best career advice ever received new lawyers

The Best Career Advice I’ve Ever Received

It’s January 2021 as I write this, and many Biglaw junior associates are just starting their new jobs. This year has brought about so many changes (statement of the obvious), and that includes a change to the start dates of Biglaw associates. Normally, Biglaw first-year associates begin their jobs, in the office, in the fall after they graduate from law school. In addition to beginning their Biglaw careers at home and remotely, often not even in the same city as their office, many Biglaw firms pushed back the start dates for their new associates to January.

That means that many junior associates are just beginning their jobs right now. Others of you are probably also beginning new jobs or transitioning to new roles, no matter your industry. Because of that, I figured it was as good a time as any to pass along the best piece of career advice I’ve ever received, which I got when I was new to a job, and long before I was ever a Biglaw lawyer.

Summer 2004: Washington, DC

The summer after my sophomore year in college, I interned at the U.S. State Department. At the time, it was the coolest job I’d ever had. It remains the second coolest job I’ve ever had (first place goes to the job I had the following summer, also through the State Department, at the U.S. Embassy in Buenos Aires, Argentina. But I digress.)

I interned in the Office of Brazil and the Southern Cone – which is the department that covers Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Paraguay and Uruguay. There was a foreign service officer (or two, in the case of Brazil) that headed up each country’s desk, a couple more senior ranking officers who oversaw the department and a couple of secretaries. Out of all of these people, somehow, I was one of the few (two maybe?) who spoke Spanish.

Which meant that I actually got to do a LOT that summer! From the smaller things, such as liaising between an Argentine hospital and the family of a U.S. citizen who was injured in Argentina, to the larger diplomatic tasks, like sitting in on an Organization of the American States meeting, I was fully immersed in the department. It was truly the dream internship.

Uruguayan Presidential Election

In the fall of 2004, Uruguay was going to elect its next president. That summer, while I was interning, the three main candidates all came to the U.S. to meet with diplomats within the State Department.

And guess who toured them through the State Department and brought them to each of their meetings? The one person in the office who spoke Spanish and wasn’t slammed with work to do. That would be me! It was the highlight of my summer, for sure. I’ll never forget taking Tabaré Vásquez, the eventual president of Uruguay (he served as president from 2005 to 2010 and again from 2015 to 2020. Wikipedia also informs me that he just passed away in December 2020, but again, I digress), around the halls of the State Department. I shuttled him and his small group of statesmen around and we made small talk as he went from meeting to meeting.

How many people can say they’ve met the president of a country? It was so cool and I took this task very seriously. I think I even wore a suit and heels and click-clacked my way around the halls of the State Department for a few days. Luckily, this assignment took place at the end of the summer and I had already learned the most important lesson of my time there. Which brings me to the best piece of career advice I’ve ever received…

“You’re Not JUST an Intern – You’re an Intern.”

My boss, Caroline, was the deputy head of the department. She was one of those bosses who took an interest in her interns and junior colleagues and wanted to make sure we succeeded and got real, substantive work experience. My summer was filled with just that and I never felt like she made up work or had me take notes in a meeting that were just going to go into an abyss, never to be read again.

We ate lunch together often, she took me around to every single meeting she was involved in, gave me real assignments, and introduced me to everyone we came across. When I introduced myself, I had the tendency to say the following:

“Hi, I’m Marissa. I’m just an intern.”

Caroline pulled me aside the first time she heard me say this and told me to NEVER say that I was “just” an intern or “just” an anything, ever again. Sure, I was an intern, and I didn’t need to pretend I held some lofty role in the State Department, but by saying I was just an intern, I was diminishing myself and my role.

I stopped that habit real quick.

It was the best lesson I could have learned and I carry it with me to this day (unlike the worst career advice I’ve ever received, which you can read about here). I’m also thankful I received the advice quite early on so I didn’t go around for the rest of my life describing myself as “just” a lawyer or “just” a first-year associate.

Remember, You’re not JUST a First-Year Associate, Either

As you begin those long days as a first-year associate or at a new job, you are going to at times feel very lost, confused, overwhelmed, and like you are doing a terrible job. That’s just part of being new to something, and Biglaw is no exception.

No matter what is going on at work, or how low you are feeling (did they not teach us anything in law school, you might be wondering to yourself at 3am one night, while struggling with drafting a note purchase agreement), remember this advice:

You are not JUST a first-year associate. You are a first-year associate. Sure, everyone at the firm knows that means you don’t know much yet (they were all in your shoes once too, after all), but don’t diminish all of the work you put in to get yourself to that point. Law school, the bar exam, OCI, landing that Biglaw job, etc. Being a first-year associate means that you are somebody’s lawyer, and you should act like that. Which means not shrinking back.

Take the “Just” Out of Your Title

No matter what field you work in, I hope you take this advice to heart. Whether you are a medical resident, a librarian, a paralegal, a junior associate, or in any other profession, take the just out of your title. I’m so thankful Caroline passed this lesson on to me and I wanted to share it with as many people as I could because it has certainly helped me over the years.

Even now, I have the tendency to diminish my work. By saying I’m “just” a freelance writer (neglecting the fact that I also wrote a book, an ebook, and have more on the way), I put myself down every time I introduce myself like that. I try my best to remember Caroline’s advice and never do this. I’m going to continue to work on my wording:

“I’m Marissa and I’m a freelance writer and author.”

How about you, what do you do?

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