Avoiding your supervising partners’ pet peeves is easy as long as you conform to their idea of the perfect lawyer. What top partners from prestigious law firms say they are looking for in the ideal associate also applies to lawyers at all levels of seniority, and is a roadmap to success. This is what they say they want:
Above and beyond
The ideal lawyer consistently cares about every task. To demonstrate this quality, after clarifying exactly what your supervising lawyer and/or client expects of you, endeavor to deliver more. Treat each project as if it’s your own problem by taking the initiative and thinking ahead. Look at the big picture – overall themes and theories, not just the narrow task – while keeping the client’s goals in mind. Rather than merely warning against a particular action, find creative ways to achieve the client’s objectives. Give alternatives and note the consequences of various options. Ask questions, make suggestions, and think outside the box. At the same time, of course, you must be sensitive to deadlines and billing constraints.
The consummate attorney is intellectually curious and communicates the attitude that law is fun and interesting. Be willing to consider all angles, and explore within and beyond your specific practice area. Demonstrate that you’re a team player, asking for opportunities to grow professionally, and treating each task with importance. Do your best to view criticism as an opportunity to learn. Acknowledge responsibility for and take immediate action to correct any shortcomings. Show that you’re committed and dependable, putting in the extra effort until the job is done right. Portray a sense of urgency about your work even when (or, especially when) there’s a dearth of work to fill your quota of billable hours.
Quality work always matters. Complete every task you undertake to the highest standards you can, given the increasing pressure to keep costs in line by working as efficiently as possible. Proofread everything, not just what goes out the door to clients or the court. Every “draft” should be as close to a finished product as possible, checked for grammar and typos before leaving your desk. You need to impress your colleagues, co-counsel, and opposing counsel, as well, so proof all emails and memos. Don’t rely on Spell-Check and beware of autocorrect on your handheld device, which can change your message in all kinds of unintended ways. Although not every assignment merits the scrutiny of a Supreme Court brief, your reputation and that of your firm follows each document forever. You never know where and when paths might cross in the future.
Especially now with the increasing emphasis on getting back to the office and resuming in-person meetings, striving for the ideal also includes consistent attention to non-verbal behavior. This includes your appearance and demeanor, verbal cues including vocal pitch, tone, rate of speech, grammar and diction, and overall attitude. Keep your personal presentation well-groomed and professional. You’re not only dressing to please yourself, but also—and most importantly—to represent the firm’s and the client’s best interests. The public has a stereotype of what a lawyer should look like. The more you deviate from that image, the harder you have to work to gain their trust.
A negative first impression is difficult to overcome. Initial perceptions are impacted by your greeting in addition to your appearance. Learn how to shake hands properly. Smile genuinely and make eye contact. Maintain an upbeat and confident attitude. Always watch your etiquette, table manners, and grammar (minimizing “like,” “um,” and “you know”). Avoid upspeak—where your tone rises at the end of every sentence so they all sound like questions rather than statements. This undercuts your credibility.
Always on stage
Remember, when attending business development or firm social events outside the office, you’re at work. Moreover, even when “off the clock,” you may be in the public eye. Watch what you post online or on Twitter. Because modern technology so effectively broadcasts personal details to everyone, private lives are increasingly public. In addition to making out-of-the-office conduct more open to review by clients, prospects, and colleagues, it creates a record you may never escape.
Striving to be the ideal lawyer – in addition to being smart and effective – takes constant vigilance. Oh well, practice makes perfect.