New Wigs: Surviving the First Years

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find it fascinating observing new wigs -new associates – in law firms, especially on their first day at work. They are a sight, for sore eyes. Thrilled, dreamy, energetic, idealistic, positive, eager, with a “go-to-it” attitude, and yet hesitant. These new associates usually whine about the same thing – whether they schooled here in Nigeria or abroad, attended private or public university, whether they graduated first, second or third class (I don’t meet many 3rds). They usually have the same complaint – “that their education did not prepare them for the real world of law practice; and that real practice is so different from what they were taught in school.” So, essentially all new wigs start out on a level playing field. Fresh out of school, novice Lawyers, knowing next to nothing about being a Lawyer, and maybe even less about what it takes to be part of a law firm. What can new wigs do, to survive the first years at a law firm? What can they do to stand out? What do law firms’ value? Like most younglings just starting out, new associates should be carefully nurtured, they must start work life on fertile soils. New associates must grow under favourable circumstances, their enthusiasm and energy must be encouraged and channeled into productive and profitable directions. Recall the famous quote by Joseph Story, a 19th century American Lawyer and Jurist; “The Law is a jealous mistress and requires a long and constant courtship. It is not to be won by trifling favours, but by lavish homage.”

The Real World of Law

How do we help junior Associates flourish? How do they transit from the classroom, into the real world of law? How do they meet and exceed firms’ expectations? After all, it takes a village to raise a child. A law firm’s onboarding process is certainly an important kickstart for a career in a law firm. However, how much can four hours, a day or even a week of lectures teach a new associate about the inner workings of law firm management? What can law firms learn from other industries about the on-boarding process, that will help new wigs survive their first years in law firms and go on to become a Managing Partner? How much time should a law firm dedicate to the onboarding process? HR professionals will advice that, onboarding should last 90 or 100 days minimum. Studies have shown it takes one year for an employee to be fully on-boarded, and set on the path for career success with a new employer. How much time typically do law firms dedicate to the onboarding process? How long will it take for a new wig or a new employee to complete compliance tasks, get a good feel of the firm’s culture, receive sufficient job-specific training, adjust to new technologies, and make an informed decision about whether the firm is a good fit? Are law firms investing enough time in the onboarding process, for it to make a significant impact on their businesses? That will be the focus, for an upcoming article. However, recent studies have shown that onboarding programs that last less than a month, are detrimental to retention rates.

The Eight Commandments of Survival

What are some of the unwritten commandments, that are critical to the survival of a new associate joining a law firm?
1) Learn the firm culture – Every firmhas its own unwritten culture; it is imperative the new associate figures out the culture’s rules of success. And determines if the firm’s culture, is a good fit or not. A law firm’s culture is not taught, it is an abstract concept. It must be learnt by observation, and understanding culture is essential to career success. Culture is usually described, with the metaphor of an iceberg. Only about one-eighth of an iceberg is visible above water i.e. about 12.5%, the remaining 87.5% of the iceberg is well hidden. The visible part of a firm’s culture, is only a small part of a much larger whole. New wigs need to seriously study, how their firm works. Watch, Listen and Learn. As a new wig, watch closely and observe things and people around you. Listen well, to what is spoken and unspoken. Studies reveals that 90% of communication, is non-verbal.

2) Build relationships – A key concept for new associate survival, is building relationships. The skill required to build relationships within the firm, is the same skill required to build external relationships with clients and potential clients. Dealing with people, is perhaps, the biggest singular challenge you will face in your career, and it is true, whether you are an Engineer, Lawyer or an Actor. Studies conducted by the Carnegie Institute reveal that, even in technical careers such as law, only about 15% of your success is dependent on technical knowledge, 85% is based on people skill – your personality and ability to build meaningful relationships. You will discover the invaluable resources that colleagues, paralegals, and even court clerks and registrars can become to you, when they are well courted.

3) Take the Socials Seriously – Closely connected to the first and second commandment, is the commandment to take the socials seriously. If your firm holds social events, attend, and be friendly. Seek to learn more about people in the firm, their personalities, their likes and interests. People are naturally more interested in themselves. If you want to take the socials seriously, you need to think about the other person, not about yourself. Ask them what their dreams are, help them achieve it, introduce them to people that will help – a good tailor, a good drycleaner, a good small chops chef, etc.; get them a drink at socials, be nice and funny, and they will like you. If they like you, they will invest in your success. When you have established strong professional ties within your firm, you may then focus on building connections within your professional community. Make time to attend, professional community events.

