When you bill in 6 minute increments, time takes on a very different meaning. There is a need to be a strong biller and with that, a push for efficiency.
Deal with Time Entries Daily. It can be tempting to wait until the weekly billing deadline to enter and close time, but do so when it is fresh in your mind and avoid having to go back through your emails and calendar to remember what you did that day.
Don’t Wait Until Your Annual Review. Your annual self assessment takes place every year and without fail it is at the most inconvenient time. Save yourself time at the end of the billable year by keeping a running list of accomplishments and draft responses to questions you know will be asked.
Batch It. Context switching takes time so group similar tasks together for a dedicated period of time with no interruptions. For example, respond to emails for 20 minutes, marking those that need more than a quick email response. Then turn fully to a client project without looking at your inbox.
To quote great 90s cartoons, knowledge is power and that includes knowing what pitfalls to avoid to be a great associate.
Blindly Following Forms. Forms are a great starting point, but never assume that the form you are starting from is 100% accurate or appropriate for what you need to use it for. Check any statutes or laws referenced. Ask the author of that form if that is a good starting point. Use forms to build your knowledge and your own forms that you can rely on.
Missing Internal Deadlines. Clients have deadlines but so do partners and assigning attorneys. Make sure when one of them tells you that they need to review something by a certain date that you get it to them by that date. If circumstances arise where you do not think you can meet that internal deadline, make sure you communicate that with the partner or assigning attorney as early as possible.
Repeating Mistakes. No one expects a junior associate to know it all but it is expected that junior associates are continually learning. Learn from your mistakes, make note of them and do not repeat them.
Practicing in Big Law requires a lot of things, but here are 3 key skills that span all practice groups:
Self Advocacy. Know how to clearly state your position. Be able to explain why you did what you did, why you are the best person to staff and why you deserve what you want.
Delegation. Know how and when to effectively delegate tasks. Your time and skill set is valuable. It can be easy to want to do everything yourself. It can be great for hours to do everything yourself. You cannot and should not do everything yourself, that is why big law has the structure it has. Learning how to effectively delegate will help you build the practice you want.
Receiving and Processing Tough Feedback. A senior associate once told me, if I give you constructive criticism it’s because I care about your career- If I didn’t care, I would just let you make mistakes and never get better. It can hurt to get feedback, but learning how to receive and respond with appreciation will get you far in this job. Further, processing that feedback in a constructive manner is also important. Do not ruminate for too long. Learn the lesson, accept the punches and move on.
The Skinner Box is an operant conditioning chamber used to study animal behavior, named for B.F. Skinner’s rat lever experiment on operant conditioning. Through operant conditioning, a person forms an association between a behavior and a consequence- for example: push lever, get food. Or take an example from Big Law, review due diligence documents, bill take, make money, repeat.
That monotony can lead to mistakes and frustration with Big Law life. One reason I enjoy being in Big Law is no day, no project, no client is ever the same. To help make sure the day to day does not feel like a Skinner Box, here are some helpful tips:
Mix It Up. Look for different projects. Work with different partners. If you are reviewing 300 contracts based on the same form, switch up your physical location every 20 contracts. Novelty will help keep you out of the box.
Emphasize Problem Solving. Approach tasks like a problem solver and not just a task doer.
Muse Issues Together. The rat may have been alone in the Skinner Box, but you are not. Talk through the project with someone on your team. By involving others, you bring energy and life to the project.
Finding a mentor is like looking for the Perseid meteor shower in the city. It takes time, dedication and a bit of luck to see 1 falling star.
Like a stylish black blazer, mentors have become part of the must haves of the professional world. Mentors provide invaluable advice, connections, advocacy and strength. We are in the thick of on campus recruiting and the most frequent question I get from candidates is how does your firm assign mentors. I tell them, we have a formal program, but honestly, my mentors found me.
While there are hundreds of articles that talk about how to find a mentor, there are less that talk about how a mentor finds you. I am fortunate to have several mentors but the ones that have impacted my life the most are those who decided they would invest time in me not those who were told to invest time in me. These senior rain makers and influencers recognized the commitment I had to their clients and the firm at large. They recognized that my success would translate to success for others. No discussions were had about this wonderful development. It was not like in the movies where I was ushered into a corner office and told I had become the heir apparent.
