Tips for BigLaw Junior Associates

May 31, 2017

Saee Muzumdar is a new partner and recently appointed “caddy” for junior corporate associates, in Gibson Dunn’s New York office.  As caddy, Saee helps to facilitate connections between junior associates and partners/senior associates.  Although Gibson Dunn has a “free market” system (with no centralized work assignment coordinators), the caddies are available as a resource to associates in their first few years of practice.  Below are some of the questions that Saee is often asked by associates, including about her career journey.

How do I get opportunities to develop my skill set so that I can advance in my career whether as a partner at a Firm or at an external opportunity?

I think the reality is that many new associates do not come to big law firms thinking that they will stay to try and make partner (or they aren’t sure that is the plan).  It was certainly not my plan when I was a first year associate.  Realistically, lots of law students come to big law to pay off debt and to find a platform for the next step in their career. 

The number one thing I try to convey to junior associates is that even if you don’t have a current intent to try and make partner at your firm, don’t discount the opportunity presented by this job.  Meaning, even if you don’t want to stay long term, bear in mind that the connections you make and people you impress can help set you up for a lifetime of opportunities.  Perhaps this is obvious, but acting like you want to make partner makes you a more promising associate. 

On the one hand, it may turn out you love the job and want to stay long term so you’ve set yourself up in a good position from the start.  Alternatively, the associates who do a good job often are placed in the best in-house positions by firms.  In the past two weeks alone, we recommended an associate (and she received an offer) for a position as counsel at a global pharmaceutical company and a different associate to be the number two securities lawyer at a public company.  Our Firm also has a department focused on helping our associates navigate their career development whether they decide to stay or leave.

When will I feel like I am anticipating needs and grasping what’s next versus just responding to requests? 

The first few years at a firm can be difficult for corporate associates, as law school doesn’t provide you with many concrete experiences that translate to being a transactional attorney.  Having not worked before law school, my experience was no different and the learning curve was steep.  My advice is to use the time when you are present in the room for a strategy discussion or team meeting to be a sponge, and to learn as much as possible so that you are effective when you are called upon to participate as you get more senior.  I also advise associates to find the partners and mid-level/senior associates that will give them the opportunities that they need to obtain those growth opportunities.  In my role as a caddy and mentor, I definitely try to help associates navigate finding out who is best to work for to get their needs met.

How do I advance at the Firm? Why did you decide to stay and make a run for partner?

One thing that has kept me at the job is that I liked the work and really liked the people I was working with.  When I was a junior associate, I focused on the work – getting the experiences I wanted and working with as many different people as possible.  If you are hard-working and dedicated, your work relationship with senior attorneys will morph into a mentoring relationship, which is extremely helpful for development.  Most partners and senior associates are not only willing to invest in talented associates but are actively looking for such associates to help build their practice.  Around the time I was a fourth year associate, I was working a lot with the head of our M&A practice, Barbara Becker, and she started questioning what I planned to do with my life.  At first I found those inquiries unsettling, but eventually realized she was just trying to approach me in a way that wouldn’t be overwhelming.

At first, I didn’t have a great answer to Barbara’s questions, but was extremely lucky (and am very grateful) as she and other partners at Gibson Dunn gave me countless opportunities—between working on high profile deals, getting exposure to clients and counterparties and participating in innumerable pitches, among other things—to not just help guide my career but also to position me with the experience and skill set to make partner. 

What steps should I be taking to position myself for success outside of my billable work?

One piece of advice I give is to say yes – say yes to joining committees, or helping with recruiting, or attending a board meeting or client event.  As an associate with a busy schedule, it can seem tough to add anything else to your plate at times, but it is often those seemingly random endeavors that lead you to discover something you are passionate about or get to know someone (inside or outside the firm) who ends up having a big influence on your career.

As I advanced, and at the urging of Barbara, I started to get more involved and engaged at the firm outside of my billable work.  This can take on many forms: (1) participating on firm committees (as an associate I was a member of the Hiring Committee, Associates’ Committee and Diversity Committee); (2) participating in external organizations such as bar committees, not-for-profit boards, etc.; (3) taking opportunities to meet with partners in other offices; and (4) finding ways to become a resource both to colleagues within the firm and importantly, to clients and potential clients—to find ways to ensure people are comfortable calling you as an expert who is available and able to provide advice or precedent both to internal and external contacts.

The Firm’s Professional Development, Diversity, Pro Bono, Recruiting and Marketing teams have been incredibly helpful to me and I advise associates to use them as resources in addition to your mentors.

 

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