How do you learn to be an associate?

Excellent lawyer stock photo.

Dear reader,

I had the chance to chat recently with an outstanding former student who is starting work as an associate at a law firm.  This student described some of the challenges that I remember from my own time as an associate.  With the benefit of hindsight, I shared some thoughts on strategies that I wish I had employed myself (but didn’t).  I’m going to repeat that here along with some wisdom shared by former students.

This discussion may also be relevant in light of the widely circulated resignation memo of one associate who found it impossible to meet the demands of being both an associate and a parent/human being:

Above the law

Please take all of this with a grain of salt.  Everything depends on context, firm culture, and individual personalities.  That being said, here are some recurring issues and suggestions for how to anticipate and handle them:

Challenge:

Multiple partners and senior associates are loading you up with projects; none of them is aware of the assignments others are giving you.

Suggestion:

You may have learned some things about managing your time in law school, but law practice makes much more extreme demands on this skill.  In addition, you are not just managing time—you are managing expectations and you are managing people.  People who have power over you and whom you do not want to disappoint.

The power dynamic in law firms can make it very difficult to set boundaries or turn down work.  But if you say “yes” to everything, this will lead to disaster.  It is critical that you develop strategies for being assertive while still signaling that you are enthusiastic and eager to help.  Being enthusiastic does not mean you have to be a pushover.

I strongly recommend blocking out time in your calendar for every project that you are assigned.  Slightly overestimate the time a project will take (especially because you will not be very good at estimating how long a project will take when you first start practicing).  In connection with this, young associates tend to worry excessively about taking too much time on projects.  Worry about doing a good and thorough job.  If you take too much time, the billing partner can write it off and if they perceive it as a problem, they will tell you.

Use your calendar to review your available time before accepting new assignments.  Saying “I have a deadline that I need to meet by Tuesday, but I should be able to begin working on your assignment after that” is probably better than saying “I don’t have time” or “I have to prioritize Partner X’s project right now.”  But even both of these options are better than saying “yes” when you won’t have time to do a good job.

This way you are informing other attorneys about your workload in an objective, assertive way, without dropping names or coming off as someone who doesn’t work hard.

Also anticipate that once you have met the first deadline for a partner on a project, she or he may expect you to continue working on other projects in the matter right away.  Some partners are good at expressing these expectations while others are not.

For this reason, every time you accept an assignment, be sure to get a firm deadline from the assigning attorney, an estimate of how many hours they think it should take (but don’t feel bound by this—more senior attorneys often underestimate the complexity of projects—but knowing their estimate gives you a guideline for checking in), and whether they anticipate that you will continue to work on the matter after this particular project.

Challenge:

Different partners/senior associates have very different expectations in terms of what they want from your work product.

Suggestion:

Develop a checklist that you go through whenever accepting an assignment.  Obviously, don’t be annoying or heavy-handed about it, but collect a set of the questions you most frequently find yourself asking about the nature and format of an assignment, and make sure you are clear about what you are doing before you start.

DON’T ASSUME.  Don’t ever, ever assume.  I really wish someone had told me that.

You know what I’m getting at here.

Challenge:

You are assigned a project you have no idea how to complete.

Suggestion:

Do not “fake it till you make it”!  Young associates often assume they are supposed to know more than they do, and more senior partners make the same mistakes assessing the knowledge and experience level of junior associates.  Add to this the fact that you may worry about being seen as incompetent if you admit to not knowing how to complete an assignment, and it’s easy to just shut yourself in your office and try to figure it out on your own.

One way to handle this is to say something like, “I’m really excited to work on this project.  This will be the first time I have drafted interrogatories—could you tell me the basics of your approach and maybe provide me with a sample or two?”

You may get pushback for asking questions.  It is still better to persist than to hand in work that does not meet the assigning attorney’s expectations.  Also, along these lines, just as your professors vastly preferred if you prepared thoughtful questions before meeting with them, don’t ask the assigning attorney everything that pops into your mind in your initial meeting.  Get a sense of the assignment, create a list of thoughtful questions (excluding anything you can actually figure out on your own), and schedule a follow-up meeting.

Challenge:

Directions from a more senior attorney conflict with your instincts—about the law, about strategy, or about ethics.

