How to impress partners

October 31, 2012

Who and what should associates kiss to get on?

Photo: Shutterstock

Associates are not meant to have fun.

Rather, associateship is a (long) rite of passage that has to be endured if the rewards of partnership are to follow. But with partnership numbers dwindling, an increasing number of associates fear they are suffering for nothing. How can they impress partners and get ahead without becoming dried out husks by the age of 35?

Berry Jam

Let’s just say that Gregory Berry didn’t have the right idea when he joined the US big law firm Kasowitz, Benson, Torres & Friedman as a first-year associate. Sick of the dull and unimportant work he was getting, he wrote an email to some of the partners appealing for more responsibility, based on the perhaps not unreasonable fact that he already had fifteen years’ business experience.

‘It has become clear that I have as much experience and ability as an associate many years my senior, as much skill writing and a superior legal mind to most I have met,’ he wrote.

Anyone who has ever worked in law will not be surprised by the result. He was duly told that his email had upset partners and ‘burned bridges’. He was fired a few days later.

“There’s simply no room in a big law firm for an intelligent, creative lawyer with real-world experience, and I had to find that out the hard way,” Berry went on to tell Reuters.

Nor did it get better. His $77m claim against the firm for wrongful termination, fraud, and breach of contract, was thrown out of court earlier this year.

Berry’s email sounds laughably arrogant. No doubt many will think he got what he deserved.

Retaining dignity

But it does raise an interesting point. Many associates going into law today are not fresh-faced young graduates with no experience of working life.

A rising number have changed careers, perhaps having accumulated several years’ experience in another business sector.

So how do sophisticated associates impress partners while retaining some dignity and the will to live?

  1. Show respect. Partners expect associates to defer to their better judgement. No matter what prior experience you might have, you will not know more about law (or the firm) than a partner. But at the same time don’t be afraid to ask sensible, intelligent questions. Show that you take genuine interest in the partner’s expertise, and want to learn.
  2. Get to know them. Law firms are people businesses. They are nothing without their partners. If you’ve changed careers, then you may have an advantage. Use your experience of networking to build internal relationships, not just with partners in your practice group but also with those throughout the firm. Often associates will find a great mentor and advocate from beyond their immediate circle.
  3. Face up to the bad supervising partner. There are great supervising partners out there who genuinely support their associates. But there are lots of bad ones too – and law firms are notoriously bad at dealing with them.They might include anything from those who bully associates to those who just fail to pass on work. Never bad mouth such a partner, but consider courting other partners to see if you can get poached. If the situation’s really bad, have a quiet word with HR. They may not be able to extricate you immediately, but it gets the ball rolling.
  4. Accept that you’ll have to do long hours on dull assignments. Partners won’t have any sympathy because they had to go through the same thing to get where they are. Accept the boring extra work with grace: you didn’t join the legal profession to chill out, so keep your eye on the prize.
  5. Make your work product count. Be scrupulous about meeting deadlines, double check everything you write (including emails) to ensure correct grammar, spelling, citations etc, and go the extra mile on research projects. Don’t just deliver the bare minimum. Law firm partners tend to have a weakness for those who think ahead and show a fastidious attention to detail.
  6. Look the part. You may see partners rolling in wearing all sorts of strange ‘casual’ attire. But don’t think that gives you carte blanche to look sloppy. Save that for the glories of your coming partnership. Until then, look sharp. Always.

Many people talk about law firms becoming more corporate. But until the legal profession ditches the partnership model altogether, law firms will always revolve around the will of the partners. And that means even the most ‘superior minded’ of associates has to embrace a certain level of kowtowing to get ahead.

Call it brown-nosing if you like, but embrace it and there is only one challenge remaining: to balance humility with the inevitable need to shine. CP

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