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How to Start Out Successfully on Your First Day of Work at Your New Firm

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Summary: This article explores how you can make the most out of your first day at your new law firm.
How to Start Out Successfully on Your First Day of Work at Your New Firm

Today is the first day of the rest of your career. That’s a thought that’s both scary and exciting, isn’t it? Let’s talk about what you ought to do!

1. Do the “prep” before you show up for work.

There are a few other things you should do, and avoid doing:

a. Get out and meet your future co-workers.

Especially if you accepted your offer in September of your third year, “Get together with attorneys in the group you’ll be working for, for lunch or dinner. You’re not a pest. You’re just letting them know that you’re eager to join them!”

b. If you’re going to a medium to large law firm, don’t leave your department and supervisor choices to “serendipity.”

At every medium-to-large law firm, there are good partners to be assigned to, and bad ones. A lot of people will tell you that your assignment is serendipity—but it’s not. At least, not if you do something about it ahead of time! As the managing partner at one law firm commented, “Before you start, ask the recruiting coordinator for future colleagues with whom you can go to lunch, so you can learn more about the firm. When you meet with them, listen to them. Tell them you want to get off on the right foot, and ask what they’d do differently—or the same!—if they started again. Get around to asking who they’d work for, perhaps who they’d avoid if the conversation goes that way. Go to the recruiting coordinator and request to be assigned to someone the associates recommended. That way, you’ll avoid being stuck with a bad partner. Don’t worry. You’re not overstepping your bounds. We’d be delighted if our new associates showed that kind of initiative.”

c. If you’re going to be a litigator or a prosecutor, take time to go to the courthouse and watch your future colleagues work.

Going ahead of time to watch people work is a fantastic idea. There’s no better way to figure out how to deal with judges and defendants, how to present a case, than to see somebody more experienced doing it. They’ll be blown away if they see you show up ahead of time to watch them!

d. Learn to play golf!

This is advice from lawyers at Akin, Gump, and even though they were kidding—at least, I think they were kidding—it’s a good idea. Golf is a serious ritual at a lot of law firms, and you’ll hear all kinds of things on the golf course that will benefit you in your career. You’ll form a camaraderie with colleagues that you just can’t forge as easily while you’re on the clock. So if you have any attraction to the game at all—or think you might—hit the links while you’re still in school.

e. Remember that while you’re still in school, you’re forming your professional reputation.

If you accept a permanent offer while you’re still in school—and even if you don’t!—remember that your law school classmates are going to be your professional colleagues, and the legal profession is a lot tighter than it seems from a law school perspective. People remember you. As the partner at one firm pointed out, “What people think of you in law school matters. When we go to make lateral or new hires, we run the names of people we’re considering by people we think might know them. That goes particularly for people who went to school with them. The last thing you want is for someone to say, ‘Oh, yeah, I knew him. What a creep,’ or ‘Oh, her. She’s a slut.’ It’ll catch up with you. So be careful how you interact with your classmates!”

f. Check in ahead of time to make sure your employer hasn't mutated.

Check in a month or so before you start work to see if anything significant has changed since you either interviewed or summer clerked with your employer. As San Francisco’s Jackie Ortega recommends, “Call in before the bar exam to express your interest in hearing about firm news during the months prior to your arrival. And after the bar exam, do a little research to find out what may have happened during your study hibernation. Establish a contact with the firm (and your particular office, if the firm has more than one office) to stay abreast of what’s happening.”


Former summer clerk, medium-sized New England firm. She received an offer of permanent employment and accepted it.

During her summer clerkship, she had identified the partner with whom she wanted to work—a big rainmaker at the firm. Unbeknownst to her, during the Spring of her third year at school, the partner got fed up with bringing in more business than everyone else and having to split the profits with the other partners, so he left the firm and started a new firm, taking several associates with him. The split got some media attention, but the former summer clerk didn't notice it because she was focusing on school. She had no contact with the firm during the year and no inkling the split might happen, and the firm didn't contact her to tell her about it. It wasn't until she showed up for her first day of work that she found the rug had been pulled out from under her. She was not pleased!

g. Get your financial act together.

Understand your salary and benefits before you start. Make sure you know what you will earn and what you will take home. Multiply your annual salary by two-thirds and divide that figure by twelve, and that roughly equals your take-home pay on a monthly basis. Budget accordingly! Also, read your insurance policies and understand what health coverage you have. Really, really understand it. You’re a lawyer now!

h. Don’t touch that dial! Do not call ahead and see if your employer has raised the starting pay since you accepted your offer.

