a waste of time, a new year is upon us and people all around you will be making resolutions, talking about them, or telling you how stupid they are while at the same time asking you what your big goals are.

For the Biglaw associate, January 1 kicks off a new year just like it does for everyone else, but it also kicks off a fresh start to the billing cycle. The 2,000 hour per year requirement is reset and you begin again at zero hours.  It can be daunting to think of all of those hours ahead, but I like to think of it as a true clean slate.

An overarching goal I always had in Biglaw was: how was I going to make the next 2,000 billable hours better than the last?  Below are seven suggestions for ways to make your 2019 the very best it can be, whether you plan to stay in Biglaw for the whole year (or more) or not.  These are not exactly resolutions, but rather ideas you can take and do what you wish with – form your own resolutions, or implement one, two or all into your daily life and hopefully change your year for the better.

Happy 2019, Biglaw Associates (and any other lawyer, banker or corporate employee who is looking for some inspiration on how to make 2019 their best year yet)!

1. Work With Someone Different.

The number of people working at a Biglaw firm can seem almost infinite. I remember going months, if not even a whole year, without seeing certain people who were on other floors from me and whose schedules did not align with mine. While this can feel overwhelming at first, it also means that there are so many options of people you can work with!

Take advantage of the “big” in Biglaw this year and branch out.  Especially if you have been at your firm for a few years, the number of people you see and work with on a daily basis has probably begun to shrink.

I have some ideas as to how you can expand your world within your existing firm.  Just by working with new people, I bet you’ll find that new ideas will flow, you’ll meet interesting people and even make some new friends. Here are my suggestions:

Junior Associates. Working with new junior associates is easy because junior associates at a Biglaw firm are everywhere, they are (or at least should be) eager to get staffed on anything and, in the beginning of their careers, are relatively interchangeable.  You get bonus points for reaching out to a junior associate who has been “written off “by others because he supposedly is not good at his job. Everyone deserves a second chance so if you have a small project, why not give it to someone who has been overlooked by others?

Partners. If you even have an inkling of interest in a practice group you haven’t yet worked in, reach out to a partner in that group and let him know you’re interested and to keep you in mind for any new assignments that come up. This one might be trickier, especially the more senior you are and the more specialized you’ve become, but partners love it when associates are interested in their work so it never hurts to ask.

The Specialists. We referred to the tax, intellectual property, environmental, ERISA, etc. attorneys as “experts” or “specialists” because they practiced in a very specific niche of the law and were always needed on every deal, but only for small pieces.  If you always reach out to the same tax attorneys for your deals, try reaching out to a different person in that group for a change.

Practice Assistants. If you’re like most Biglaw associates, you have a practice assistant but all she currently does is answer your phone and cover for you when you’re at a way too long summer lunch.  Most practice assistants would love to get more engaged in the actual work the attorneys are doing, so why not ask your practice assistant for more help? Whether it is organizing deal files, typing up meeting notes, or any number of things, creating a true partnership with your practice assistant over the course of the year would be a great goal.  While this does not technically count as working with a new person, if you are working with her in an entirely new way, I think it is just as beneficial.

A Friend In Another Group. Ask a friend in a different group if they want to work on a pro bono project with you. For example, if you’re in the M&A group, why not reach out to a friend from your summer associate class who is in litigation, and see if she wants to collaborate on an asylum case?  This isn’t technically working with a new person either, but it will expose you to working with someone new, with a totally different working style and skill set.

2. Join a New Firm Committee or Group.

With all the time you spend at work and at home billing hours to your clients, the last thing you probably want to do is raise your hand and volunteer to spend extra time at the firm. But firm committees and various groups at the firm can often be the most rewarding activities you participate in.

Some of you are probably rolling your eyes at this, but hear me out. Biglaw firms have so many resources that you can take advantage of related to tings that aren’t even about your legal work.  For example, at my former firm, groups like the Hispanic lawyers’ committee used to bring in renowned speakers in various topics.

I remember attending one talk on the opening up of the Cuban economy where there was a panel of experts from the State Department and the U.S. private sector answering questions on where they thought the Cuban economy was headed. If there is something you are interested in, having the pull of a law firm behind it means you can often get people like former high ranking government officials to come to a panel you are hosting.

If you’re looking for something smaller-scale, there are always small roles on things like the Women’s Initiative (guys are welcome on that too, remember!) you can join. Maybe just resolve to attend a talk or a cocktail hour. You might just find that you learned something new, had fun, or at the very least got some free food and drinks.

If you’re already involved in a committee or group, make 2019 the year you really go all in. Don’t just be a passive member – step up and raise your hand, propose some ideas, and run with them. You never know who you are going to meet, inside the firm or outside the firm, when you branch out like this.

3. Develop a Plan to Tackle Your Student Loan Debt.

Resolve that 2019 will be the year that you make a plan to tackle your student loan debt. While I’m not a financial expert, I did manage to pay off a large law school student loan while working in Biglaw.  For me, the first step was simply to be aware of the numbers.

If you’ve been taking a head in the sand approach to your loans and have just been paying the minimum balance each month (please, please tell me you’ve at least been doing that), then now is the time to sit down and crunch the numbers. What, exactly, do you owe?

Once you know your number, it’s time to make a plan. If you’re serious about this, I suggest heading over to the Biglaw Investor (https://www.biglawinvestor.com/) and reading basically every one of his articles.  With the help of resources like his blog, no matter the amount of debt, you’ll be able to come up with a plan to tackle it.

