Wednesday, May 20, 2009

A Few Tips for Law Students and Associates

Having not yet been to law school, I am of no authority to assume what is or is not taught at law schools. However, my experience with fresh out of law school associates has suggested that there are definitely some things that are not taught in law school. While most of said “freshies” would not dream of allowing a mere legal assistant give them some pointers, I would like to at least give a few tips on my blog, in case a freshy would like to anonymously accept some tidbits of advice which may be of assistance in bridging the gap between 3L and associate-hood.

1. First of all, and most important, I cannot stress enough how vital is that you treat your support staff with the utmost respect and gratitude.

Yes, most assistants do not have bachelors degrees and did not endure three years of law school, but they are your support team, they are an extension of you and thus represent who you are and are often your link between you and the client. If treated properly, they will go to bat for you, field calls from pushy callers, make sure all deadlines are met, and remind you of forgotten tickles. Rather than trying to prove how much better you are than them, acknowledge that they are just as talented and capable as you, just in other areas. Think of it as an estate planning attorney telling a prosecuting attorney how to do their job.

You must never hand them your dirty work (ie send my wife and mistress flowers, book my vegas hotel, etc.) and if the task you hand to them is completely mundane and insulting, at least acknowledge that it is crap work, apologize, but ask politely if the assistant would have time to tackle such mundane task. You will probably receive a more positive response when given said task than if you were to simply plop it in front of them and say “have fun with that.”

2. As a freshy, it is likely you are unfamiliar with the local courthouse and may have questions about filing documents and proper courthouse etiquette. This applies to not only freshies but the “new kid in town.”

Getting in the door. Most courthouses now days have security checkpoints at each entrance. Some local bar associations issue identification cards which you may politely (but not arrogantly!) show to the security person so that if you trip off the metal detector, you are allowed to go through without emptying your briefcase, etc. Find out if your local courthouse or bar association uses such passes/id cards and locate one, this saves time for you and the security personnel. However, if the courthouse does not use a pass, you must empty your pockets of any items which may trip the metal detector, as well as place all handheld items (briefcase, laptop, PDA, crackberry) in the bin to be inspected and/or x-rayed. DO NOT act annoyed or indicate you are “above” this. I realize this makes you feel as though you are a “layperson” but the security people do not care whether or not you are an attorney, they are just doing their job and ensuring the safety of everyone in the courthouse.

Once you have made it through the door you need to locate the proper court in which to file your document. If you were successful in not being too pompous with the security personnel, you may quickly but politely ask them to point you in the direction of the proper court. You should specify if you need that court’s clerk’s office or the judge’s office. If you are filing a doc, you will obviously need the clerk’s office. You may need to visit the judge’s office (you will most likely not get past the secretary’s desk) to get things on the calendar, etc.

Filing documents. If the purpose of your visit to the courthouse is to file documents, stand in line (yes in line, even behind the laypeople, superman) and politely wait your turn. When you have arrived at the desk politely explain to the clerk staff that you are here to file x document in x case. Some courthouses prefer that you go ahead and pull the appropriate file and file-mark it yourself, then place the court’s file with the file-marked documents in a specific box which the clerk staff will bring to the judge’s secretary. You will usually file stamp one copy of your document for the court’s copy, one copy for each party in the case, and one copy for you to return as your own file copy; so leave all copies with the file except for your file copy.

There is a standard location to place the file-stamp. You must never stamp over any of the wording of the document, especially the cause number, this will frustrate the court staff. Here is an example of the standard location to place a file-stamp:

All files regarding juveniles (guardianships, adoptions, dissolutions) are generally kept in a separate area which you will not have access to. The clerks are usually very busy, but if you explain this is your first field trip to the courthouse, they should be happy to show you where to find files and how to file-stamp docs. They will realize this saves them time the next time you come around as they will not have to lead you by the hand each time.

The Judge’s Secretary. If there is one person to schmooze in the courthouse, it is not the judge presiding over your case, it is that judge’s secretary. This person has probably the most power of all; they can give you a court date, make sure your file or pleading is placed under the judge’s nose, and give you access to the law library. Your assistant probably also realizes that it is important to be very polite to the judge’s secretary when that person calls your office. This is another reason to keep your assistant happy, they will be happy when speaking with important people!