It started with receiving more feedback (both positive and negative). It grew to invitations to events and emails suggesting I take certain actions. Eventually it peaked with positive endorsements and them knocking down doors. I acted quickly on every single suggestion given. Most challenging was accepting the criticism. I ruminated for days and a few times was inconsolable. Eventually the haze would clear and I would remind myself something an early mentor told me- If I did not care about your growth, I would never bother to say anything to you.
This is not to say that all it takes to get a mentor is to do good work and they will find you. I stepped up my game every project I could, actively finding ways to get in front and show everyone what I had to offer. I lost hours of sleep. I spent too many non-billable hours refining my process. I missed a few fun events in the name of professional growth. I did these things not because I was looking to attract a mentor but because I wanted to be great at what I do. I crave the happiness that comes from doing what you love well.
The great mentors are busy people and they will not waste time on someone who isn’t hustling for excellence. Mentors help those who can bring something to their mentors. Mentors help those who can bring something to others, be it the law firm at large, an alma mater or even a specific cause.
Mentors offer opportunities and inspiration. You should absolutely be on the lookout for them. Just remember mentors are on the lookout as well and you can actively take steps for them to find and choose you.
I am often asked whether my MBA helps my corporate law practice (more on that in a forthcoming post). One skill I credit to business school is proficiency in Microsoft Excel. Corporate law is not an area of law where one can escape math and numbers. Sorry to break that to those who went into law because math was not their thing. Here are a few ways that Excel is regularly used by lawyers:
Liquidation Waterfall- Being able to use Excel to model how proceeds will be distributed to stockholders in the event of a change in control is important for any lawyer representing emerging growth companies or involved in mergers and acquistions.
Calculating Interest– Although calculation of interest on a loan can be done through programs or with paper and pen, Excel is useful when modeling how principal and interest is converted into capital stock. The Excel spreadsheet can be set up automatically adjust when variables are changed (such as date of conversion). It also provides an easier way to ensure all parties are in agreement and obtain sign off on the numbers.
Stockholder Votes– For emerging growth companies, the ability to amend corporate documents or engage in particular activities may require the consent of different stockholders based on different thresholds. Excel can be used to more efficiently track stockholder votes to ensure that the requisite approval threshold is reached.
Knowing your way around Excel also helps you to speak the language of your clients in the business sectors. Fortunately an MBA is not the only way to learn Excel. There are dozens of online resources for Excel (including this), as well as books on the subject or even through Google/trial and error. It is definitely worth your time to learn the basics of Excel.
I often find myself adrift in a sea of data room passwords. Not only am I remembering each unique deal name but also each deal data room and corresponding unique password.
Here are some practical tips for data room passwords:
Keep Personal and Professional Separate
The natural tendency is to use the same password for everything. That is not a good idea. It’s also not a good idea to use the same password for data rooms and personal sites. You may have to give your password to your assistant to print documents and you may not want him/her to know your personal business.
Let Your Browser Be
Many data room sites do not allow for a browser to save passwords and remember identities for easy login. It may be painful to remember all those passwords, but it’s more painful to explain to clients failure to protect their corporate information.
Don’t Sweat It
The Forgot Password button is there for a reason. Just don’t forget the answers to the secret questions.
Secondment is a great opportunity for learning. In particular, I am enjoying the opportunity to learn first hand what it is clients value and how law firms can improve their services and the overall client experience. Here are a few lessons I have learned so far.
1. Clear Conflicts
Secondment Lesson: Be sure to clear conflicts otherwise you may be at risk of being the subject of heated discussion in the break rooms. Trust me, no one wants that.
2. Be Patient
Secondment Lesson: Corporations especially large corporations have many procedures and protocols that need to be followed and can take a lot of time. This can lead to delays that lawyers in big law firms often have trouble understanding. If you have a client who is radio silent on an engagement letter, be patient as it is highly likely that this is just the way the business operates and in house counsel or your point of contact may not be able to expedite the process.
3. Lunch is at Noon
Secondment Lesson: At the firm, lunch breaks are taken whenever lawyers can squeeze in a break between billable hour, client requests and firm citizenship activities. I’ve learned that for a large company, the masses typically lunch at noon. That is when the cafeteria lines are long, the tables full and calls may go unanswered. If you are looking to connect with the business folks, you may want to consider blocking off 12-1pm as folks take the time to refuel. This may be the perfect time for lawyers to refuel as well.