Illinois Bar Journal

October 2009Volume 97Number 10Page 490

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How-to advice for rookie associates

Make sure you’re taking the steps that will help you thrive as a new member of the firm.

Unlike many lawyers in today’s difficult job market, you’ve landed a position as an associate. So far, everyone at your new firm has welcomed you, and you’re not only busy but enjoying the work. What more do you need to ensure your success?

Put an article by St. Clair county lawyer Donald E. Weihl on your must-read list: In More on Associates, in the June 2009 issue of The Bottom Line, the newsletter of ISBA’s Standing Committee on Law Office Management and Economics, Weihl provides sound advice that he’s gleaned over years of practice and management at the St. Louis-Belleville firm of Greensfelder, Hemker & Gale, PC.

Learning the unwritten rules

Weihl begins by observing that many of the rules that associates must observe in order to be successful are unwritten. “Often the associate is simply expected to know without having been specifically told what to do, not do, how to act, or not act.” Making a friend at your new firm who already knows what those unwritten rules are will be very helpful, he says, to shorten your own learning curve.

In addition to seeking friends in the workplace, Weihl admonishes all new associates to learn and follow scrupu lously three systems that necessarily govern their work and the firm’s existence: docketing, filing, and billing.

Opening, maintaining, closing files

Dual docketing systems are essential for ensuring that lawyers don’t miss filing deadlines and court dates. Associates should know how to make entries in their individual calendars that will tie into their firms’ master docketing systems, Weihl says. Opening, maintaining, and closing files, the substantive work of the firm, are likewise essential. Weihl urges new associates to seek training in their firms’ procedures respecting their files. Furthermore, he observes, “Prior files are a huge resource. Utilizing prior work to keep from reinventing the wheel makes your work more efficient.”

Billing, of course, is vital for any law firm. Associates, then, should understand that their firms will judge them on how much and how effectively they bill. To excel in that all-important function, Weihl advises new lawyers to “[f]orm a habit of making immediate partial entries in the system to track your efforts on every matter being worked on. Complete the entry at the first opportunity and make sure the entry is absolutely accurate. At the end of the day, be sure your time is in the system or is in the hands of the person to enter your time in the system.”

Organization, Weihl suggests, is key to success in your new law firm. He advocates making a “To Do” list and crossing items off religiously. Including even minor items on your list will remind you that nothing should be overlooked when handling a matter for a client, he says. But assign priorities to your projects: “Have your supervising attorneys tell you which projects are needed before others and use small time periods to get the small detail items off the list when large projects require larger blocks of uninterrupted time.”

Your time is valuable, so budget it wisely and waste as little as possible. Do not, Weihl advises, hesitate to say “no” to additional projects when you are behind schedule. “Don’t make excuses. Simply state your time doesn’t permit the less important activity.”

Respond to messages within 24 hours

Messages, Weihl says, whether e-mail or telephone, should be responded to as soon as possible and, in any event, within one day. “24 hours is not an optional time period, it is a must. Better yet, get the call answered before the end of the business day.”

Weihl recommends logging telephone calls and organizing them as well as e-mails. Which need to be responded to immediately, which need further attention, and which should be billed? Which can simply be answered by a secretary and not billed at all?

“Having e-mail be a constant distraction must be avoided,” he warns. To avoid that common trap, he advises, “budget 5 minutes every hour,” or, depending on how busy you are, more than five minutes but only twice a day, “to at least do a cursory review of the message screen.” If you’re really, really busy, he says, you might send off a terse e-mail saying simply that you received the message and will respond at more length within a certain time frame. Bear in mind, he says, that “associates are expected to juggle many matters when necessary.”

Helen W. Gunnarsson is an attorney and writer in Highland Park. She can be reached at