4. Find a Meaningful Pro Bono Cause.

There are so many pro bono causes out there.  If your firm is anything like mine was, you will get emails almost daily with new projects that need associates to work on them.  Unless you already have something you’re working on and don’t have time for anything new, make 2019 the year you participate in a pro bono cause you really care about.

Often times we can get pressured into working on something that the partner we work for is passionate about, or that our friend asks if we can help with, or that the pro bono coordinator asks you to work on because of your language skills. Instead, be proactive about the pro bono aspect of your career, too.  Don’t wait until the end of the year to try to pick up some hours by working on a cause you don’t feel connected to, or let yourself get roped into something you don’t really have an interest in or skill set for.

January is a great time to scan through the pro bono projects (whether it be reading through the emails that are sent out, flipping through your firm database of projects, or reaching out to a pro bono coordinator for available projects) and choose a cause you care about.  If you take the time in the beginning of the year to choose something you genuinely want to work on, you’ll be guaranteed at least one project this year that you are interested in and will be doing something good for a needy client. A win for everyone.

5. Make an Effort to Connect With Your Co-Workers.

This is another tip that has to do with taking advantage of the time you’re already spending at the office. Instead of isolating yourself or making yourself miserable by only focusing on work when you’re at the office, take some time to connect with your coworkers. Here are a few of my favorite ways to have a little more fun at work and more connection with the people you see every day:

Lunch. Have lunch once a week, either in the firm cafeteria, or outside somewhere, with your friends at the firm who are in other groups.  These are probably your fellow summer associate class members or maybe someone you’ve met at the firm through a committee or an event who you don’t see on a day to day basis.

Dinner. Have dinner with your team. I always made this a goal and it rarely happened, but if you often work through dinner and can get into the habit of ordering your dinners as a group and eating together, it is a great way to take a short break and bond with your team. Nobody is too busy to spend 15 minutes eating together. Usually when people eat dinner at their desks they are surfing the internet and zoned out anyways, so you might as well be social.

Coffee or a Walk. Take a quick coffee break or a walk with an associate you’re working with. You can use this time to talk about work, so it doesn’t even have to be a “break” from work, but the change of scenery and pace will do wonders for your mind and your spirit too.

Drinks. This one doesn’t need much of an explanation! There’s nothing better than an end of the week drink or two with your co-workers, who are also friends. You can vent about work if you have to and just generally have a good time. I’ve said it before and I’ll emphasize it again here – Biglaw is a tough place, but there are some great people in it so find them and make sure to make the time for them.  Billable hours can almost always wait.

6. Plan Ahead for a Vacation (or Two).

Some people like to plan their vacations down to the minute and some like to be more spontaneous.  Either way, that’s entirely up to you.  However, if you’re working in Biglaw, you should consider blocking off in your calendar the chunks of time you plan to be away, and do this as early in the year as you possibly can.

It’s easy to move the time around later if your plans change, but it’s much better to at least have something on the calendar than nothing.  This gives you both something to look forward to and it puts your team on notice way ahead of time that you plan to be away.

In the ideal world, you would have a group calendar where you could input the time you intended to be away so that everyone could see it. If you don’t have this sort of communal calendar, put the dates in your own outlook calendar. Hand write them on the wall on your dry erase board. Put them into your desk calendar.  All of these little things will help you mentally prepare for your time away and will put everyone on notice when your time off is coming up.

Hopefully you will feel less guilty about taking the time off if you gave your team sufficient heads-up, and it might help you to plan better for it when the time comes! For more tips on how to successfully take a vacation from your Biglaw job, take a look at my previous post on the topic here.

7. Ask Yourself The Following Two Simple, Yet Complicated, Questions…

Where Do You Want to Be Next Year? 

Where Do You Envision Your Long-Term Career Headed?

Ok, this probably sounds very daunting. I don’t mean you need to figure out exactly how your year is going to go let alone how the rest of your legal career is going to go. What I mean is that you need to spend some time thinking about two things: (1) whether you want to be at your job come December 31, 2019 and (2) whether you can at least imagine yourself at your job (or something similar) for the rest of your legal career.

When you ask yourself each of these questions, you will probably have an immediate, gut reaction. If, for example, you get hives and feel your heart rate increase imagining being at the same desk come December, you know your answer to number (1) (it’s time to spend 2019 looking for a new job) and also to number (2) (if you don’t plan to be there come the end of 2019, you certainly don’t plan to be there for your entire career). If you are thinking about a new career, take a look at my previous post on keeping your eyes open for new career ideas wherever you go.

If your goal is to keep on at the firm through the year, then move on to the second question – does it feel good or bad to imagine yourself there in 5, 10 or 15 years?  While the first question might require action in the year to come so you do not find yourself stuck in the same place at the end of the year, the purpose of the second question is more so you start getting used to asking yourself what you want.

Once you get used to checking in and asking yourself these things, the more you will find yourself doing it, and the easier it will be to recognize when you’re beginning to veer off of your path.

What Are Your Goals for 2019?

Biglaw associates, what are your goals for 2019?  Outside of simply hitting your target hours and getting your big bonus check at the end of the year, what do you want to accomplish?  Let me know in the comments whether you plan to implement any of these suggestions or if you have some of your own you’d like to share!

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