Lessons I Learned From My First Job

About 8 years ago, I graduated from college and started my first job. Looking back now at that 22-year-old me, I saw how blessed I was to have two very intelligent, nurturing and strong male bosses. The lessons that they have taught me have guided me throughout the years and allowed me to fall back on them whenever my future was unclear.

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Don’t bring a knife to a gunfight.

Be prepared if you’re going to stand up for yourself. Otherwise don’t start a fight. At my first job, I was surrounded by smart, diligent, articulate, hard-working lawyers. A majority of these people graduated from the top 10 law schools in the nation, worked for Federal judges who were nominated by the President of the United States, or worked as prosecutors for years. One day,

I had completed a task for a partner. After I emailed the results, he expressed doubt. Because of his title and solid reputation at the law firm, I naturally questioned the results I had obtained. I triple checked my work then I brought it to my boss’s attention who agreed with my findings. After reassurance from myself and my bos

s, I felt confident enough to point back to this partner that his doubt was doubtful. He agreed and that was the end. Afterwards, my boss came into my office to tell my colleague and I to not bring a knife to a gunfight. He said that this partner is a very intelligent man and he knows he is, so if I planned to stand up to him (weak little me), I must be prepared; hence, do not bring a knife to a gunfight.

Check your work.

When I worked at the law firm, I quickly picked up the unspoken rule which was that you should always check your work, at least twice. “Work” did not just equate to preparing for a brief to be filed at the courthouse. “Work” also equated to any email you’re writing to anyone in the firm or outside of the firm. You best be checking your grammar, spelling and strike any unnecessary editorialization.

Every week, we had to send a firm wide email with all the court calendar deadlines and believe me that calendar was checked by more than three people, cross-referenced numerous times before that shit was sent out. Titles and dates were not just checked for their validity but for their capitalization and punctuation. I was told that it would be very embarrassing and unprofessional to send the e-mail out with any type of mistake. I felt like I was copy writing for a newspaper.

One time, we had to mail over 50 correspondences to 30 law offices. First, the administrative assistant checked that the addresses were correct, then my manager checked them, then he asked me to check them. We did make one mistake (not sure if we had used copy and paste): we typed the letter “O” instead of zero in a zip code.

Making a mistake at a law firm is no good. There can be horrible consequences. For instance, if one of these addresses was incorrect, it meant that the document would be delayed and the firm would have missed a court deadline. Missing deadlines is a no: it is like a fairy tale except it will not have a happy ending.

Be aware of your reputation.

Don’t try to save a few bucks and then ruin your reputation for life. Some people try to take advantage of company policy by working a few minutes late just to be able to get free overtime meals. The accounting department will notice, people will notice and people talk. It takes years to build a good reputation but just a few minutes to ruin it. Don’t ruin yours.

Look presentable.

No, this is not about “dress for the job you want, not the job you have,” but to look professional and presentable at all times. So even if someone vomited on your at work or you forgot to bring an umbrella during Hurricane Pineapple, you must undo the damage.

Have a jacket, an extra shirt and tie at your office. You never know who you will have to meet while at work. Although we already come into work dressed in pants and dress shirts, boss told us that back in the days he would tell the associates to have an extra set of everything at their office. This was of course, before he met me, the perfect employee. His reasoning being that you might spill coffee on yourself and end up having to go to court and appear in front of a judge. You do not want to look sloppy in front of a judge.

Bonus lesson: I was advised not to put together any legal documents while having any type of liquid around. I have accidentally spilled coffee on my desk, like once in my life. And yes, that one time happened to be the time that I was preparing important documents. Life throws curve balls at you.

Technology can fail on you.

Have hard copies ready even if an electronic copy exists. For instance, every judge has a set of rules to follow and those rules live on the court’s website. Before we put together any legal documents, we would check the court’s website to see if any rules have changed. I discovered that we also had a file cabinet where my boss had already printed out hard copies of these rules. Boss explained that in case the internet was down or the court’s website was down, we would at least have a hard copy to reference to.

Lastly, I would like to end with what I learned about myself from my first job.

I learned that I disliked:

  • being serious, all the time
  • not being able to dress casually
  • only being able to make appropriate jokes
  • having to hide my weirdness

I felt inhibited from being myself- a silly, goofy and sarcastically inappropriate girl. I also wanted to follow my gut and my dream, at the time, which was to work in the media industry. But how was I going to do that with a job experience of working at a law firm, and an internship experience of, working at another law firm?

I didn’t realize it at the time but hard work and people had helped me reach my goal. It was opportunity meeting preparation and perseverance.

What was the best advice you got from your first job? What was the worst advice you got from your first job?

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