A Letter to My Younger Self

By Chazle’ N. Woodley

Dear New Associate,

You finished law school, studied for the bar exam, passed the bar exam, and now you’re about to embark on your journey as an attorney!

Congratulations! You did it, and now you’re about to engage in doing the work of a real lawyer. You’re probably feeling a flood of emotions: excited, eager, nervous, curious, and maybe even worried about what’s to come.

As an attorney who recently wrapped up my first year of practice, I am eager to share what I’ve learned in my first year as an associate in the hopes that it will alleviate stress and help you feel prepared for what’s to come.

1. When you get your first assignment from a partner, take notes.

Go into the meeting with a notepad and be prepared to ask plenty of questions:

  • When would you like this assignment completed?
  • Are there any “go-bys” or guides you’d like me to follow?
  • If research is involved, what jurisdiction applies?
  • Do you prefer one or two spaces after each period?
  • How do you prefer me to send you the draft for your review?

After you finish looking over your notes, make sure you can repeat back to the partner what they have asked you to do and make sure you have a grasp on what the legal issue is and what they want you to tackle. If you’re unsure, ask for clarity. Asking questions does not mean you’re unintelligent, nor does it mean you’re incompetent. Asking questions sets you up for success because it ensures you have a clear plan for how to complete the assignment.

2. Get a mentor within and outside of your firm.

Your internal mentor will be an integral part of learning the ins and outs of the firm as well as the practice of law. A good mentor will answer the “baby lawyer” questions you may feel embarrassed to ask, provide writing tips, and check in on your overall wellness to make sure you’re doing well holistically as you transition into practice. A mentor outside of the firm is a great resource for asking those questions you may not feel comfortable asking your internal mentor due to their relationship to the firm. They can also give you a higher-level view of where you are in your journey and help you set goals for your current position and your future.

3. Don’t be discouraged when you get edits and revisions to your writing assignments.

The edits are not a reflection of who you are as a person, nor are they an indication of your competence. You deserve to be where you are, and you are capable of achieving every task put before you. The best attorneys are constantly improving in their writing. So use every edit and every revision as a way to improve. Add it to your toolkit and continue to get better. With each edit and revision, you’re becoming a stronger writer and an even better attorney.

4. Get out of your office.

Though it may be tempting to stay hidden in your office all day with your head down doing great work, please come up for air. In a literal sense, one way to get out of your office is to walk around the office to stretch your legs and give your eyes a break from the computer screen. Drink water, and not just cups of coffee all day. Stay hydrated. You will perform your best work when you are healthy. In addition to physically getting up and out of your office, don’t forget to attend your county bar association lunches, workshops and seminars. At these events, you’ll be able to meet other attorneys in your area, and you’ll expand your network. There’s usually great food at these events too, so it’s a win-win!

5. Remember that you are your own brand.

How you present yourself when you walk into a room, how you present in court, how you interact with other attorneys . . . it all matters. It defines who you are as an attorney, and it defines your brand. Do you want to be known as the attorney who’s kind and who maintains integrity at all times, or the attorney who loses their temper and who is always rude towards opposing counsel in an effort to “advocate” for their client? It all matters. Represent yourself well, and remember that first impressions are real and hard to erase.

6. Don’t make self-care a buzzword or cliché.

Take care of yourself because you can’t pour from an empty glass. Make time to do what brings you joy and makes you relaxed. If you want to receive professional insight and help on how to navigate your new journey as an attorney, and want to talk to someone who is unbiased, I highly recommend going to a therapist. I’m a Christian, so I rely heavily on my faith, and I love to recommend Jesus and therapy.

If you hear nothing else I’ve shared with you, please hear this: you are capable, competent, and ready to do what’s in front of you. You won’t know the answer to every question because it’s the practice of law. But as I told my fellow classmates in my commencement day speech, what you don’t know, you can research. You have the tools to succeed and you have the stamina. Know that you were called into this profession for a purpose. I’m rooting for you and I’m looking forward to seeing all that you accomplish.

On this journey with you,

Chazle’ N. Woodley