BigLaw 101: How to Be a Great Associate

By Gabriella Khorasanee, JD on December 03, 2013 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

In a recent study, University of Dayton law professor Susan Wawrose asked legal employers what they looked for in new graduates. The results were surprising, notes The Wall Street Journal. Rather than seeking graduates with great practical skills, employers were more interested in "the softer skills, like work ethic, collegiality and a sense of individual responsibility."

Based on these new findings, here are five ways that you can be a great associate.

1. Have a Strong Work Ethic

You didn't become a lawyer because it was easy, and if you though studying for the LSAT and the bar were hard, well, that was nothing. Being a lawyer is hard work that takes a lot of dedication -- oh, and lots of billable hours. You're not going to bill 80 hours per week by phoning it in, so kick that work ethic into high gear.

2. Have a Positive Attitude

In our opinion, this may be the most important characteristic -- have a positive attitude at work. If people are going to spend 80 hours per week with you, you better be pleasant to be around. Think less Kenny Powers, and more Jess.

3. Work Independently

Your employers don't want to "spoon feed" you, or engage in "hand holding," according to the study. Take initiative and "own the case." While the senior attorneys are there to mentor and guide you, don't rely on them to make very decision for you.

4. Know How to Research

Researching is one of the practical skills that employers do expect you to possess; "Employers ... rely on new attorneys to be research experts," notes the study. And, while you may be a wiz at online research, they also expect you to be just as comfortable doing research with traditional paper sources.

5. Know How to Write

One of the most important lessons of legal writing is knowing your audience. This rings true for students and associates alike. Senior attorneys want you to keep in mind who will be reading your written work. Whether you are writing a section of an appellate brief, or a memo for a client, you need to know the level of detail that the partner you are reporting to, or your client, expects.

While you should definitely work on honing your practical skills, don't let your "soft skills" like "personal qualities, habits, attitudes and social graces" fall by the wayside. Those qualities may be the ones that actually stand you apart from the other associates.

Editor's Note, December 27, 2016: This article was first published in December, 2013. It has since been updated.

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