What to Expect During Your First Year as an Associate

Published: May 04, 2020

 Education       Grad School       Law       
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Expect growing pains. As a newly minted associate, the bar exam is behind you, and you are no longer a law school student. Let’s be honest, you’re probably thrilled about that. You’ve likely received a lot of advice, whether you asked for it or not, about the transition from law student to law professional, but don’t expect to be prepared for it all. Even if you spent some time during summers or throughout the academic year working for a firm, expect to experience some of the growing pains associated with beginning a new profession. If you haven’t dealt with them before, you’ll need to learn your way around entering and billing your time, and you’ll begin understanding how to navigate firm culture and politics. Even if you have some previous firm experience, there will still be new billing codes and firm policies to familiarize yourself with, new expectations on how or how much you bill, and a new balance to mixing your personal, billable, and non-billable time. At times, it can feel like being a 1L all over again (shudder) in a new setting.

Expect to learn. Even though your academic journey may be over, you’re still on a path of life-long learning. As a new first-year, you’ll receive training in a variety of forms. Your firm will likely even conduct lecture-based training for both legal and non-legal subjects. First-year associates should expect to take learning seriously. Remember, the sooner you get up to the speed, the sooner partners will see you as an asset. But don’t rush your learning at the expense of improvement. Make sure you’re soaking in the knowledge your firm shares through trainings and don’t be afraid to learn by trial and error. Sometimes you’ll be asked to do something you’ve never done before, and, after consulting all the resources you can, you’ll have to take a leap of faith or two. If you find that you’re not learning, you may want to solicit more feedback from attorneys you work with. If you’re receiving feedback (especially harsh unsolicited feedback), make sure you study it and improve your product.

Expect to add value. At the end of the day, your firm is a business. As a new associate, you’ll have an odd relationship with the business. On one hand, you’re an important part of it, and you’ll want to be mindful of how it operates. On the other, no one is expecting you to be very proactive in bringing in money. In any case, you need to figure out your value to the firm, and you may be pleasantly surprised by how much your firm values your contribution to their bottom line. If you chose a good firm, they will care about you and create ways for you to be your finest, happiest, billing self. If you understand billing rates and project budgets well enough, you’ll find yourself more comfortable leveraging your value to sell yourself on projects. The happier associates are generally the ones who feel they’re adding value to the firm’s business.

Expect to build relationships. One of the most important steps you can take during your first year is to start building your network. There is a wide variety of people that you will come into contact with. This includes not only partners and other associates, but also clients, prospective clients, and other professionals. Relationships you work on may be social, professional, or both. All connections are valuable to your network, so don’t restrict yourself to going after the highest billing partner at the firm. It can be difficult to balance this part of the first year. Many people are busy, and it can be intimidating to reach out to a person you don’t know. But go to firm happy hours or invite a small group out for coffee. Not only can your network give you a source of future projects, it also will provide you with a group of people to help you enjoy your time at the office.

Expect a lack of control. Coming into the firm, you will have little control over the workload you may receive. Some lucky associates may have assignments waiting for them, but many will not. Sometimes things are slower, and sometimes there is so much work to do you don’t know if you can finish it all. You should come into your first-year associateship with an open mind. Do as much as you can to get the work you want to do—but understand there will be some adjustments as you find your place in the firm. As you adjust, consider accepting an assignment that is outside your comfort zone. Reach out to partners you haven’t worked for before. Focus on your professional development. Although you have little control over workflow and scheduling, you can make the best out of whatever situation you might find yourself in.

Expect to have emotions. Being a first-year associate is undoubtedly overwhelming at times. Everything is new, and there are a lot of aspects to the job—all of which you want to do well. You want to learn as much as you can, you want to add value, you want to build relationships, and you want to bill hours. This is a lot to accomplish. But even through the rollercoaster of nervousness, excitement, concern, joy, and uncertainty, being a first-year associate is a rewarding experience. Although this article discusses some of the things you can expect, every first-year associate has their own experience. The most important thing is to go in with an open mind and work hard at whatever it is you find yourself doing. Before you know it, you’ll find people talking about the incoming first-year class, and suddenly realize they’re not referring to you!

Eric Magleby focuses on patent prosecution and client counseling in the automotive, robotics, and consumer products industries. 



Olivia (Libby) Martzahn is a registered patent attorney whose practice encompasses patent litigation, post-grant proceedings at the patent office, and client counseling. She has assisted clients in the catalyst, industrial manufacturing, medical device, and pharmaceutical industries, and she has practical experience in the agricultural processing industry.

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