How to Survive Your First Job After Law School


John Paul Simkovich

John Paul Simkovich practices Workers’ Compensation Defense for Willson, Jones, Carter & Baxley in the firm’s Columbia, South Carolina office. He received his B.S. degree from Clemson University in 2011 and his J.D. from the University of South Carolina School of Law in 2014. John Paul previously served as the law clerk to the Honorable Steven H. John of the South Carolina Fifteenth Judicial Circuit. He was admitted to the South Carolina Bar in 2014 and the North Carolina Bar in 2015.

Congratulations! You endured three grueling years of law school. After that, several bleak months studying for the bar. And all of your hard work has finally paid off! You’ve landed your first job as an associate. Once the celebration subsides, you may find yourself wondering how to actually set yourself up for success. How can you affirm your value from day one? You feel like you know your stuff, but how do you prove it to the senior partners? Here are eight tips to help you make a strong first impression during those first weeks on the job:

Rely on your support staff

Any decent attorney will admit that they are only as good as their support staff. In most instances, the paralegals and legal assistants in your office have been doing their jobs for a long time and have seen many associates, such as yourself, come and go. With that in mind, always be courteous and humble to your support staff. Never boast an air of superiority or operate under the assumption that your time is too valuable to perform administrative tasks. Your paralegal is there to help you accomplish your job, not to be your personal secretary. They hold your law license in their hands every day. After all, your paralegal may be the only safeguard between meeting a deadline and malpractice.

Be flexible

As a new associate, it’s impossible to predict your workload. At times you feel like you’ll never see the light of day and at others you’re straining to bill your required hours. Don’t get disgruntled if a partner assigns you a large task late in the afternoon. Sure, you’ll have to cancel dinner plans with friends or miss the first half of the game, but it just comes with the territory.

In the same vein, don’t feel undervalued if some of your tasks seem particularly mundane. Remember, the partners are pretty busy, and it takes time for them to accumulate and assign tasks they feel you are capable of handling at such an early stage in your career. In the beginning, your workload will ebb and flow, but it will even out once you gain a better understanding of the firm’s expectations and your superiors acclimate to having you on their team.

Prioritize your projects

When you’re starting out, some of the attorneys in the office may try to take advantage of your go-getter attitude by dumping their work on you. If this situation arises, remember who you work for. Ordinarily, a new associate will directly support a handful of more senior members in the firm. The work assigned by these members always takes precedence. That said, refusing to do work for an attorney outside of your team will not go over well, but you can at least provide him or her with a realistic timeline for when you can complete the task. As with any rule, there are exceptions. If someone whose name is on the building asks you to handle something, do that project and do it well!

Don’t be overzealous

You certainly want to stand out among the crowd in those early days, but don’t do so in a way that will alienate you from your peers. Arriving at the office before the sun comes up and sending e-mails late into the night will certainly get you noticed; however, it may be for the wrong reasons. Instead, demonstrate your value through the quality of your work rather than the quantity of the hours spent at the office. Spend those inevitable long nights at the office when necessary, but enjoy your time off when you can.

Don’t be afraid to ask questions

At times you’ll feel ill-prepared for the work that you are tasked with, but don’t fret! The attorney assigning the task doesn’t expect a new associate to know everything right off the bat. They expect you to ask questions. That said, be sure to write the answer down so you don’t have to ask the same question twice. Along the same lines, do a little research and try to figure out the answer to your question before approaching someone else. The attorney you ask will likely need additional information to answer the question, and it’s your job to be the source of that information. In other words, have a solid grasp of the background information leading up to the question and the reason behind your inquiry.

Pick up the phone

Sure, e-mail is often the appropriate mode of communication in most instances, and it’s certainly the most convenient. However, it’s difficult to foster a relationship with a new client solely through e-mail. Picking up the phone and actually hearing each other’s voice can help build a longer lasting relationship. And in a perfect world everything would go as planned, but part of your job is to deliver bad news. Choosing to do so in an e-mail can feel cold and detached, while speaking on the phone might be the difference between retaining or losing a client.

Don’t avoid senior partners in the firm

I know it’s intimidating at first, but don’t shy away from the more senior members at the firm. You’ll likely get invited to after-work social events, so don’t be afraid to introduce yourself. Partners understand the importance and the value of a good associate. If someone is singing your praises when you’re not around, you’ll want the partner to be able to put a face to your name.

Be confident

You may feel like it was a complete miracle that you graduated from law school and passed the bar, but it wasn’t. Keep reminding yourself that you’ve earned your position. Be confident in the work you perform and don’t procrastinate on certain projects just because you find them too daunting. Lawyers are trained to be skeptical of everything, so don’t allow a senior member to question your work because of your own uncertainty.

Looking for most post-graduation tips? Here are 6 things you should do after you take the Bar Exam.

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