What does Biglaw expect from its first-year associates? This is the million-dollar question and what every incoming associate wants to know.

Despite all of the information available online, Biglaw remains somewhat of a mystery for many law students. I think part of this is because a lot of the information that is available is put out by law firms themselves, so it’s hard to get an understanding of what work and life are truly like (for obvious reasons they withhold some information and paint themselves in the glossiest manner possible).

Recently, I’ve heard from many incoming associates who are terrified about starting their jobs this fall (and even some law students who are already nervous about what their summer associate positions will entail next summer).

Next week, I’ll address some specific examples of the type of work junior corporate associates are likely to be tasked with right when they begin their jobs. Today, though, I’m going to talk more generally about expectations. (And, like always, sorry litigation associates – when I go into detail about actual work or assignments, I’m talking mainly to my corporate peeps – I can’t tell you how to run a doc review because I’ve never done one.)

Expectations of First-Year Biglaw Associates

What, really, are brand-new lawyers expected to be able to do on day one? Here are my top ten, in no particular order:

  1. Deliver work product when they say they will, in the expected format.
  2. Give drafting a document their best shot.
  3. Take comments and feedback from clients and opposing counsel and incorporate them carefully, with no or very minimal mistakes, into the deal documents (Note: this is always with the help of the senior lawyers – you are not expected to resolve these issues alone).
  4. Be available all the time. Seriously, all the time, and let people know when you won’t be.
  5. Be organized.
  6. Be enthusiastic.
  7. Ask questions, especially when something isn’t clear.
  8. Communicate with your team. In fact, over-communicate with your team
  9. Show up on time (whether that’s in-person or online).
  10. Act like you want to be there and like you’re interested in the work, even if you aren’t.

What are some things you are NOT expected to do?

  1. Lead conference calls.
  2. Resolve legal issues independently.
  3. Deal with senior clients on your own, without any guidance (often you won’t even interact with senior clients at all).
  4. Speak at client meetings (you, of course, can speak up, but you won’t be required to contribute dazzling legal knowledge just yet – you’re mostly there to take notes, observe, take it all in, and then contribute after the fact).
  5. Negotiate with partners on the other side.

Caveat – These Are General Expectations, Not Universal Ones

I say all of this with one major caveat. These are, in my experience, pretty general expectations. But every partner, senior lawyer, and team is different. What one person expects might be different from what another expects. Here’s how that played out for me when I was a junior associate.

When I was a first-year associate, I was staffed on an IPO with just one other associate (a second-year) and a partner. At one point toward the end of the deal, we had a big meeting with the bankers and company execs to discuss the offering document right before launch.

While I was generally following along during the meeting, I never felt comfortable speaking up and making a comment. Instead, I diligently took notes and absorbed what I could. This situation probably sounds familiar to many others who have been junior associates before. The “senior” associate on the deal (who was only a second-year herself) probably made one comment during the entire day-long drafting session.

For reasons that would take many pages and are best reserved for another post, this was hands-down my least favorite deal of my Biglaw career. If the rest of my time in Biglaw had been like that, I never would have stayed through my 8th year.

Shortly after the deal was over, I had a sit-down with the partner because apparently he wasn’t thrilled with me (again, that’s a post for another day, but what I will say here is how this is an example of how you can succeed in Biglaw when you find the right people, and that you won’t mesh with everyone and that’s ok – that doesn’t’ mean that you’re bad at your job or that you won’t fit in anywhere at the firm).

So, back to my sit-down with the partner. One of the points he wasn’t pleased with me about that he brought up was how I hadn’t spoken up during that drafting meeting. I nodded along, knowing I’d never work with him again, praying for our meeting to end as quickly as possible.

Fast-forward one year and I find myself in a very similar drafting meeting. Different client, different company, different opposing counsel and, thankfully, a different partner on my side, too.

Nevertheless, I was still super anxious ahead of the meeting. Feeling especially constricted in my skirt suit, blouse, tights and high heels (such a formal outfit was a rarity for me), I braced myself for the meeting. When would I get the chance to speak up? What would I say?

Luckily, I realized pretty quickly into this meeting that it was going to go differently than the last one. The partners from both sides did the majority of the talking and negotiating. Even the clients (senior bankers and company execs) were relatively quiet, letting the partners take the lead. My anxiety was further quelled when I realized that the junior partner from my firm was sitting there, just as tight-lipped as I was, for the entire meeting.

At the end of the day, all of the outside parties left and only our team remained in the conference room. We reviewed all of what was discussed, I made comments based on what I’d observed and taken notes on, and we developed a game plan. I had done what was expected of me, and I had done a good job.

Finding Your People in Biglaw Makes All the Difference

So what is my point in retelling these two very different experiences? While, in general, expectations of first-year associates are the same, every partner has their own specific expectations.

Find your people. Cut yourself some slack when you don’t meet someone’s expectations. Figure out if it’s you or if you’re doing fine (like I was) and adjust only if necessary. Otherwise, find a team that will work with you and your strengths. Because if you meet the expectations set out at the beginning of this post, you should fulfill the expectations of 99% of Biglaw senior lawyers.

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