3. Document Drafting.

Again, I have never even seen a law school curriculum, so I am of no authority here, but my experience with associates is that they spent all of this time learning the law and interpreting the law and writing legal memos, but have no clue how to draft documents. Most firms, depending on the size will have at least one forms directory. Often, these are Anderson Forms or you can use forms from Lexis Nexis or Westlaw. My firm has all of the above-mentioned forms plus a directory of forms that have been created over the past 50 years by the partners. I happen to be the staff person that manages these forms and I try very hard to keep them current and up to date as well as organized logically so they can be easily accessible. Do not be too big-headed or embarrassed to ask your secretary for assistance with this. Paralegals are also an excellent source of forms, but most of their time is billable so they may be forced to enter a time entry that would read “idiot assoc wasted half hour of my time asking about forms.” Most firms assign a supervising attorney to associates and that partner can be your “go-to” person. However, this person is also the one that reports to the rest of the partnership on your competence. So do not go running to them for every little thing. You made it through law school, you can handle looking for forms on your own. If you do need to ask your supervising attorney, do not go empty handed, at least say “hey, I found this form, what do you think?”

4. Attire.
You may have or may not have been concerned with your attire during law school, and sure you probably had to dress up on occasion for mock trials, interviews, socials, etc. I would say most of the associates in my firm attempt to look professional, but there are usually a few things lacking.

Wrinkles. Most of the associates have wrinkled clothing. I can’t figure it out, perhaps they just wash their clothes and leave them in a hamper all crimpled up? Hanging your clothing takes 10 mins and will ensure a smooth garment. Even if you do not have time to remove a piece of clothing from the dryer promptly at the end of the cycle, or all you have time for is throwing it in a hamper and can’t hang the garment, at least take a few mins to steam a shirt before wearing it. I do not recommend ironing as it is tricky, and it takes a lot of time. While you may not be able to get the same creases with steaming as you can with an iron, steaming will at least get the wrinkles out. Clean lines and pressed seams do not get much attention anyway, but wrinkles do. Handheld steamers run $20 to $50. Do not get on that has a hose, as this often creates spurting which will leave water spots on your clothing. My favorite steamer is the Joy Mongano “my little steamer” which is often sold on HSN in a variety of colors.

Color Matching and Pattern Clashing. Most females do a pretty good job with this, so I’m speaking mostly to the males here. First, identify if one piece of clothing has a pattern. If said article of clothing has a pattern, DO NOT MIX WITH ANOTHER PATTERN! This is pertinent and you are sure to look like a clown if you wear more than one pattern. The simplest way to wear patterns is to wear a plain, one color collared shirt with a patterned tie. Somewhere within the tie, there should be at least one color that matches identically to the color of said collared shirt. Some stores make this really easy by allowing you to buy a “pre-made” combo, this really takes the guess work out of the equation. You can usually find a shirt in your size that provides a perfectly matching tie and voila your good to go!

Black is easy and is most acceptable in the law profession. The first clothing purchase you make should be a black suit. As an associate you may not have a lot of money, so hit the sales at Macy’s and rather than having the suit tailored at the store, (you must have it tailored) buy it untailored and take it to a local tailor, this will save some cash and usually will come out more “tailored” than if you had left it at Macy’s for them to ship off to a seamstress that never even saw you.

For the ladies, its important to look professional but do not misinterpret “professional” to mean “boring.” Ladies can often find suit sets easier and for less money than men. Again, Macy’s is usually pretty good and can be cheaper than going Ann Taylor. I know it may be cheasy, but Dress Barn is also a really good place to find professional looking outfits, though their attire seems to be more geared to the 35 and up crowd. You should look professional, but not older than your age; it just looks like your faking it and its like a square peg in a round hole, it just doesn’t match up.

5. Socials.

Attend every social you are invited to. It is important that you not only show you are a good attorney but that you are a good “partner” to the firm. Most partnerships want to add partners they feel they would go golfing with, share a meal with, and can have good conversation with. It really is more than just showing up and doing a good job, you have to be likeable. Never drink at these socials. The partners may drink and may even get a little tipsy, but just because they are drunk, doesn’t mean they aren’t competent to realize you are making a fool of yourself. Let the Senior Partner be the butt of the joke, not you.

These are just a few items that you may or may not find helpful. If you develop a good relationship with your assistant, you should feel free to ask them on firm-specific items such as protocol on socials, who does what, where do I find this, etc. But if you have a pompous attitude, that person is going to wish you to fail and either not provide you with any info, or worse, provide you with the wrong info.


  1. That bit about the steamer is golden advice. I've never used one before but I will soon!!!

  2. Hi, I saw your link on i.don't.wear.skinny.jeans and thought I'd come by and check out your blog. I just wanted to wish you the best of luck with your job, finishing up college, and heading into law school. Seriously, I'm so impressed by your drive (from what I've read so far). This post is fabulous, and one of the best "advice" posts I've read in a long time!