Deferral Letter

Dear Michigan Law grads,

In the Fall of 2008, the economy came close to collapsing.  Law firms were caught by surprise after having already made, in large part, their offers for first-year associate and summer associate positions, and they came up with various ways to cope with having hired more people than they could keep busy.  One such method was the “deferral” offer, where associates were told they could come to the firm, but only after taking some hiatus.  Even those of us working at private law firms for many decades were surprised by this development, but it became a favored solution—eventually affecting, by some counts, about 3700 new attorneys. In most cases, the deferrals were effected randomly; often, they affected an entire entering class of associates.  Sometimes the deferral period was compensated, sometimes not; sometimes new hires were seconded to public-interest organizations, sometimes not. But whatever the particular situation, most of the candidates for associate positions who were deferred in 2008 are now on the cusp of beginning the law firms of their choice.

What follows is a compendium of advice from both senior partners and junior associates at a variety of firms across the country, and some general counsels.  It was the deferred associates who inspired this project, as a number expressed some anxiety to various people around the Law School about making the transition—but now that it’s written, we think the advice has broader utility, for any of our grads about to enter full-time legal employment for the first time or for those returning after some break.  Interestingly, in almost all cases, the advice was universal; although we were talking to people at opposite ends of the law firm hierarchy, they tended to agree across the board.  (Although, unsurprisingly, the senior partners tended to focus a bit more on the business end of the job, while the junior associates tended to have more specific practical advice about how to accomplish the overarching goals.)  And while the advice was gathered mostly from lawyers at big law firms, much of it pertains to almost any legal-practice setting.

But for deferred associates in particular, remember that the firm knows it deferred you.  There will be an orientation and training, and by seriously and actively participating in those opportunities, you should be very well-positioned to hit the ground running.   While you’re waiting, you may want to take practical steps like reading the Wall Street Journal and the business pages of the local newspaper, to get up to speed on the issues that are likely to affect your practice.

And now--some sage advice that we hope will put you in the right frame of mind for taking this next step:

First impressions count: The doctrine of primacy

Treat all staff with respect and professionalism. In addition to being the right thing to do, it is smart. There is a lot of know-how in a law office beyond the lawyers.  Attorneys also care that their staff are happy, and will not want to work with someone who can’t work with the staff and be a member of the team.  (And being on good terms with a partner’s secretary will be important when you need to schedule a call, or get a document signed.)

Likewise, making friends with staff in marketing, library, accounting, IT, HR, and office operations is sometimes just as important as getting to know the partners.

Meet as many attorneys as you can.  Find ways to become “known” without being pushy or obnoxious; associates need to be more than a line item on a report or a memo.  This is achieved both by working with people and by attending social events, including lunches, speakers, and other programs.

Never turn in work you’re not proud of; never turn in work with typos, caption errors, or wrong names.  Unless there is a court- or client-imposed deadline, it is probably better to ask for a short extension than to deliver something that is less than your best work.  This pertains to e-mails as well as more formal work product.   Always spell-check!  Always. 

Don’t overindulge during a work “social” event, in drink, food, or self-talk. 

Say “yes,” “please,” and “thank you” a LOT—upbeat and enthusiastic attitude counts.  (But don’t go overboard into intense-stalker/suck-up territory.)

Don’t compete, overtly or covertly, with other associates. Leave the politics alone, and just do your work well, completely, and on time.  And cover for fellow associates when you are able; developing a reputation as a person who will have someone else’s back will likely redound to your benefit when you need it most.  

Try to avoid bragging or whining about how many hours you bill in a particular week. 

Your fellow associates are a great source for suggestions or advice, particularly if they have worked with a partner or senior associate who is new to you.  Don’t be shy about asking a peer to take a look at your work before submitting it, and offer to do the same for them.

When you’re typing an email, always finalize it before putting anyone’s email address in the “To” box.  You don’t want to accidentally hit “send.”  And when it’s a particularly important email, print it out and read it in hard-copy before sending.

Often, nobody cares when you arrive at work, but to the extent anyone cares, they’ll notice when you leave.  Schedule accordingly.  And of course, this advice is partner-specific; make sure it pertains to whomever you’re working with. 

Learn the turf:  Office culture

Developing a good rapport with the staff is invaluable for helping you learn the dos and don’ts of an office (e.g., who doesn’t want to be interrupted?  Who wants you to come in with your project even if they are talking to someone?).  Ask an assigning attorney’s secretary for the preferred contact method—e-mail, knock on the door, phone call?  Everyone responds differently.

Ask how to bill time.  You’ll often be told not to self-edit your time, but get a sense how much time is expected to be spent by you on a project.  If you are spending a lot more time than was expected, explain why, to help the partners decide how much can be billed.

Firms will often tell associates not to overcommit, in order to avoid missed deadlines or shoddy work product, but they often simultaneously expect associates never to decline work.   Find out where the partners in your firm really stand on this question, and proceed accordingly. 

Just because a senior partner wears jeans doesn’t mean you can too.  And keep a suit in your office if the overall dress-code is casual—you never know when you’ll need it!

Getting the work done

Always get the parameters of the assignment made explicit, including what product is wanted and when it is due. Take notes, and always wrap up by verifying immediate next steps.  If you can’t deliver the assignment on-time, be sure to communicate with the assigning attorney well in advance.  And if you develop a question after getting the assignment, don’t delay getting clarification.

