Starting a new career can be an exhilarating—and intimidating—experience. In addition to learning the job, every workplace runs on a set of unwritten rules that can drastically effect your success.
That’s why University of Arizona Law alumnus Matt Schmidt (’10), attorney at Schmidt, Sethi & Akmajian, recently spoke to a group of students at Arizona Law about the top 10 things that new associates should keep top of mind when beginning their careers.
1. First impressions are everything
Although it sounds cliché, it is true. A first interaction gone wrong can give someone a negative perception of you, and it is much harder to fix that than if you make a good first impression.
“Make the first time you meet someone count,” said Schmidt.
2. Eliminate the word “draft” from your vocabulary
When a partner asks you to prepare a draft of something, don’t approach it as a draft, but rather your best work.
Schmidt said there are two reasons for this mentality. “One: you want to impress your partner. But the other thing is, if you don’t do a good job, then he or she is just going to give it back to you, and you are going to have to do it all over again, wasting your time, making it more stressful, and adding more things to your to-do list.”
Pay attention to detail, take your time, and do your best the first time.
3. Treat all staff with respect
Treat everyone you work with as your equal, regardless of their job title.
“My paralegals have skills that I don’t have and know how to do things that I cannot do,” said Schmidt. “I give them so much credit.”
If you treat everyone with respect, they are more likely to respect you and provide assistance when you need it.
4. Before asking someone a question, ask yourself: Is this something I can Google?
According to Schmidt, “In the legal field there are such things as stupid questions.”
Use resources available to you before asking questions of others, especially your boss. Even when you’re busy and asking someone else seems like the easiest solution, try to find the answer on your own.
If you still cannot find your answer after research, then ask someone, making it clear that you put in some effort on your own first.
5. Take a deep breath
Work can be stressful, and that doesn’t always bring out the best in people. But letting stress build to hostility, anger and frustration makes you a less effective attorney, causes more stress, and ultimately wastes your time and that of your clients.
When faced with a stressful situation, Schmidt advises new associates to look for the positive, take a deep breath, sleep on it (when possible), or write down all the negative things you want to say and then throw that list away.
6. If you need an extension, ask for one (but not the day it is due)
It’s okay to occasionally ask for extensions, as some due dates are arbitrary. But don’t do it often, and most importantly, turn in your work on or before the new due date.
The worst thing you can do is ask for an extension and then fail to meet the new deadline.
7. Be creative, and take initiative in the office
If you have an idea about obtaining new clients, marketing, technology for the office, or another aspect of the business, talk to your supervisor about it. Even if your boss doesn’t implement the idea, it shows that you are taking initiative and care about the success of the organization, which will only help you in the long run.
8. Make a name for yourself outside the office
It is important to get involved in the community where you will practice and to build relationships with other lawyers and judges.
Get your name out there by picking up the phone, going to events, getting published in local legal publications, developing an expertise, joining local groups, holding lunches and other networking opportunities.
9. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel
You will have many resources and templates available to you when you begin your career, so be sure to use them—cautiously.
“For example, if someone has already written a motion about something that you have to write, and it’s right on point, with everything you need, then there is no need to waste your time creating a brand new one,” said Schmidt, adding that you must always proceed with caution. “You still have to pay attention that the laws included are accurate and up to date.”
He also recommends taking the first year to write your own motions and then using them as templates moving forward.
10. Be mindful of employers’ perceptions of younger generations
It’s natural for some tension to exist between generations in the workplace. Schmidt said the best way to counteract any negative qualities that may hound your generation’s reputation: always be on your A game.
Schmidt said it is critical for new associates to always practice professionalism, be on time, RSVP to events and honor commitments.
Schmidt also advised trying to bridge the generation gap when possible. For example, rather than writing a thank-you email, send a hand-written note. Small gestures like that demonstrate thoughtfulness and make a positive impression.