Five Things New Grads Must Know About the Secret Language of 1st Job Bosses

Female lawyer working in office

In late August of 1981, when I started as a new associate at Big Law Firm, I did not realize that the senior lawyers at the firm, the Big Bosses who held my legal career in their hands, the ones who would supervise me and assign me work, spoke, like Big Bosses in businesses everywhere, in their Very Own Secret Language.

If you are soon to begin or just starting a new job as a recent graduate of college or other temple of higher learning, you may not be familiar with this Secret Language either.  And while to the uninitiated it may sound as if your new Big Bosses are actually speaking in English, and in fact may use many common English words, what they say to you does not mean what you might think it does.

What you Really Need if you are to Succeed in your First Job as a New Grad is a Dictionary of Big Boss Language.

The earlier in your career, you can correctly interpret what is being said to you by a Big Boss, the better. Here is a handy Guide to get you started on the path to office life success.

1. Your First Assignment.

After a few day of orientation as a young associate, you receive an email from Mr. Important Partner – “When you have a minute, can you please stop by my office?”

Possible Interpretation:

It is o.k. to finish your coffee, and then walk down the hall to the office of Mr. Important Partner to see what he wants.

Actual Big Boss Translation:

Get up from your chair immediately and walk as fast as you can to the office of Mr. Important Partner. Your idea of “when you have a minute” has changed forever.

2. Description of the Project.

Mr. Important Partner describes the research he needs you to do, saying “This shouldn’t take you long.”

Possible Interpretation:

This is a straightforward assignment that you should be able to complete in a reasonable amount of time.

Actual Big Boss Translation:

I have just assigned you a ridiculously complex research project, similar to the kind I used to whip out in record time when I was a young associate. You better do the same if you want a future here at “Oppressed, Outstanding and Overworked.”  No pressure.

3. How Long Will it Take you to Complete the Project.

The next day, Ms. New Partner calls you in to her office, asks you to look into a question for one of her clients, and tells you “Don’t spend too much time on this.”

Possible Interpretation:

This project is not that important.

Actual Big Boss Translation:

This project is critically important but my key client always questions the amount of hours he gets billed for associate research. So you must prepare an acutely insightful analysis in response to my client’s question in the shortest possible time. Hint: Do not come back and tell me it took you six hours, I can only bill the client two hours for your work. Got it?

4. Why your New Office is Next Door to the Office of a Big Boss.

You have been assigned a Tiny Office which happens to be next door to the Very Large Corner Office of Mr. Very Senior Partner who likes to Talk Very Loudly on his speaker phone to his Very Important Clients. One afternoon you overhear him saying to a Very Important Client – “Jack, the law in this area is evolving. You make a very interesting point; let me get back to you on this.”

Possible Interpretation:

Mr. Very Senior Partner is an expert in his area of legal specialty, recognizes changing legal trends and enjoys challenging analyses.

Actual Big Boss Translation:

I have no f-ing clue what you are talking about, Mr. Very Important Client. I have not done my own legal research in years. But sitting in the Tiny Office right next to mine is a Very Young Lawyer whose name I do not know but who is going to research your absurdly difficult question as soon as possible for me so I can get back to you and take full credit for the answer.

You wait five seconds, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, as you hear Mr. Very Senior Partner rise out of his office chair, leave his office, and then duck his head into yours and say -“uh (can’t recall your name, if he ever knew it), can you step into my office?”

5. Your Completed Project is Rarely Complete.

In your second week at Big Law Firm, with a mix of pride and trepidation, you email your first research memo to Ms. Eager Beaver I-Better-Make-Partner for her review. A few hours later, she emails you back, “I only have a few edits on your Memo. Please come by to discuss.”

Possible Interpretation:

Wow, she liked my Memo. She only made a few changes. I must be getting this Big Law Firm thing right!

Actual Big Boss Translation:

You promptly walk to her office (see lesson learned in #1 above) and she hands you back a mark-up of your draft Memo.

You see that your carefully written memo is covered in blue ink, cross-outs, x’s, deletions and so many other edits so that you can barely make out the only two sentences remaining from your original draft.  She wants it completely re-written. And it is 5 p.m. on Friday afternoon, and oh, by the way, she needs it revised to send out to the client tonight.

So if in the first few weeks of your new job, a partner, director or senior manager, your new Big Boss, stops you in the hall, and asks you to drop by her office so she can tell you about an exciting new project you will be working on, you can refer back to this helpful guide. And with any luck, in a decade or so, you will become a Big Boss yourself. If you have any new entries to add to the Secret Language Dictionary, do let me know.

*and good luck at your new job!










Filed under 1st Job, Careers, Communications, Law firm life, Lawyers, New Grad

5 responses to “Five Things New Grads Must Know About the Secret Language of 1st Job Bosses

  1. Alice Agatston

    Dear Nancy,

    I’m just glad that you managed to hold onto your spiritual life-preserver since 1981! Not all are able to keep their sense of perspective, humor, and drive to tell truth through the BIG egos endurance test.

    Love, Alice

    Liked by 1 person

  2. what a fun post. What’s true about law firm partners is true of magazine editors [or was, there are so few of them around anymore], corporate CEOs and department heads, doctors and just about every work place. It just takes a while to figure out the word puzzle.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Liv

    You hit them all. And they’re applicable to all sorts of jobs…not just law firms!


  4. Yes, big business is like this, too. Fun laugh and not only did I tweet but send to hubby (law firm).


  5. The whole time I was reading this I was relating it to my own work environment. Though not a lawyer, the bottom line is, a boss, is a boss, is a boss.


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