Don’t be afraid to ask questions, but before you ask a partner, make sure you have exhausted other appropriate resources.   Remember that everyone is sensitive to costs, and if your choice is asking a question and getting an answer in a shorter period of time versus researching over a much longer period of time, ask. (And remember what you learn so that you don’t have to ask the same question twice.)

After you turn in a draft, ask for the final version and compare it to your draft; find the differences, and figure out the reasons behind the changes.  Don’t just ask, “Was it okay?”

Remember you are in the real world now and cannot just turn on your computer to Westlaw and Lexis and search to your heart’s content.  The meter is running; you need to be a researcher who is cost-effective and focused.   Look for any opportunity for free Westlaw or Lexis training to avoid charging the firm for particularly challenging assignments. 

Another aspect of the real world is to remember that the product you’re producing ought not to be a law review article.  Work product that is excessively lengthy, focuses on minutiae, and fails to consider the client’s position is not useful.  Make sure that your work has a roadmap so the reader knows where you are heading. Make it an easy read.

Ask for help.  Don’t waste precious time desperately trying to figure out a problem when a quick consultation with a librarian or the computer desk could get you on track.

Use your firm’s resources; don’t reinvent the wheel.  There are likely to be a ton of printed resources, internal online resources, and people who are experts in their field who are available to you.  Always search for previous models or forms put together previously by someone in the firm.  It’s a useful jumping-off point.

Become familiar with the resources your particular practice group relies upon –specialty areas in on-line databases, commonly used treatises, daily email alerts from outside organizations, and the like.

If you’re a litigator, take some time at the outset to skim the rules of civil procedure and local court rules, to refresh your recollection (as it were) about what is covered. 

Immerse yourself in your cases, even if you are only working on one small piece.  Knowing the whole context is helpful and important, not to mention impressive to the supervising attorneys.

Think critically: how can you take your work to the next level? What else can be done to improve the analysis or presentation?  How might your analysis be vulnerable to attack?

Structure is key.  Organize your thoughts before writing; whatever it is you are trying to say will sound better if it is organized. 

Consider the perspective of others:  what questions and issues do the client and partner need to be made aware of?  And what end product will be most helpful and user friendly to the intended reader?

Consider the audience: internal memos are different from letters to clients, which are different from court briefs, and so on.

Be detail-oriented in everything you do.  Doublecheck, then triplecheck.  The simplicity of a task may be directly proportional to how annoyed people will be if you mess it up. And taking great care of the small stuff shows that you are ready for more responsibility.

Come up with an organizational plan for all of your “to-do” tasks. They will pile up when you have multiple matters to work on, and organization will quickly become essential.

Come up with a good system for organizing and saving your e-mails, right from the start.  You will come back to them more frequently than you can imagine.  (One associate counsels “aggressive key-wording, bcc’s to yourself, subfolders, and sorcery.”) And make sure every e-mail you receive is at least acknowledged before the end of the work day. 

Business and career development: Plan for the future

It’s never too early to begin business development practices, and the firm’s marketing professionals can offer some help with identifying where to begin.

Take time off the clock to get to know your clients, their businesses, and their problems.  Understand the pressures they are operating under and the result they are trying to achieve.  

Look for opportunities to learn: attend court on your own; communicate to your mentor about ways you would like to develop, and seek a broad range of assignments. 

Lean about the business side of your firm: practice development plans; cyclical trends in various practices; targets and fees; the bottom-line.  Know the answer to the question, “are you overhead, a profit center, or neutral?” 

Learn what are the strongest practice areas of the firm, and be ready to sell to them potential clients. 

Take on pro bono cases; it’s fulfilling, but it also allows for taking on more responsibility than you would otherwise get, and translates into useful big-picture perspective on billable matters.

Speak up before you run out of work.

Keep in touch with your law school classmates; it can be a great source of referral business.  

Get involved in the community; attend events and find nonprofits that interest you.  It’s the best way to start building a network of connections with shared interests.

Think of partners as clients and try to earn repeat business; doing excellent work on schedule makes it easy for them to “hire” you.  A major criterion for partnership is whether the partners believe an associate is capable of handling a matter independently; an associate who from the beginning tries to see the big picture, going beyond a specific assignment, will take a big step towards meeting that criterion.

Don’t wait for work to come to you; seek it out from partners and senior associates.  And don’t just ask for work: introduce yourself, ask them about their practice, what kind of work they do, what they are currently working on. Get them to talk by asking questions and expressing interest; potential projects usually emerge.

Build relationships with potential mentors who are at different career stages.  If your firm assigns mentors, be sure to spend time with that person. 

When an assignment is complete, talk to the assigning attorney about where it fits into the overall matter, and whether there are other pieces you can pick up. 

 If someone is doing something interesting, ask to accompany them to observe on your time—i.e., without billing for it.  Afterwards, debrief with the attorney. 


We’ll wrap up with a bit of advice from a junior associate:  “I could not have survived my first year in BigLaw without a cleaning service, a great therapist, a hobby to indulge in, and a friend who wasn’t another first-year associate.  Maybe I could have done it without three of the four, but definitely not without the cleaning service.”  In other words, while you’re busy figuring out how to be a great lawyer, remember also to figure out what you need for yourself.  And remember this:  you had a great legal education, and you went to a law school that values community; you have all the tools you need for succeeding. 

Robert E. Hirshon
Frank G. Millard Professor from Practice
Special Counsel on Developments in the Legal Profession

Sarah C. Zearfoss
Assistant Dean and Director of Admissions
Special Counsel for Professional Strategies



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