What You Should Know Before Starting At A Law Firm

Whether you have already gained experience with a clerkship or internship with a law firm, are waiting to start one, or are in the midst of one right now, there are some important tips you should know and keep in mind.  Litigation with a law firm was the last thing I thought I’d be doing as a law student, but it turns out (as everyone often says in law school) I enjoyed it more than I ever thought I would! In all honesty, the process had a huge learning curve because I had never been in a law firm environment. Below are some helpful points I’ve compiled to educate law students and young lawyers about what you can expect going into a position clerking at a law firm.

1: Remember Names… Or Be Forgotten

When you landed your interview, you hopefully thoroughly researched the firm and its employees.  You might also have researched individuals if you knew a department or employee would be interviewing you. What’s the next step? You have to remember everyone you come into contact with from the moment you go in for your interview to the moment you step back in the door to start your job.

A good tip is to make sure you are in a position to take notes if you are called back to schedule an interview (which is often done if e-mail acceptances for interviews are sent out). You need to take notes of who you talk to in the office – every time. It makes a world of difference if you can walk into the office the day of your interview or your first day working and call by name the secretary or paralegal without having to look at their nameplate.

2: Don’t Install Things… Even With Permission

Part of working in your snazzy new law firm position will include a computer.  What you do with the computer can mean the difference between getting hired or fired.  Most law firms have an IT department or a third party contracted to help with office technology.  It’s their job to install programs and updates that pop up. You should never, ever install or update any programs!

Here’s a personal story:  One summer, I was working on a brand new iMac… So new in fact that it didn’t have Office for Mac installed yet!  I had two choices at this point in my first week at the law firm: 1) wait until I had a chance to talk with someone about getting Office installed on the computer; or 2) download and install the extra copy of Office I had left over from the educational edition I had from school. Unfortunately, I chose the latter.

Little did I know that by downloading and installing Office for Mac from the Office website, I also installed an updated version of the program that installed compatibility for Office 365 (the new version of Microsoft’s Office suite).  My boss found out and was rightfully upset that I had done this! The firm had a strict policy against the use of non-approved cloud storage services. I had innocently installed SkyDrive, but it was a mistake that got the attention of my attorney supervisor for all the wrong reasons.

So… NEVER install or update law firm software.  Even if you have permission, you should check with the IT professionals and schedule a time to have them do it.

3: Don’t Ever Throw Anything Away… Ever

Unless you are told otherwise, you should keep and file copies of everything, no matter how many drafts you print off and receive back with red lines.  Each progression along the path to a final version of a document you cross should be kept in a file. In the beginning, there were a few times I went back to previous drafts where one argument was removed (and subsequently removed on the digital file) only to find that I didn’t save it!  I was all about recycling and placing old papers in the shredder bin… but always think twice about tossing old drafts! Some law firms will have a document retention policy or document you can ask to review.

4: Don’t Take Vacations… Say Goodbye To Family

The easiest way to make sure you are forgotten during a short-term opportunity with a law firm is to take a week-long summer, fall or spring vacation.  You have a short window of time in which you can prove you’re valuable to the firm. Don’t waste it by being gone for more than a few days in a row. You’ve had plenty of vacation time in the past and will (hopefully) have time for more in the future.

Make sure you don’t give supervisors or other staff members the chance to remember what work life was like before you were there.  You don’t want to be the only person in the office with a beach tan!

5: Be The First To Arrive… And The Last To Leave

If the law firm is small enough, you can make the coffee or clean the dishes in the break room before anyone else gets there or late one evening when everyone else has left.  Talk to the building’s maintenance and security staff (remember what I said on knowing names?). If you are the first person to arrive, you will have the chance to help the law firm and make yourself noticed by small tasks that add up to make a big impact whether a partner realizes it or not.  Get to the office early! Getting an hour head start provides an opportunity to finish up last-minute assignments that might have spilled over from the day before.

Bonus Tip:  Make sure and send a text or make a phone call to your significant other when you are going to be late leaving the office!  It’s the polite thing to do. I learned that one that hard way!

6: Use Law Firm Research Accounts… Not Your School Login

Don’t be afraid that you are going to pile up the charges.  Most firms have a monthly subscription they pay to a research company (such as LexisNexis or Westlaw) that guarantees they only pay a specified amount each month for research.  No matter how many rabbit holes you chase or dead ends you reach, you won’t be in danger of going over that monthly fee the firm is already paying. If you’re unsure, just ask a paralegal or office manager and they’ll likely know the basic terms of their legal research subscriptions.

Do watch out for the additional charges that you might run into.  With LexisNexis and Westlaw, you always reach a screen that warns you and forces you to accept the additional charges before you are able to move forward.  Just stay aware of what you are clicking during those crazy and fast-paced research assignments.

7: Final Thoughts

I hope these tips provide insight into your future clerking opportunity at a law firm.  Do you have any stories or tips of your own? Share them in the comments below!