Curiosity, Relationships, and Organization – The Essence of a Good Associate

November 07, 2023 Isaac D’Amore Nieblas

I found out I passed the bar exam in a Safeway gas station — not your typical spot, but a now meaningful one, nonetheless. My parents and sister were calling on Facetime and my soon-to-be wife was sitting in the passenger seat next to me. I nervously attempted to connect to the Wi-Fi hotspot and failed to log into my California State Bar account for twenty grueling minutes. Suddenly, the screen flickered and there it was.

I was overcome by emotion as I laid my head back and muttered the words, “I passed.” The three years of dedication, hard work, and anxiety of law school had all led up to that moment of pure glee and bliss. 

As any newly anointed attorney knows, passing the bar is only the beginning. When you start working as a first-year associate, it is imperative that you build a foundation based on your strong habits and clear goals.

Stay Curious

Just like the LSAT does not prepare you for law school, attending law school does not fully prepare you to be an attorney. However, in my experience, each step trains you to become actively curious and to be aware of the “what if’s” and the “if not this, then what” that you will encounter in the legal profession. During your first year as an associate, you should consider immersing yourself in a wide range of legal issues and contexts. That will help you not only expand your knowledge, but your comfort zones, too.

Accept the fact that you have earned your place as an associate, which gives you the opportunity to learn from partners, attend external seminars and workshops, and read the Discovery Act for fun (said no one ever). Always look to pique your curiosity.

Most importantly, never hide from constructive criticism. Staying curious about how a partner or fellow associate writes a motion, and learning why certain verbiage does not work, is a key attribute of a curious associate. And if the partner tells you that your writing would improve if you read more Ernest Hemingway, then pick up a copy of “The Old Man and the Sea.” 

Seek Mentorship and Strong Relationships

Building strong relationships and seeking mentorship in the legal profession will help you be a better lawyer. Most lawyers will share their wisdom and stories. Therefore, take time to develop meaningful connections with colleagues, mentors, and clients.

Build a connection with every individual in your law firm and treat them the way you want to be treated. Kindness goes a long way in cultivating a culture of success.  As a young lawyer, you must approach the workspace humbly, and understand you can learn from those around you, just as much as they can learn from you.

Every individual you work with deserves your respect. Their perspective and assistance will help you navigate your first year. Cultivating relationships creates an environment that will bode well for the client, as well as your personal and professional growth. 

Externally, be sure to maintain contact with law school friends. Establishing these professional connections right out of law school will help both you and your friends build a reputation in the area where you practice. You never know when the opposing counsel will turn out to be your study group partner from Civ Pro, making your litigation and trial experience a bit more enjoyable.

Organization and Time Management:

A practicing attorney lives and dies by deadlines. Associates need to juggle different cases and competing priorities. You must organize effectively and manage your time to excel in the legal practice. 

I suggest you look to other attorneys for battle-tested systems that will help you manage assignments and deadlines. Their experience and insights will help you to stay afloat during busy periods. You also can get help from legal assistants and paralegals who face similar pressures.

Develop the habit of breaking down complex tasks into manageable steps, setting realistic deadlines, and prioritizing your workload accordingly. You also should maintain clear and concise records of your work. Documenting your actions, communications, and research will help you stay organized and create a solid foundation for future case work.

Finally, take the time to breathe and organize those papers on your desk.  As a first-year associate, you will be on the go at all times. It is essential that you make time to look at your desk, email, supplements, and tackle them head on and organize. Embrace the hour before your first coffee or the hour after your last email to simply look at all the work you have accomplished and to organize it accordingly. 

What now?

All associates face challenging times. I am less than a year into the job, but I’ve already treaded some not-so-calm waters. Those times are inevitable. However, remember the hard work that led you to where you are. You deserve this position. Your success was not achieved overnight. As a senior partner once told me, “You never stop practicing as a practicing attorney.” 

Be curious, be kind, be organized, and trust that the rest will follow.