“Be Kind to Yourself” – and Other Advice for New Lawyers Starting Their Career During a Pandemic

20 August 2020 Foley Career Perspectives Blog
Author(s): Casey D. Knapp Steven R. Cade John L. Litchfield Alexis P. Robertson Anjali D. Desai Rebecca S. Bradley
As law firms deal with the ongoing impact of COVID-19, those who recently graduated from law school are facing unique challenges.  To help new lawyers navigate this challenging time, we asked members of the Foley family who started their legal careers during the recession of 2008 and 2009 to share advice based on their own experiences over a decade ago.  Here are their tips for starting your legal career on the right foot, even in this unique, remote environment.

Learn, Learn, Learn 

“Firm leaders are fond of saying that good lawyering comes first and the rest will follow.  Start to develop that foundation now.  Learn as much as you can about your substantive area of practice. Offer to do non-billable work (we more senior folks are always happy to take you up on that!). Be brave enough to ask whether you can join conference calls on a non-billable basis – you will be so surprised how much you will learn just from listening to your more experienced peers doing their jobs, and then see if the person you joined might have a few minutes in the next couple of weeks to answer any questions you have about what you heard.” – Casey Knapp (Partner, Business Law, Milwaukee)

“There’s a steep learning curve that first year. Trust that you’ll learn and be kind to yourself along the way.” – Alexis Robertson (Director of Diversity & Inclusion, Chicago)

Focus on Your Work Product

“During tough times, it’s easy to worry about things outside of your control.  However, one thing that you can control is your work product.  Sweat the details and focus on producing the best work product you can. Everything else will fall in place. ... Even if a project seems to be beyond your year level or expertise, take responsibility and ownership of the projects that land on your desk. It gives your supervising attorney confidence that you are engaged and it gives you an excellent opportunity to learn and grow. Also, if you see something you think may be wrong or missing, don’t be afraid to speak up. Clients and supervising attorneys sincerely appreciate when a junior attorney is paying close attention to the details.” – Steve Cade (Partner, Business Law, Chicago)

Engage with Others

“Starting a new job is never easy, particularly in a field that can be demanding and time consuming. The hardest part under the current circumstances may be the lack of regular face-to-face interactions, which is really the best way to build relationships and workflows that will sustain your practice.  I think the best thing you can do in your first few months ... is to make an effort to set up virtual “coffees” – actual video conferences, not just phone calls – with at least one new attorney on a weekly basis.  Get to know folks around your office and from other offices.  If there is a practice you’re interested in learning more about, talk to an attorney in that practice. One advantage to remote work is there are no physical barriers to reaching out across the firm’s offices to set up time for a 15-minute chat with someone whose work interests you.” – John Litchfield (Partner, Litigation, Chicago) 

Ask for Help & Find Your People

“I know, it is hard to ask for help because it makes you feel like you don’t know what you’re doing.  But you don’t yet – not all the way – and no one expects that of you.  What we do expect is that you get as far as you can and then come to us when you need clarification or guidance.  Law is an apprenticeship in so many ways, and that is much more difficult when we are not in the office.  But please, please, please don’t let that keep you from being intellectually curious and asking your questions.” – Casey Knapp (Partner, Business Law, Milwaukee)  

“Find an associate who is just a year or two ahead of you. Run your questions by them first, they will be able to answer 80-90% of what you need to know.” – Alexis Robertson (Director of Diversity & Inclusion, Chicago)

Be Flexible

“My first few years as a corporate associate taught me the value of flexibility.  Because billable work had slowed down significantly, being open to all types of corporate work (whether it was billable or not) was an asset – I worked on matters ranging from broker-dealer and investment fund management, to banking regulation, to public company M&A and securities offerings, and heavily contributed to the financial crisis blog my firm started.  Having that breadth of experience allowed me to identify the types of work I did and didn’t enjoy, while simultaneously building fundamental skill sets that were translatable across the board.” – Anjali Desai (Attorney Coach, Washington)

“Be open to a path other than what you might have envisioned for your career when you first decided to go to law school, or even when you graduated. There are innumerable ways you can add value to the profession with your law degree, including many that may be outside the four corners of practicing law. Pay attention to the work and interactions that motivate you, as well as the ways in which you spend your professional time that seem to draw away energy rather than inspire creativity.” – Rebecca Bradley (Director of Professional Development, Chicago)

Interested in Learning More?

For more wisdom and insight on what it’s like to start a legal career, we encourage you to listen to our podcast, The Path & The Practice.  In each episode, Alexis Robertson, our Director of Diversity & Inclusion, interviews Foley attorneys about their path to legal practice and encourages them to share their advice for law school students and new associates.  Jay Rothman, our Chairman & CEO, recently sat down with Alexis and shared his advice for new lawyers on topics ranging from mentorship to being patient with yourself as your learn and grow in your career.  Listen to Jay’s podcast in its entirety below.


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