Suggestion:

It is an unfortunate truth of many hierarchical environments, including law firms, that the people at the lower end of the hierarchy are expected to conform without pushing back or asking questions.  In this way, law practice can at times mimic one of the most difficult dynamics of law school—forcing you to abandon your instincts and intuition in the service of what is supposed to be a higher logic.

Don’t stop listening to your gut.  Don’t reflexively follow your gut, but pay attention to it and investigate any rumblings.

Overall:

These tips are not just about preserving your sanity, but also preserving your ability to do your best work.  Being overwhelmed and distracted leads poor work product, poor client service, and yes, unfortunately, ethical lapses.  Many of us became lawyers because we were good at meeting expectations and following directions.  But being a practicing attorney entails a level individual responsibility for your workload and ethical commitments that you likely have not encountered before.  Both of these aspects of your practice will be challenged at some point in time, and perhaps multiple times.  For some of us who have always been “good students,” becoming an attorney involves developing a sort of interpersonal assertiveness and self-direction that may be unfamiliar.  My best advice is to appreciate and embrace the challenge, with open eyes, courage, and integrity.

I welcome your thoughts, disagreements, and commentary.

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One response to “How do you learn to be an associate?

  1. To continue on Professor Pollvogt’s thought process, here, I am an associate in private practice since January 2011. In the course of my first year, alone, I found myself embroiled in over one dozen separate and distinct practice areas, and I found myself in court over 200 times January – December 2011. It sounds unimaginable (as I am not a district attorney or public defender), but it is a near-guarantee that new associates will be thrust into unknown areas, or placed in front of countless tribunals for which they have no rapport or understanding of internal procedures.

    The best advice that I can offer to a new associate is four-fold. First, it is imperative, if not absolutely necessary, that the associate finds himself/herself a mentor that is both knowledgeable and willing to provide constructive criticism. You cannot advance if you do not understand how the system and certain operations work (such as preparing ‘rogs), but you also cannot advance if you are not aware of your shortcomings. Unfortunately, you cannot fix what you do not know is broken, and law firm culture often fails to adequately inform you as to what requires improvement.

    Secondly, although “easier said than done,” you cannot be afraid of what you do not know. As I stated above, I appeared at over 200 court hearings in my first year of practice, and a majority of the time, I was sorely lacking in experience, statutory knowledge, and/or understanding as to how the particular court wanted to handle such situations. If you are not afraid to undertake the effort, though, you will find that more than enough people are willing to provide the information you need to succeed. Whether it is another associate/partner who can help you on a project for which you are lost, or be it the court clerk or even a district attorney, if you show everyone that you are willing to put in the work, you will find yourself learning the ropes quickly. Act superior, arrogant, or fearful to learning, and you will find yourself out in the cold more often than not. And do not be afraid of a judge or opposing counsel yelling at you. It happens, and you will survive.

    Third, you can never underestimate the value of proper scheduling. If you have a trial on Wednesday, you should not be setting appointments and projects to be completed Monday and Tuesday. If you are not prepared, or if you did not complete a project simply because you did not have the time (when you are probably the person in control of your calendar), you do not get a “do-over.” Your over-ambition or your lacking attentiveness to your scheduling needs will not excuse you from a malpractice suit, and it will not excuse you from a good tongue-lashing from the partners, from the client, and from the court. It is an absolute truth that you must give yourself sufficient time to work, and sufficient time to live outside of work, or else you are bound to fail.

    Lastly, and most importantly to a new associate, understand that IT IS OKAY TO MAKE MISTAKES. My first major mistake came when a client’s court appearance didn’t make it onto my calendar. The client was furious, the court was angry, and I thought the world was coming to an end. It turned out, it was an easy fix, I was able to credit some costs back to the client to make him feel better, and at the next appearance (which I scheduled immediately and it did make it onto my calendar), the court didn’t even remember I had failed to appear. Newer associates, and even partners alike, are bound to make mistakes. You cannot go back in time to reverse them, but you can (and should) learn from them to the greatest degree. People will always be upset if you make a mistake, but chances are, there is always a way to fix it. Keep your head up and charge forward.

    I could not imagine being anything other than an attorney, but it is a rough road you walk in the beginning. It gets better, so long as you are willing to apply yourself and forge ahead. Thousands of people have done it before you, and they are still around to tell tale of their battles.

    Best wishes to all.
    ~Brandon Campbell

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