FROM LAW SCHOOL TO LAW PRACTICE: THE NEW ASSOCIATE’S GUIDE, by Suzanne B. O’Neill and Catherine Gerhauser Sparkman, with Ronald L. Jones, Contributing Author. Philadelphia, PA: ALI-ABA, 3rd ed., 2008. 425 pp. Paper $69.99. ISBN 9780831800093.
Reviewed by Seth M. Gilmore, Stanford Law School, Stanford University.
How much is being a lawyer like being a law student? How similar is an associateship to other professional employment? In From Law School to Law Practice: The New Associate’s Guide, Suzanne B. O’Neill, Catherine Gerhauser Sparkman and Ronald L. Jones address these questions and others as they offer guidance to newly-minted attorneys seeking to bridge the gap between the academic and professional arena. The authors offer a host of practical advice to new attorneys, both those employed by firms, and those working as in-house counsel in corporate legal departments. The book is perhaps strongest when dispensing advice specifically geared towards the everyday requirements of the legal profession. However, there is also a significant amount of “common sense” guidance that would be broadly applicable to most professional environments. It’s here that the authors tend to get bogged down in discussions of rather mundane commonalities. These passages, while perhaps of marginal value to readers who have not previously been successfully entrusted with basic workplace responsibility, will merit little more than a casual glance for most of the book’s intended audience.
O’Neill, Sparkman and Jones organize the volume around the central theme of “expectations”-both of the new attorney’s clients and supervisors, and ultimately, of the new attorney him or herself. Part I one of the book, entitled “Expectations of the Client”, takes a detailed look at what consumers of law firm services expect, not only from new associates, but from the partners who have overall responsibility for their matters, and, more holistically, from attorneys in general. Part II, “Expectations of Supervising Attorneys” provides comprehensive guidance about what new associates should be prepared to provide for their superiors, not just from a standpoint of legal research, writing and advocacy, but as professionals working in a complex, time-sensitive environment. In Part III of the book, the authors shift focus to “Expectations Within a Corporate Legal Department and of the Corporate Client”, providing insight into the requirements new attorneys who are working as in-house counsel should anticipate. Here the authors outline not only the specific expectations of clients and supervisors for junior attorneys working in-house, but also take an entire chapter to clearly delineate the specific differences between those expectations and the ones levied on associates working for large law firms. The book’s final section “Self-Expectations and Career Developments: Building a Bridge to Future Success”, is a comprehensive discussion of how a new attorney might best approach the task of planning and executing a successful tenure in the legal field, both in regard to employment at a firm or as an in-house counsel. Here, the authors shift their organizational paradigm slightly. The “expectation” motif that was used to order the three previous parts of the book becomes one of “opportunities” when future options for in-house corporate attorneys are treated.
The book’s organization is logical, efficient and practical. Readers who wish to focus solely on specific advice for their chosen position (i.e. law firm associate or in-house counsel) are provided organizational guideposts that clearly indicate which sections of the text are geared towards their specific responsibilities. However, with pervasive requirements for professional interaction between the two groups, and the common occurrence of associates transitioning to in-house work, readers will likely find that even those sections geared toward “the other side” will be of interest. Similarly, the authors’ choice to structure the book around the theme of “expectations” proves useful to the reader. For new employees, the foremost question is often “what specifically will be required of me?” While expectations for new attorneys will inevitably vary to some degree from firm to firm and company to company, the book’s focus on this central concern seems a judicious one.
As noted above, one of the areas in which the book struggles is in the tension between its focus on real-world, practical advice, and its dispensing of more vague, amorphous guidance with broad applicability to any professional setting. This is highlighted from the outset of Part I, in which the foundational principles of legal practice as the authors see them are laid out. They discuss in some detail the importance of not making assumptions, both about client expectations and in regards to the practice of law as whole, as well as the criticality of protecting reputations and relationships, and knowing your firm’s client base and mission. While these concepts are certainly crucial to any successful legal practice, they are certainly not unique to legal practice. This balancing act between explaining critical elements of legal work and reiterating what could at times be considered “common professional knowledge” continues throughout the book: at times the authors are successful at the task, at others they are not.
Where they are more conclusively successful is in the use of practical examples to flesh out the generalized expectations around which the text is organized. Throughout the book, the authors follow up explanations of a client or supervisor expectation (for example “Expectation Number 13: Understand the Client’s Business”), with a framework of real-world examples that give substance and context to the principles proposed in the section. These come in two primary forms.
First, immediately following the generalized guidance regarding the expectation, the authors frequently insert a “Consider” section. Here, they sketch out a brief case study of a legal problem that a new attorney might confront in practice, and the action that he or she might take in response. Followed by this is a brief synopsis of the “Actual Result” and either “What went right?” or “What went wrong?” (or sometimes both), with the occasional additional of other sections, such as “What alternatives would you develop?” or similar prompts.
Second, at the conclusion of most of the expectation sections, the authors provide a sidebar entitled “Applying This Expectation to Your Responsibilities”. In these sections, they provide practical advice about how to put the more theoretical principles expressed in the proceeding section into practice, both in terms of questions practicing attorneys should ask themselves while working on a project, and in regard to specific guidance for concrete measures that should be taken to ensure successful results. Following their explanation of Expectation Number 13, for instance, the authors offer such guidance as “Acquire practical knowledge about . . . [i]ndustry trends affective client objectives . . and [p]roblems particular to that industry” and “[b]ecome familiar with industry associations and trade journals.” With specific, practical guidance like this, they are more successful at the delicate task of providing guidance that might be broadly applicable across many different fields and considered to some extent to be “common knowledge” without coming off as patronizing to their audience.
Another strength of the book is its willingness to frankly address weaknesses of the legal profession as a whole, specifically in terms of common traps and pitfalls for new attorneys to avoid. Thus, the authors candidly treat such ethical and client-focused requirements as “discussing when is it more cost-effective not to pursue legalistic solution”. As well, they offer guidance that parallels what they see as common weaknesses in the profession. In one section, for example, stressing how important it is that new attorneys remember at all times that lawyering does not occur in a vacuum-that no matter how elegant or attractive a legal solution might be, if it’s not workable or practical from a business perspective, then it’s simply not a “solution”. For new attorneys who have been accustomed to the rarefied air of academia, such practical reminders of the bottom line that underlies every law firm or corporate in-house legal department can be invaluable.
As noted above, the book’s final section is unique in that it focuses not on the expectations of others for the new associate, but rather on the expectations (or “opportunities”) that new attorneys should have or pursue for themselves. This section is particularly useful in that it provides guidance that might otherwise be hard to come by. Whether or not he or she is forewarned and forearmed with effective guidance prior to beginning a project, a new attorney can expect at some point to receive direct and specific instructions regarding client and supervision expectations. However, when faced with what expectations they should have for themselves, lawyers fresh out of law school can be faced with an amorphous array of possibilities, with little or no concrete, structured guidance in place, or perhaps even necessarily available. Although ultimately the book is limited in the amount of personalized guidance it can provide, the lengthy array of opportunities it notes are a useful jumping off point, and will likely provide young attorneys a means by which to start thinking about how they might like to shape their careers.
The book is not without the occasional blemish. The aforementioned struggle between generally useful and perhaps overbroad advice, a somewhat dry and clinical tone, and an exclusive focus on private firm and in-house work all prevent the authors’ work from being an unqualified success. Ultimately, however, they have collected and usefully organized a substantial volume of useful, reasonable advice that will serve any new associate well as they take the first steps in their professional legal career.