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Transitioning from Student to Associate: A Consultation with Ed Kehoe and Rich Marooney of King & Spalding, LLP

published June 11, 2007

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( 17 votes, average: 4.1 out of 5)
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The attorneys detailed the environments of their nascent careers as very similar landscapes to what a recent graduate can expect to encounter. Kehoe noted that despite rapid advances in technology and the concurrent demand for savvy specialization, the basics are still, and will remain in the foreseeable future, very much the same.

"Simply do a good job," he said. "Start with the basics...quite frankly, there are some things that have not changed since I was a young associate and I don't see changing in the immediate future. That is having a very good command of the basics. At a big firm, the basics include very simple things, such as when you're called into the office of a senior associate, be prepared. Don't just walk in empty-handed. Walk in with a pad, a prepared to take notes, to listen. Be on time. To the extent that it's a case you've already been involved in, have the logistical details with you."

Having foresight, both agree, is crucial to the development of the first impression a new associate creates.

"Just be thinking ahead," Kehoe said. "Try to make life easy. Show up at the office with the contact list, with the telephone numbers. Create the list. Take initiative. You don't have to be told, 'Create a contact list for this case'...just do it."

Similarly, Marooney encourages taking full ownership of all projects. While it is essential to collect as much information as possible, to research assignments exhaustively, and to "demand the big picture" outlining an assignment, Kehoe said that maintaining that ideal first impression requires the counterbalance of asking for deadlines and communicating with superiors when deadlines seem unattainable or the workload reaches its maximum capacity. He added that the ambitious, intelligent nature of a new associate will often steer him or her toward taking on more work than can be successfully, adequately completed.

"That great first impression that they made starts to get reversed a little bit...use your judgment, but don't get overloaded," Kehoe explained.

The transition from the collegial to the professional office can be a tough mental and physical movement. Some attributes that lead to academic success, like erring "on the side of show[ing]...enthusiasm," will carry over, Kehoe said, as will a tendency to exhibit interest and appreciation. Other qualities of the successful associate demand some transformative attention.

Marooney said many new associates have not mastered the affectation of formality, the physical posture of work preparedness, along with a well-rested and groomed presentation.

"Sometimes students have a hard time transitioning and seeing themselves as real warriors and real workers, and...if they are working with lawyers who are friendly, they tend to be a little bit too informal and lax," he explained.

The first impression does begin before a new associate ever walks into a firm, however. Marooney described the hiring process as one that works to predict the potential for success in individuals, to pinpoint qualities like drive and work ethic. He said differentiating between extremely intelligent people is not an easy task for a hiring team, and any marks of leadership—positions held or achievements—can be advantageous as predictors of future success. Being prepared for the actual interview is essential.

Marooney said, "People who prepare a lot for their interview really stand out—those that know our law firm and why they're interviewing with us and what drew them to interview with us...There are a lot of really good big firms out there. Sometimes...I'll be interviewing a student that I know really has no idea why they're speaking with me versus the 50 other great firms they could be talking to. Those that have really taken the time and really know the firm and know the practices and ask a particular question that shows me that they've studied the firm and thought through why they want to interview with me really stand out."

Mistakes made later on, Kehoe said, will have a much larger grace ledger after the strong "opening statement" of a first impression. "To the extent that you come in and you're tired and you don't get off on the right foot, the mistakes are magnified," he added.

Both attorneys agreed that, overall, one of the most important parts of a new associate's job is a day-to-day commitment to humanity.

Kehoe said, "Everyone here in the office is a professional. That includes not only the people that the associate reports up to but the people who help make the associate's life easier. The associate should always remember to be professional and courteous to the secretaries, the paralegals, the people who deliver the mail, and the people who make the copies. It's important not only from just a human-being standpoint but also because those people make your life much easier as an associate, and it's important to remember that they're important in the law firm."

Maintaining strong and open veins of communication is important, as is respect for and pride in early assignments, even when they intimate the less-than-glamorous.

"The associate is not an afterthought," Kehoe said. "The work that the associate does, maybe it's not as glamorous as going and arguing the motion that the partner ultimately has to do. The partner bases that argument largely on the work that the associates do. To the extent that the associates are wrong, the partner ultimately will be wrong."

Marooney's final dose of advice: many fresh graduates may consider revising their visions of an optimal future.

"The world is a lot bigger than just the big-firm world," he said. "I think sometimes students may lose sight of that. There are so many things that one can do with a law degree that do not involve big law firms. Students shouldn't be discouraged if they need to start doing something other than working at a big firm because there are a lot of terrific things to do."

published June 11, 2007

( 17 votes, average: 4.1 out of 5)
What do you think about this article? Rate it using the stars above and let us know what you think in the comments below.