Lessons Learned from my First Year as an Associate: “Art is Long, Life is Brief”


So, I did it. I finished law school. I passed the bar exams. I found an articling position. I finished my articles. I was called to the bar. I got hired as an associate. Now it’s all smooth sailing from here, right?

Not quite.

The ancient Greek philosopher, Hippocrates, famously wrote, “art is long, life is brief.” Hippocrates, a medical doctor, teacher, and writer, is often credited with establishing medicine as a profession. What he meant was that in medicine, like in most professions, you are given a finite period of time to master a seemingly infinite set of skills.  Law, of course, is no exception to this conundrum. In addition to mastering the “art” of legal practice, lawyers are expected to be familiar with the nuances of their practice area while remaining up to speed on ever-changing legal trends. Considering this, it’s no wonder why even the best lawyers haven’t always got all the answers. So what can a first year associate really be expected to know?

The short answer is: not much. But therein lies the rub.

I am currently seven months into my career as a lawyer. While I find the work I do extremely interesting and rewarding, I still encounter my fair share of “I’ve had it!” moments. Opening your first file, arguing your first contested motion, conducting your first Examination for Discovery – everything you do has its own unique set of challenges.

While I cannot provide an exhaustive list of advice here, the following are a few lessons I learned during my first year in practice:

(1) Know your law firm

These days, it is not uncommon to article at one firm and become an associate at another. But no two firms are the same. Cultural differences aside, law firms have drastically different practices when it comes to drafting court documents, working with other lawyers, or interacting with clients.

Build a repertoire of firm-specific legal precedents early on. Observe legal proceedings of other lawyers at your firm as often as you can. Ask practice-specific questions. Assume nothing. Be prepared to abandon old habits wherever necessary.

(2) Keep it short and sweet

There’s a temptation among new lawyers (myself included) to “kitchen sink” what they draft. The truth is, this impresses no one. In fact, it can be downright annoying at times (the other lawyers at my firm will probably read this and laugh).

Whatever you draft – be it pleadings, motion records, research memos, or even inter-office correspondence – always ask three basic questions before including a detail or fact:

  1. Is it relevant to the question at hand?
  2. Is it necessary that I include it? (can I adequately answer the question without it?)
  3. Is it redundant with something I have already noted?

(3) Network with other new calls

Having access to senior counsel to answer questions is invaluable. But sometimes the most frank and timely advice can come from members of your own year of call. If you are struggling with something, the chances are good that new calls in your practice area have struggled with that very same thing. Stay connected with your classmates. Always be congenial. Remember to offer a helping hand to a colleague in need.

If you are an articling student or new call with questions or stories about your first year out, feel free to drop me a line at