ABA Journal


ABA Journal Podcast

Keeping the Peace: How Associates and Partners Can Work Together Without a Battle

Sep 10, 2012, 01:30 pm CDT


How hard can it be? From 6:00 p.m. to 9:00 a.m., most of the partners aren't even there. Perfect time to crank out work without disruptions.

By B. McLeod on 2012 09 11, 3:08 am CDT

The word communicate appears only once in this discussion and we have Ida Abbot to thank.

The entire problem discussed here should focus on a single thread - COMMUNICATIONS! Moreover, lawyers generally are introverts and therefore are not outwardly focused and don't communicate with others optimally. Why would we expect any other outcomes? We should expect associates failing, quitting, or generally operating in an ineffective and inefficient manner and partners blaming associates for being stupid, lazy, and not meeting our expectations?

How many lawyers do you know or have you met, that have taken any formal training (not reading a book or taking a one day seminar) on the whys and hows of interpersonal communications skills (ICS), embracing those principles daily, and inculcating other firm members accordingly?

In summary, an optimally run law firm, we must:
1. Requre every person to embrace and contantly improve his/her interpersonal communcations skills; and
2. Adopt valid and reliable hiring methods and metrics to hire only those who will likely be successful and become assets in our firms..

By J. Larry Green on 2012 09 13, 7:55 pm CDT

Wow, Mark Herrmann, you sound like a self-important jerk.

By Carmen on 2012 09 14, 9:32 am CDT

Hmm, Carmen I didn't get that impression about Mark Hermann, but I read the transcript instead of listening to the podcast. I may listen to the podcast later on to see if I come away with a different impression. Just goes to show the difference in the written word versus actually hearing someone talk.

By Atticus on 2012 09 14, 1:42 pm CDT

For associates, one rule: view and treat the partners as if you were the partner and they are your clients. The ones you work for: keep them happy, do it their way, don't push back (if they are wrong and it matters, figure out a tactful way to address it; if it doesn't matter, take silent satisfaction and say nothing) and be perfect, and early, in everything yo deliver. Spread yourself around to several partners in case "yours' leaves (as a client might).
The partners you don't work for: try some business development. Figure how your field and experience can amplify theirs.
For partners: Not going to waste my time with suggestions b/c they never heed advice on how they can do things better.

By Hadley V. Baxendale on 2012 09 14, 2:29 pm CDT

I think the better word is "respect." Ms. Ward made the obvious comment -- "the best situation you work for a partner who respects you and you respect him or her." But I don't know how well she fleshed it out.

As an associate, I care about getting the best experiences possible, and I care about leading the most normal life possible. That means, if a partner asks me to review his documents, I expect that I get to take at least some of the depositions. And if I don't get to take a deposition, I'm going to say "no," the next time I'm asked to do scut work. Similarly, if the partner gives me a false deadline -- if work sits on the partner's desk for days before he looks at it -- I'm not going to prioritize that partner's work in the future.

I'm surprised at Mark Hermann's statements suggesting that partners can treat associates with disrespect -- giving false deadlines and the like -- when his own book councils associates against treating secretaries and paralegals like cogs!

By American of African Descent on 2012 09 14, 2:29 pm CDT

Wow @ American of African Descent!

I'm not sure what firm you work at but around here if an associate told a partner "no, I'm not going to do what you are asking because you didn't let me take a deposition last time" we would immediately be looking for another job.

Regarding false deadlines, I don't really see what the problem is. Look at it from the partner's perspective. He wants a task done but there is no court imposed deadline requiring that it be done before a specific time. He could either tell the associate "take as long as you want" which would be disastrous or he could make up his own deadline. I think it is fairly reasonable to choose the latter. Can giving false deadlines rise to the level of being disrespectful? Sure, but as long as the deadline is reasonable I don't have a problem with it even if it sits on the partner's desk weeks after I finish it without him reviewing it.

By Atticus on 2012 09 14, 2:38 pm CDT

I'm a first year associate at a SMALL firm (2 partners, 1 secretary and 1 part-time paralegal). I've survived six months and only experienced my second week from hell this past week. I could not agree more that communication and respect are key! Of particular importance I believe partners should communicate to associates about their specific expectations. Of course there are general expectations of any first year associate but I recently experienced a situation that I don't believe should be expected and I certainly do not appreciate...

Long story short, the past two weekends the senior partner has come into my office at 6pm on Friday and given me a full round of edits on a 50-page memo of law, including additional sections due to her "as soon as possible" fully knowing that I planned to be out of town labor day weekend. I sacrificed Friday night and gave her what she needed by noon Saturday, still got to the lake for labor day weekend, no crisis. Then it happened last weekend and again I had weekend plans. So I admit I neglected to ask what "as soon as possible" meant and decided I would work on it Sunday am and get it to her by noon. At 10pm Saturday I received an email "Where r the edits to the memo?" Luckily (or not) I did not see that until Sunday am, which lit the fire so that she did indeed have something by early afternoon Sunday.

