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Getting a Seat at Counsel’s Table: Tips for Junior Associates

July 5, 2022, 8:00 AM

As a senior associate, I can recall just a few years ago when, as a junior associate, a sizable part of my billable hours could be attributed to document review. And by document review, I mean reviewing documents for responsiveness, confidentiality, and privilege. As mind-numbingly dull as the task at hand seemed, I persisted and got the job done well and with grace.

I think I speak for most law firm associates when I say that document review isn’t why we went to law school to become lawyers. In fact, I occasionally reflect and think about what kept me from quitting when assigned tasks I hated—or giving up when it seemed like the reward I received wasn’t fair or commensurate with the work I put in.

In my view, succeeding in this profession means enjoying what you do and, for me, enjoying what I do means building mastery over tasks that are important to me. Getting from document review duty to a seat at the table is often the ultimate reward.

As I approach the end of my sixth year of law practice, the following are some tips I would give junior law firm associates yearning for that elusive seat at the table.

Tell Them What You Enjoy Doing

Until not too long ago, I was accustomed to thinking that if I work hard at a given task, I will be rewarded with increasingly more fulfilling tasks. I’ve learned that, more often than not, that doesn’t happen in practice. While there could be many reasons for that, one to avoid is that your superiors don’t know what you enjoy doing.

Whether it’s presenting oral arguments or taking and defending depositions—or something else altogether—letting your superiors know what you enjoy doing helps put your name in line when a desired opportunity arises. There’s absolutely no reason to lose out on an open seat at the table because you failed to speak up.

Admittedly, speaking up is easier said than done. My advice for junior associates is to start with their assigned mentor (if they have one) and ask that mentor to a lunch or coffee meeting. That will provide an opportunity to get comfortable speaking freely with someone whose job it is to listen.

As a potential next step, I’ve found that the now more frequent team meetings (brought about by remote work) provide an opportunity to speak up when inevitable discussions arise about who will be working on what task. In other words, if there’s something you’d like to do, and it hasn’t already been assigned to someone else, speak up and volunteer to do it. The worst anyone can say is “no”—and a “no” can become a “yes” the next time a similar opportunity arises, especially now that you’ve put your name in line.

Learn By Doing Whenever Possible

It certainly doesn’t hurt to observe an experienced attorney in action every now and then. And observing is certainly one way, even a wonderful way, to learn. But, sitting on the sidelines isn’t typically the best way to learn. There’s no better way to learn than by doing.

So, how can you learn by doing while waiting for that desired opportunity? If you’re looking for your first oral argument, find a way to practice presenting argument in a simulated setting. For example, consider signing up for a mock oral argument organized by a local bar association.

If you’re looking to take or defend your first deposition, consider taking a high-quality deposition skills course that will enable you to practice the techniques necessary to take and defend an effective deposition.

And while you’re busy learning by doing, don’t forget to let your superiors know about it. It will serve as a subtle reminder to them about what it is you’re striving for—a seat at the table, not just a folding chair.

Team Up with Great Mentors

As you go about your work, meeting and working with new people—and learning by doing whenever possible—finding great mentors along the way is imperative.

Teaming up with a great mentor means having someone who will lend an ear and be your advocate—and who will help get you to where you want to go. Having a great mentor also means having someone trustworthy you can talk to about the type of work you strive to do.

The ideal mentor will differ from mentee to mentee, but great mentors invariably understand that the best way to learn is by doing. With a great mentor you won’t be observing on the sidelines too long before you’re doing things on your own.

My advice here is to not be afraid to move beyond your assigned mentor (whom you may rarely even interact with) and find additional mentors with whom you actually work on a day-to-day basis. These mentors can more readily help you find and get assigned to the kind of work you’re looking to do because you already collaborate on the same matters or cases.

The “seat at the table” doesn’t have to be out of reach. Being deliberate about what you’re striving for—and teaming up with great mentors willing to help you get there—can go a long way in making that seat at the table a reality.

This article does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc., the publisher of Bloomberg Law and Bloomberg Tax, or its owners.

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Josepher Li is a registered patent attorney at the litigation boutique Armond Wilson LLP. Based in Newport Beach, Calif., his intellectual property and technology litigation practice spans nationally in federal courts and before the U.S. Patent Office.