If the starting pay at your employer goes up between the time you accept their offer and you start work, it’s manna from Heaven. Be grateful. But if you hear that other employers in town have raised their rates, do not call to see if your employer, in poker parlance, is going to “see” them. It starts you off on a very bad footing. Trust me, every employer knows what every other employer is paying. If they don’t raise your pay commensurately, it’s probably because they’re giving you something else to compensate—like a lower billables target, or better benefits, or something. They’ll look after you. Don’t worry. Plan on starting your job at the salary you accepted, and leave it at that.

i. If you have children, have a plan B and C for childcare.

The only certainty you have as a working parent is that some-how, sometime your childcare plans are going to break down. If you only have one nanny or sitter lined up, you won’t seem as though you’ve got your life in order when you start work. Of course, every employer knows that emergencies come up when you simply can’t hand off to somebody else, and people are understanding about that. But on a routine basis, make sure you have somebody other than your primary care giver to step in and help with the kids.

2. Your first day...

Make sure that you bring everything you’ll need by way of documents and identification. And “Be early!”. You don’t want to create the impression on the very first day that you’re a slacker!


One partner tells the story of his first day at work: "I got off to a bad start by assuming the firm would know that I couldn't arrive until about 1 p.m. In this firm, the new grads usually worked through the summer while simultaneously taking the review course for the bar exam. They knew that I was starting the bar review course the same day that I was starting at the firm. They also knew that I was taking the morning sessions of the bar review course. Thus, I thought they would recognize that I couldn't arrive until about 1 p.m. Wrong! It seemed obvious to me, but they hadn't put two and two together, so they were confused and disappointed when I didn't show up at 9 a.m. The principal name partner had planned to take me around and introduce me to the other lawyers. Oops!" [P.S. Since HE is now a managing partner, this clearly wasn't much of a "career limiting move"!]


Former junior associate, medium-sized Southern firm: "After accepting a position as an associate I told the firm I could not start until I returned from a vacation I had planned. Unfortunately, they asked me where I was going and unfortunately, I told them ... Mardi Gras. Can you say "party girl"? To make a bad thing worse, two weeks after starting at the firm I flew to New York for St. Patrick's Day. Even though I left after work on Friday and returned to work bright and early Monday morning, the green beer entirely out of my system, I was and ever will be the "party girl" associate that once worked there. They may never again hire another young single woman associate."

3. Expect butterflies.

You’re probably anxious about starting this new job, and that’s natural. As one career services officer says “You’ll be on information overload. You’ll be dazed. ‘Who was that?’ ‘What did they just tell me?”’ You’ll be buggin’, but you don’t want anybody to see that! As a lawyer, you want to exude confidence, and that starts with the first day. Your mind may be saying, “What the hell am I doing here?” but your smile and manner ought to say, “I’m happy and excited to be here.”

4. Meet as many people as you can. Smile. Shake hands.

Somebody’s going to show you around the office. You’ll meet a lot of people. In a small to medium-sized office you might meet everybody. When you’re introduced, Greet people with a smile, a firm handshake and look them in the eye. First impressions are really important!

That handshake counts for a lot. Make it firm, but not a bone-crusher. When I travel around to law schools, I meet tons of people and they almost always have a good handshake. But when a handshake isn’t good—either it’s a wimpy wet noodle or a vise grip—it does stand out. If you don’t have much experience shaking hands, practice on your friends and family and ask them for an honest assessment.

Incidentally, shake hands with women the same as you would with men. A female senior attorney at one large firm talked about how new male associates would sometimes “shake my fingertips.” “It’s a big turnoff,” she said.

When you meet someone at the office, listen intently so that you get their name right, and repeat it back to them. “Hello, Mr. Jekyll/Ms. Hyde, Barney, Betty.” If you are introduced to somebody by their full name—Bullwinkle Moose, Morticia Adams—whether it’s a senior partner or a runner, return the greeting addressing them as “Mr. Moose” or “Ms. Adams.” Leave it to them to correct you and say, “Oh, no, please, it’s Bullwinkle.” If for any reason it’s not clear—for instance, a senior partner is introducing you around and the partner calls people by their first names but you shouldn’t—ask people how they’d like to be addressed. Or ask your guide or anyone else in the office what the norm is. I might be making a big deal out of this, but if the managing partner has had the same secretary for the last thirty years, she may be the second most powerful person at work and command a lot of respect. If she expects to be called “Ms. Croft” instead of “Lara,” you couldn’t commit a bigger gaffe than assuming all support staff should be addressed by their first names.