Now, I knew this was the classic case of false deadlines and that we anticipated filing early the FOLLOWING week; so what's the problem if I got her something Sunday and she had a full week to work on it? I'm smart enough to understand that I should have asked her exactly when she planned on reviewing it. But I couldn't help but feel she was trying to torture me. This all followed up with a passive aggressive email after I submitted the work Sunday which stated "the time is lost, I have repeatedly stressed the importance of deadlines on this case", blah blah.

Is this normal?? I felt it was a complete exaggeration! I'm an A-type personality (very driven and have always worked hard for my accomplishments) and I'm trying to not let my desire for flexibility and freedom to do as I choose overcome my better judgment and understanding that being a first year associate just sucks no matter what. However, I'm struggling to accept this type of behavior from my boss, which really makes me question is this the place for me!? I demand respect and truly dislike being at the beckon call of another. I value the experience I'm obtaining but I would really appreciate being treated like a peer, not the b*@!h. Is that unreasonable? And what does it really take to get there?

I'm not going to give up and appreciate the advice offered in the transcript and comments. Please continue to share your thoughts!

By Newbie on 2012 09 14, 6:23 pm CDT

Hang in there Newbie! I'm a 7th year associate who is hopefully on track to make partner within the next year or so and have been through that same situation before. The thing is, partners are people too and they typically understand that you have a life outside of work. If I were in your shoes I would have asked her "hey, I plan on going to the lake for labor day, so is it okay if I have these edits for you first thing Monday morning?"

Another good habit is to ask the partner how much time you should spend on the project. There is nothing that bothers me more than seeing legitimate billable time written off the bills because I spent more time on the project than they would have liked. At the end of the day, if you are not making money for the partners then you are losing their money.

Finally, we all have to be aware of and limit our your sense of entitlement. This is typically hard because we are all intelligent overacheivers. However, you would be wise to remember that the job market out there is scary, so you are lucky to have a job. If they fired you I am sure they could find a replacement in no time. A lot of new attorneys come into firms with a sense of entitlement that can only backfire. Case in point, a few years ago we hired a new associate and from day one he treated the staff (secretary's and paralegals) like crap. The fact is that those secretary's and paralegals that he was thumbing his nose to were actually far more valuable of an asset to the firm than he.

Finally, don't ever let your mouth write a check that your butt can't cover. In this profession your credibility is your most important asset. If you tell a partner that you are going to get something done by a certain date you better damn well do it. On the other hand, if a partner asks you to get something done by a certain deadline that would be virtually impossible to meet then tell her that.

By Atticus on 2012 09 14, 6:48 pm CDT

If there's no such thing as a draft, and partners know that outside of the law office this word has a specific meaning, how hard is it to stop using the confusing word?

People go through their education being told to submit a draft by day X and to submit a final document by day X+Y. If you want a document in complete best-as-possible form, say "I want you to write me a Z by T" not "I want a draft of Z" or "I want you to draft me a Z".

This is the kind of behavior that leads to the "false deadline" problem: Partner asks for a draft. Associate thinks that draft means what it means in the general world outside of a partner's mouth, and therefore thinks that it is ok to need an extra day or two because it is a draft, and the final document will be needed several days after the draft.

Now the partner is screwed, and says "associates seven years ago said they’d get it to me on Monday and they didn’t and I was a dead man. And the associate from three years ago said they’d get it to me on Monday and they didn’t and I was a dead man" and starts making up false deadlines.

But there's a very good chance that the associates seven years ago didn't know that when a partner uses the word "draft" it means something very different than what every person they've ever encountered means by the term (including law school professors). And the associates three years ago...

Partners screw themselves when they fail to understand that people come into the firm with a lifetime of experience, not with an ability to read the minds of law firm partners.

Partners spend so much time defining terms for contracts, for litigation, but can't understand that they need to define a term for an associate, when they know that they are using the word in a way contrary to general usage?

By quilty on 2012 09 14, 6:50 pm CDT

A document is always a "draft" until it is "in final," and ready to be served or filed. That's a pretty easy rule to learn. When "drafting" something for a partner (or any more senior attorney, actually), don't give him or her something that you would not feel comfortable giving to the client. It is not the senior attorney's job to fix typos, or to finish the research or argument for you. Also pretty easy to learn.

As for the commenter above who "expects" to be able to take depositions just because he helped review documents, and intends to blow off work if he perceives that a more senior attorney gives him false deadlines ... how entitled! Go start your own firm if you want to control everything you do, and when you do it. Until then, it's your job as the junior person on the case to do what you're told. If you're good, you'll get opportunities to do more interesting work in due time. And BTW, did it occur to you that sometimes the *client* is the one making the decisions regarding who gets to do the depositions, argue motions, etc.? It's really not uncommon for a client to mandate that such work be done by an attorney with at least a certain level of experience.

By mc on 2012 09 14, 9:51 pm CDT

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