Good Things to Know Before Starting a New Job
July 6, 2009 10:43 AM   Subscribe

NewJobFilter: What are the kinds of things you like to know (or wish you had known) before starting a new job? All walks of life welcome, though I'm especially interested in the experiences of folks at law firms.

I'm a litigator in my early 30s. I was laid off for economic reasons from a large, national law firm a few months ago (my first and only job since graduating from law school in 2006). Anyhow, I was lucky enough to find a new job at a much smaller (~20 attorney) firm that specializes in patent litigation, which is what I had been doing before. I start in ten days. Both my old job and new job are in NYC.

So, whether generically or law-firm specific, what sorts of things do you find helpful to know about a new workplace before (or soon after) you start? This includes both the kinds of things you might specifically ask someone, as well as the sort of stuff best picked up through observation rather than direct questioning. Thanks very much.
posted by Conrad Cornelius o'Donald o'Dell to Work & Money (16 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
Do your best to shut up for the first month and get the lay of the land. If you've only had one job then you'll have a bunch of assumptions about power dynamics and workplace structure from your previous job that may not apply to your new job. Also there will almost certainly be a different office culture. So spend some time observing it.
posted by GuyZero at 10:49 AM on July 6, 2009 [1 favorite]

First impressions are important. Be sure yours is of someone who is (though I'm sure you are) dependable, competent, thorough, friendly, fair, and kind. --Also, I wish someone had told me early on to not accept a job where two or more people are hired for the same position at the same time, if you can help it. Inevitably, you will always be compared.
posted by heather-b at 11:07 AM on July 6, 2009 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Totally practical (but usually unwritten!) work-a-day things to avoid little conflicts and simmering discontent, like:

• What's the policy on kitchen/microwave/fridge cleaning? When's my turn to do X job?
• How is work distributed between colleagues?
• What's the workplace culture about music at your desk?
• Is there a tradition of doing X after work on Fridays/over weekends?
posted by mdonley at 11:10 AM on July 6, 2009 [2 favorites]

Best answer: If you can, ask someone about the corporate culture. My first day, I asked the person training me about the culture--did people eat at their desks or go out, whether our department preferred phone calls or emails for quick matters, etc--and I got some really valuable advice that I still appreciate having now (three years later). Only ask someone you feel you can trust, because this can also start up a gossip mill pretty quickly if you ask the wrong person and they give you all sorts of dirt on people that you don't need to know (especially so early).

Other than that, I agree with GuyZero--watch and learn for a while before jumping in with suggestions. And take copious notes for the first three weeks.
posted by peanut_mcgillicuty at 11:15 AM on July 6, 2009 [2 favorites]

A few things that have served me well in starting new jobs:

1. You're not at your old place any more. GuyZero touches on this, but it's also important to remember that you shouldn't start every story at your new job with "Well, at my last place, we did X". Use the experiences you had at your last place, but don't wallow in them.

2. Listen more than you talk at first. At a small place (I'm not a lawyer, but I've worked at lots of small companies), everything you do gets magnified and amplified - and remembered; a seemingly offhand remark could live with you for a loooooong time.

And always assume that everything you do, say, and be will be seen and heard more than it would at a big place - there's a lot less white noise when there's only 20 people in the office.

Good luck!
posted by pdb at 11:16 AM on July 6, 2009 [1 favorite]

I will throw this out there as someone in an administrative support position:

* if there are admin assistants that will work for you or your department, be kind, courteous and respectful to them.

* learn from them. They are likely to know a ton more than you think about the particulars of your job and can really save your butt by calling something to your attention that you had missed or reminding you of some task that you had meant to get to a month ago but hadn't yet.
posted by zizzle at 11:36 AM on July 6, 2009 [1 favorite]

I think one of the most important things is that even though you think you know, you have no clue - about anything. So, be a sponge. Soak up everything from how letters are supposed to be formatted to how someone likes their research memos drafted.

Best of luck!
posted by Leezie at 11:39 AM on July 6, 2009 [1 favorite]

Don't ever talk about how things were done at your old workplace. Embrace the new place and the way people do things there. Be friendly with everybody.
posted by anniecat at 11:52 AM on July 6, 2009

Details about the workplace culture. I'm not really sure how one finds these things out beforehand, but the last time I changed jobs, had I known that I would be the oldest person at my new job, and that I would be working in a very immature, frat-boyish atmosphere, I may not have taken it.

