I came across a Quora post asking what junior associates actually do. I was a litigation associate at a Big Law firm for almost three years before leaving to start my own startup. While the specifics vary based on the firm, I think my experience is fairly typical for many junior associates at Big Law firms.
As a junior associate, you are put on several different matters, the exact number depending on the busyness of your practice group. The goal is to be placed on matters where you can (1) consistently bill and (2) be responsible for substantive work under patient partners and senior associates. Much of this is out of your control, but this is the ideal scenario.
Research and Writing
I was primarily tasked with completing research for senior associates and partners. Whether it was finding a few cases on a discrete point of law or gathering many cases to develop a legal argument in a brief, I became intimately familiar with Lexis. In fact, you begin developing your research skills in law school and upon starting at your firm, you can leverage these skills to immediately contribute to your team.
I would often use my research to write memos—both to file and to clients.
It’s important to remember that if you’re writing to clients, don’t just dump doctrine into the memo. This same idea is applicable if you’re a transactional attorney offering advice on, say, an M&A transaction. Commerciality is a huge deal: you’re trying to offer advice to solve clients’ real-world problems, rather than engage in a theoretical legal exercise.
Besides memos, junior litigators often contribute to briefs. I would sometimes write the first drafts of briefs myself, but I would more often contribute to discrete sections of briefs. Here, your law school training is valuable—think CREAC—but you gain more experience by simply doing. The learning curve is likely steeper for drafting documents on the transactional side (as you don’t get this experience in law school). That said, I can’t speak from personal experience.
In addition to these research and writing tasks, you’ll likely complete document review (or, if you’re a transactional attorney, due diligence). Having said that, more of these assignments are being farmed out to contract attorneys in order to cut costs for clients.
Surprisingly, a good amount of my time was spent answering emails or attending conference calls. Sending out a concise, comprehensive email can be pretty tricky, so you have to be patient and ensure that you are delivering complete and accurate advice before clicking send.
Finally, besides this work, you may have other responsibilities at your firm. Think committee roles or visiting law schools to recruit the next batch of first-year associates. There are other non-billable responsibilities like writing articles, but you should do everything you can to minimize these tasks and maximize your billable work.
While these are some of the general tasks, succeeding at them is another story. I published another essay on how to succeed as a first-year Big Law associate, which you can find here.