Welcome to Our Law Firm - Now Back to Basics

Congratulations, after a fascinating and intellectually stimulating three years of studying the law, you have now graduated and are starting your first job at a law firm.  Take any firm, whether boutique or international, white shoe or no shoe, it does not matter.  You are now a freshly minted lawyer taking on the world.  After all, you studied complex and difficult issues in law school and survived tough professors who challenged your intellect on more occasions that you would have preferred.  During your summer associate program at your firm, you got super interesting assignments and watched the senior partners draft sophisticated briefs or highly complex agreements.  Nothing can stop you now!

Wrong.

I have seen this pattern over and over again. Really smart law school graduates that have an extremely hard time to adjust to the realities of practicing law, especially as a junior lawyer.  They assume that their brilliance and legal studies will carry the day and the practice of law is essentially an extension of their legal studies or of law school.  Unfortunately, they are in for a nasty surprise, and unless they adjust quickly, they will struggle and may not survive.

Let me illustrate with an anecdote:

It's 2 a.m. in the morning.  After month of grueling negotiations and complex structuring of a cross-border acquisition involving a very large Fortune 100 corporation purchasing a highly innovative technology company, we are ready to exchange signature pages to sign the deal.  So I am just checking with the partner of the purchaser's counsel, if they have all of the signature pages and are ready to proceed.  Yes, ready when you are, the email reply comes back right away.  Great, all ready to go. The client's management and shareholders will be thrilled.  First step to a successful exit.  Earlier that day, I had asked the junior associate on the deal again to confirm that she had prepared all signature pages of our side for the signing, which would take place electronically, i.e., by email exchange of PDFs containing the signature pages.  He confirmed.  I asked him to verify.  He again confirmed that he had done so.  

Great.  All set to go.  But I better check to make sure that he had in fact sent all the signature pages before I email the document batch.  Of course, one signature page was in fact missing.  It is now 2:15 a.m.  The associate is nowhere to be reached.  Not by email, not by cell phone, not by home phone.  Even though I had instructed that he will need to be reachable in case anything comes up during the signing.  No luck.  So the signing has to be postponed until business hours later that day and the junior associate was reachable again.  Apparently, the office scanner had screwed up and missed a page.  But that does not explain why he had assured me that he had double checked and counted all signature pages to be sue they were in fact all available. 

The deal got signed later that day after the signature page scan was rescanned and the deal later closed.  

But it highlighted a key problem that I have seen  over and over with junior associates.  Attention to detail, "boring" or menial tasks, like ensuring that the signature pages have all been signed and are all available for the deal, etc.  I often see that junior attorneys do not take these tasks as seriously as they need to.  These are "boring" tasks that are the opposite of the intellectual challenges that the associate overcame in law school.  They do not require a law degree.  True.  

But they are essential to building a successful career as a lawyer.  They help lawyers build critical skills.  After all, a good portion of the practice of law is project management.  Junior lawyers should never forget that. And the client, who often does not have a law degree, but will be extremely results oriented, will assess his law firm's skills not (only) by the brilliance of their legal counsel, but by such "mundane" markers as, did they handle the "mechanics" of the deal well -- and screwing up seemingly simple tasks like collecting signature pages is an easy red flag for the client -- and whether that assessment is "fair" or not is irrelevant.  

Nowadays, lawyers are not just measured by their astute legal counsel but also by their project management skills.  Platitudes, such as "preparation is half the battle" ring true in the highly competitive legal industry.  Failure to prepare on the other hand can adversely impact your standing within the law firm, - you risk being viewed as unreliable or making the firm look bad -and therefor impede your advancement (to a position where start doing more sophisticated legal work) and can even get you fired.  Remember that the legal team is only as good as its weakest link. You don't want to be that weak link, especially when starting out. 

Therefore, a word of advice:  hone your project management skills and take the "junior" mechanical tasks very seriously.  They are the foundation of your legal career, just as much as the legal skills you acquired in law school.  

Law school does not typically prepare you for increasingly complex project management, but you will need this essential skill in order to succeed as a lawyer.  So go back to the basics. 

I will come back to this theme from time to time, to illustrate its critical importance for your career.