The secret formula for success as a first-year associate

By: September 5, 2017

“You have to be able to take criticism"

key to success

Marika Strobl can still remember her first day as an associate at Burnet, Duckworth & Palmer LLP in Calgary. “I was very anxious,” recalls Strobl, who feared that, because she didn’t have a business background, she might not cut it at a commercial firm. But she was wrong. Today, seven years later, Strobl is an accomplished litigator at the firm.

At this moment, some of you may be weeks away from starting out as a first-year associate. (Most large firms ask new recruits to report for duty in September.) And you may be racked with nerves, wondering if you have what it takes to succeed in law. If that sounds familiar, you’re not alone. “What makes being a junior lawyer so difficult,” says Strobl, “is you’re always insecure.” She worked hard to conquer those insecurities.

But how’d she do it? We asked her, as well as Danielle Robitaille, a criminal lawyer in Toronto who works alongside Marie Henein, at Henein Hutchison LLP, to reveal what you should do to thrive in the workplace as a first-year associate.

1. Prepare intensely for everything

Marika Strobl, Associate, Burnet, Duckworth & Palmer LLP

How can newbies gain confidence? Intense preparation. When Strobl worries about an upcoming client presentation, she meticulously reviews the materials and practises until it’s perfect. “Preparation is what gives you real confidence,” she explains. In law, you can’t “fake it till you make it.”

2. Develop a thick skin

Law has a steep learning curve. “So you have to be able to take criticism,” says Robitaille. “If a lawyer is taking the time to criticize your work, it’s really for your own benefit.” Don’t waste time being emotional.

3. See the big picture

“Don’t just work through your task list and consider your job done,” says Strobl. “Focus on gaining a deep understanding of what the broader goals are.” If you do this, you’ll be able to anticipate — without having to ask senior counsel — what the next steps are of a given project. This will catch the attention of senior partners.

“The reality is, senior people are too far up to give precise instructions,” says Strobl. “They’re also busy managing multiple projects.” If you can move a project along without them having to prod you, they will notice and appreciate the effort.

4. Find a mentor

Danielle Robitaille, Partner, Henein Hutchison LLP

You can’t succeed on your own. “You need to find a mentor who’s willing to invest time and attention in you,” says Robitaille.

But this can be difficult task. A mentor won’t magically appear before you. So don’t be afraid to ask senior lawyers — either someone at your firm or someone you met at a networking event — to be your mentor. (You can start out by simply asking them out for coffee.) If a lawyer turns you down, approach another one. But don’t give up.

Once you find that person with whom you can forge a meaningful relationship, appreciate how valuable their time is to you. “Don’t be foolish and believe that you are doing your mentor any favours,” says Robitaille. “Their efforts will always outweigh what you can ever give back in hard work and loyalty.”


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