If nobody takes the time to introduce you around, take the initiative and do it yourself!. An attorney at one firm told of how a new associate had been at the office for two months, and because nobody had introduced her to the people in the office (and she didn’t do it herself), a senior partner thought she was a runner, not a lawyer! Don’t let that happen to you. Now’s the time to meet people!

Incidentally, don’t worry too much if you don’t get everybody’s name the first time around, especially if you’re meeting a lot of people. Just ask somebody whose name you do remember, “This is embarrassing, but I forgot Aristotle’s secretary’s name. Could you tell me what it is?” People will understand and appreciate your asking.

5. Pay attention at orientation—at least, stay awake!—and read the employee manual.

OK, orientation for anything is usually a snooze. But remember, it’s not a blow-off. You’re making an impression on everyone you meet,” including the people giving the orientation. Don’t nod off! Have a pad and paper with you to take notes. If you’re busy writing you can’t doze.

You aren’t expected to remember everything at orientation. The most important thing to do is to Figure out who you can go to afterwards. Nobody expects you to remember the fine points of working the office phone system. When it comes to asking questions at orientation, walk a fine line. If you have questions about office procedures, for instance, or you need to clarify something that’s said at the orientation, that’s fine. But remember that impressions are formed not just on the basis of what you say but also what you ask. If you ask questions like “How soon can I take a vacation day?” or “Who do I talk to about going part-time?” or “Who’s in charge of the Employee Assistance Plan?” you’re sending the wrong message. You don’t want to come off as brown-nosing, arrogant, selfish, or neurotic. A lot of the inner workings of an office are best learned by observation and asking questions of people privately rather than in front of the group.

6. Expect that things won’t go as you expected.

It’s impossible to go into any new job without thinking beforehand about what it will be like. I’ve already told you to expect to be busy and to meet a lot of people. But maybe it won't be like that. Maybe you’ll be shown to an office with a desk ... and that’s it. At one firm the office was in such an uproar that for two weeks they didn’t even notice that two new clerks hadn’t even shown up!

And because the practice of law is unpredictable, the plans for your first day might have to be scuttled. Maybe Attorney Darrow was sup-posed to meet you but he’s in litigation. Don’t think, ‘Oh my God, he doesn’t want to talk to me!’ Instead, “Go with the flow”. “Don’t shut your door and put your head in your hands. Get out and talk to people. Introduce yourself. Ask to help out.

‘Can I do some research for you?’ Get yourself into the life of the office.”

7. What to do if you’re starting work at the same employer as your boyfriend or girlfriend

Sometimes people hook up in a summer program, and the romance lasts through the school year, through graduation, and—then what? When you’re both going to go back to the same place, what do you say to the people at work—if anything? I asked a lot of people about this, and got a hearty “It depends” as a response.. Namely:

a. If the employer has a “no dating” policy, then don’t tell anyone at work you’re seeing each other. Lawyers say that those policies have no teeth, but a “no dating” edict does tell you how your employer feels about lawyers seeing each other. So keep it to yourself.

b. If the employer doesn’t have a “no dating” policy—and most don’t—try to be assigned to different departments. If you’re in the same department, that raises conflict of interest concerns for your employer.

c. In the absence of a “no dating” policy, virtually everybody agrees that you should keep your relationship low key, but not a secret. What that means is, go about your business, and if someone asks, say ‘yes, we are seeing each other. There’s no point in trying to keep it a secret because people figure these things out. If one other person knows, then the whole firm knows. If you try to keep it a secret, partners will wonder what else there is about you that you don’t want them to know. Instead, go to the firm dinner-dance as a couple. Treat each other as you would anybody else you were dating outside of the office. At work, remember “no holding hands, hanging onto each other like a lifeline at every firm event, no going to lunch exclusively with each other,” says one partner. “If you don’t treat it like a big deal, people at work probably won’t either. Don’t violate other people’s confidences to each other—it will get around that neither of you can keep a secret. And don’t blab about your personal life to people you work with, any more than you would about any other romance.”

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