Sunday, June 22, 2008

Life at the Firm

A law firm is a microcosm. It is a miniature universe, with its own inhabitants, its own rules and its own social construct. To survive in it, you must play the role of anthropologist - you must study this world - its social order, its social behavior, its laws, its politics, its values and its beliefs. And to thrive in it, you must abandon your role as anthropologist and become part of the tribe, you must stop observing this world and start adapting to it, embracing it and making it your own. Do less and run the risk of remaining an observer, an outsider, never becoming part of the clan. Outsiders don’t stick around. They either leave to observe the next tribe or are asked to do so.

So life at the firm begins with learning about life at the firm. No doubt, you will make the following observations:

There is a hierarchy. Like any society, a firm has a hierarchy. As a new member of the society, you start at the bottom. Ignore the pecking order, presume your stature is greater than it is, and you will upset others, namely those above you whom you perceive are beneath you. Being that they are above you, they have the power to make things easy for you or make them difficult. What they do is largely a reaction to what you do.

The firm has a code. Each firm has its own rules, a code if you will. Some are written down, such as in an employee handbook. Most are not. No doubt, you were introduced to some of them during your interview. You picked up some more during lunch conversations with other attorneys. Some rules are obvious and some are universal to every firm.

The hard part is figuring out the not so obvious ones, the ones that define your firm and make it different from others. When are you expected to be in the office? When should you leave? Are inter-office e-mails encouraged? What should an inter-office memo look like? How about interactions with the staff? What is encouraged and what isn’t? To learn the code, seek out a mentor, a senior associate or junior partner, who can teach you the code in its entirety.

Each attorney has a code. In addition to the firm code, every attorney abides by his own code - a set of rules, eccentricities and pet peeves, by which he lives. Some are reasonable, some are not. Some make sense, some do not. Your job is not to tell these attorneys to stop insisting that others do things their way. Your job is to do things their way. Learn each attorney’s writing style, research methods and drafting techniques. Learn how they interact with clients, with other attorneys in the office and with the staff. They do things their way because they believe it is the right way to do things. If you want them to perceive you’re doing things the right way, emulate them. Conversely, learn their pet peeves, and avoid them.

The firm has values. Each firm has a set of values. Some are explicit and can be found in their mission statements. Others are less obvious. Whatever they are, they guide the firm. You will be expected to live by them. If you do not share the firm’s values, if you do not share the firm’s vision, you will not thrive there.

The firm has a dress code. Each law firm has its own dress code. Some expect you to wear a suit each day, some are casual year round, and there are many permutations along the spectrum. But what is considered dressing up and what is considered casual? As with everything else, you need to observe what is considered appropriate and acceptable attire and emulate it. This may require some adjustments in your wardrobe. This will be money well spent.

You’re in or you’re out. If you are going to join a firm, you have to jump in with both feet. Sticking your toe in the water isn’t going to do. You have to embrace the firm’s goals, its mission, its values, its structure, its rules and its hierarchy. Do less, and you will never truly belong. Do less, and you will remain an observer. And the days of an observer are always numbered.

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