4) Clarify expectations – Be proactive, will be the focus, for an upcoming article. However, recent studies have shown that onboarding programs that last less than a month, are detrimental to retention rates. The Eight Commandments of Survival What are some of the unwritten commandments, that are critical to the survival of a new associate joining a law firm? 1) Learn the firm culture – Every firmhas its own unwritten culture; it is imperative the new associate figures out the culture’s rules of success. And determines if the firm’s culture, is a good fit or not. A law firm’s culture is not taught, it is an abstract concept. It must be learnt by observation, and understanding culture is essential to career success. Culture is usually described, with the metaphor of an iceberg. Only about one-eighth of an iceberg is visible above water i.e. about 12.5%, the remaining 87.5% of the iceberg is well hidden. The visible part of a firm’s culture, is only a small part of a much larger whole. New wigs need to seriously study, how their firm works. Watch, Listen and Learn. As a new wig, watch closely and observe things and people around you. Listen well, to what is spoken and unspoken. Studies reveals that 90% of communication, is non-verbal. 2) Build relationships – A key concept for new associate survival, is building relationships. The skill required to build relationships within the firm, is the same skill required to build external relationships with clients and potential clients. Dealing with people, is perhaps, the biggest singular challenge you will face in your career, and it is true, whether you are an Engineer, Lawyer or an Actor. Studies conducted by the Carnegie Institute reveal that, even in technical careers such as law, only about 15% of your success is dependent on technical knowledge, 85% is based on people skill – your personality and ability to build meaningful relationships. You will discover the invaluable resources about defining expectations. As a new wig, never make assumptions. “Assumption is the lowest form of knowledge.” When in doubt, always ask questions. Never assume you know what a client or colleague is thinking or means, especially if it is unclear, and will affect your course of action or decisions. When you get your first few assignments, ask the assigning Lawyers what they expect, and ask specifically about the timeline to deliver on the assignment. When you clarify expectations, you are better equipped to exceed them. And, when you successfully complete an assignment, always ask, as a new wig,if you can do anything more.

5) Understand Priorities – it is not unusual for new associates to have multiple assignments. One of the complaints of new wigs in law firms, is that they are inundated with varying assignments, and find it difficult sometimes to determine what assignment to prioritise. You can determine what is priority based on the instructing party’s rank or status within the firm; secondly you can determine priority by simply asking? If a Partner gives you an assignment, and you have several work items on your table from other less senior colleagues, and you are unable to determine on your own the urgency of the partners instruction to you, instead of keeping quiet, respectfully explain to the partner what you have on your plate and inquire about the urgency of the partner’s instruction (I will wager that you are dealing with an understanding partner). Time is very essential, in law practice. Law firms are pressurised environments; and there are always deadlines to meet. So, do excellent work and do it on time.

6) Seek Constant Feedback – Do not wait until it is performance evaluation time, to receive your report card handed over to you. As a new wig, be proactive, seek professional feedback from your supervisors on a regular basis. If possible, after every project ask the salient question – How did I do? Or how am I oing? You can learn a lot from a question as simple as, “Did my letter sufficiently cover the issues?” or, “Could I have done anything differently?” I know they say no news is good news, but understand that, many supervisors will avoid tough conversations about performance. Also, while some supervisors may be happy to provide feedback, new wigs need to cultivate the habit of asking. If you do not receive feedback, it is okay to knock on your supervisors door to ask how you are doing on a regular basis. Even if all is going well, it is still helpful to converse about work processes and to obtain real-time feedback on what is working (and not working), to allow for idea generation and forward momentum. The new associate’s need for feedback and assistance from supervising Lawyers, is critical for their surviving the first years.

7) Dress the Part – Even clients expect Lawyers, to look the part. As a new wig, dress professionally and conservatively. I understand the new millennial dress down wave, but I choose to take the safe mid-point position. Some things are changing, but they will not all change overnight. You have signed up, to a conservative profession. Even if other Lawyers dress casually, it is far better to start out more formally, and relax later. On dressing the part, take your cues from the Managing Partner or senior Lawyers within the firm.

8) Be Brief – Lastly, I discovered an unwritten law in law firms, “less is more.” It is also, an old law of Toastmasters. Nobody likes the garrulous. To my surprise, it was also advocated by Joseph Story in “Advice to a Young Lawyer,” The American jurist and law magazine: Volume 5 (1831), p. 298. “Be brief, be pointed, let your matter stand Lucid in order, solid and at hand; Spend not your words on trifles but condense; Strike with the mass of thought, not drops of sense; Press to close with vigour, once begun, and leave, (how hard the task!) leave off, when done.”