On the other hand, I really like the work, so that may not have mattered. But if I'd been given (or gotten through observation) a heads-up that I would OMG FEEL SO OLD beforehand, it might have been less of a shock :)
posted by chez shoes at 12:49 PM on July 6, 2009

Best answer: It's always good to ask at a new firm what the billing practices are. For example, in large firms it's acceptable to bill for travel time at small firms it's generally not. Do they bill in .1 of an hour? What's the policy on billing for legal research? Make sure you get a good feel of what the billing expectations are (1800 hours a year, etc.). And it's been my experience that firms are really particular about how to describe the time you spent on a project. This has been different at every firm I worked for. Just to give you one example, the last firm I worked for they wanted us to bill for inter-office conferences. At this firm, they don't like that as a description so instead I describe the time as analyzing a problem.
posted by bananafish at 12:51 PM on July 6, 2009

Details about the company's stability and their business ethics. Are they in financial trouble? Do they rip people off on a daily basis? If the answer to either of those questions is "yes", I'm not working for them no matter how attractive their offer looks - they have neither the capacity nor the intention to deliver on it.
posted by Lolie at 12:52 PM on July 6, 2009

I'll second the bit about being nice to your administrative assistant. As someone who worked (and hopes to work again) in that position, how an attorney treated support staff swiftly became no secret to any support staff (extending to paralegals, file clerks, etc.), and it was often found to contribute to their reputation amongst their fellow attorneys being positive or negative.
posted by WCityMike at 4:11 PM on July 6, 2009

New Jobs Suck. Jot that phrase down and memorize it because it's the truth. New Jobs Suck. Everything you liked about your old job is different. Everything that made you feel comfortable has changed. You're starting from square one on just about every front. The people are different, the situation is different, the way of doing even simple mundane things like getting a cup of coffee in the break room is different.

New jobs suck.

Ah, but the good news is that if you understand this truism, you can use it to your advantage by anticipating the frustration, and thus, being prepared for it.

As time passes, different becomes the norm, and the job that sucked because everything was so different and weird (New Jobs Suck) will instead become whatever you make of it. It might even become fantastic!
posted by 2oh1 at 7:14 PM on July 6, 2009

Seconding what zizzle and WCityMike said. Thirding. Nthing. You get my point.
Be very nice to the secretaries - not just your secretary, all of them. Or if you think that as a 3rd-year associate you are more valuable than the partner's secretary who has been there'll find out very quickly how wrong you are.
Also - can you change the toner in the printer? unjam that 200-page document? Do you know how to send an urgent courier when all the support staff have left? Account numbers, who to call,etc? learn NOW - much better than trying to do so at 2 am when you have your first emergency.
posted by MessageInABottle at 5:01 AM on July 7, 2009

Response by poster: I always made it a priority to be exceedingly kind to support staff at my prior job (before that, I was support staff myself). And fortunately, I am also able to do all of the things MessageInABottle describes.
posted by Conrad Cornelius o'Donald o'Dell at 10:36 AM on July 7, 2009

Best answer: This isn't law-specific, but things that I wish I had known before taking my job:

- The commute. How long it would be, on average, day after day, rather than the few times I drove it at the beginning, when it was new and didn't seem as onerous (and traffic was uncommonly light).

- Average type of project I would be working on. Perhaps this is a truism for most people, that what they actually work on day-to-day is tedious and dull, interspersed only occasionally with exciting, challenging projects. I wish I had known what a tiny part of my skillset I'd actually be utilizing on a daily basis, and how long it would take me to grow restless and bored with that. I should have asked more probing questions about the precise nature of the work.

- Direction and infrastructure of the company. Of course it was pitched to me as being great, full of potential, moving full speed ahead, top of its game, etc. etc. I was wary, but it was hyped so much that I couldn't help feeling infected with a little optimism myself. I would be growing with them! In a few years, I'd make more progress here than I would at some older, established company, where I'd have to fight my way up from the very bottom! In reality, seeing the daily operations disabused me of this optimism, and I soon realized there was little opportunity for growth for me.

- Did I mention the commute?
posted by leahzero at 5:32 AM on July 8, 2009 [1 favorite]

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