Associates in the Trenches

Slowdown Solutions

Making Downtime More Productive Means Choosing CLE Over eBay

Posted Aug 11, 2006 7:27 PM CDT
By Stephanie Francis Ward

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Forget alumni message boards, Hotmail accounts and catching up on celebrity gossip—when Nirav K. Desai has some downtime at work, he directs his Internet browser to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Web page.

The Sacramento, Calif., litigation associate, who reads opinions online and listens to posted audio recordings of oral arguments, says this is a better use of his free time than slacking off until he gets another assignment.

“I did a lot of study in the area of appellate practice, trying to find any way I could to keep busy,” Desai says. “I’m all for taking breaks when a big, stressful case is over, but I don’t think you want to do that as a practice.”

STICKING TO A SCHEDULE

For many associates, there are hardly enough hours in the day to get everything done. But slow times do occasionally crop up—when a deal closes, a tri­al ends or a client matter resolves—and associates can be ill-prepared to decide what to do next.

What isn’t a good idea? Making a habit of coming in late, routinely leaving early or spending loads of time chatting with office buddies, say Desai and others. Instead, they suggest that associates take a day or so to rest and regroup, and then use the rest of their slow period for professional development.

“If you’ve been working hard, you may want to take advantage of the time to get things done,” says Lisa S. Keyes, an Atlanta partner who serves as director of professional development at her law firm. She suggests activities for which associates generally have little time, such as writing articles, giving speeches and taking clients to lunch.

“Have a list of things to do that are not time-sensi­tive but good for professional development, so when you have time you can do it,” Keyes says. “These are things that need to be done but don’t have deadlines, and get pushed to the bottom.”

Writing an article may be less daunting than it seems, says Charlotte L. Wager. A Chicago litigation partner, she directs her firm’s associate development program. “Take a work product you already created, and turn that into some practical advice for in-house counsel,” Wager says. “It’s always a good idea to get published.”

She also suggests continuing legal education classes. “Look for an opportunity to attend a seminar or two in an area where your skills are underdeveloped,” Wager says. “I find that all associates can benefit from semi­nars on accounting or financial basics, unless they have an accounting background.”

Volunteer work is another possibility. “When you’re busy you can’t find time to do it, but it’s a really nice way to spend a little bit of time when you’re a little slower with billable work,” Wager says.

WORKING ON MORE WORK

Finding more billable work is always another option. Jules S. Brenner, a fourth-year associate in Dallas, really took things to the extreme.

Two years ago, the corporate lawyer found himself with more free time than he liked at work—so he and two other associates drew up a business plan for a new practice group, focusing on foreign trade com­pliance.

The partners liked the associates’ presentation. They directed the three to pursue the new group, and then the associates sold their idea to oth­er practice groups in the law firm. They also went outside to drum up business with various business groups and bar associations. “We started this whole new section that continues to make money for us,” Brenner says.

Looking back, Brenner says, the partners were initially surprised at the proposal. “We heard a couple times that no one had ever done that before,” he adds. “I think they were glad that some people took the initiative and decided not to just sit around and wait for business.”

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