Keeping the Peace: How Associates and Partners Can Work Together Without a Battle
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Stephanie Francis Ward: Associates, you think the partners drive you nuts, but is there a chance that you’re bothering them as well? I’m Stephanie Francis Ward and that’s what we’re discussing today at the ABA Journal podcast. Joining me are Ida Abbott, a consultant who helps employers manage, retain and advance legal talent; Jennifer Bluestein, director of attorney professional development at Greenburg Traurig and Mark Herrmann, the chief counsel of litigation and the chief compliance officer at Aon. He also wrote the book The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Practicing Law. I have a question for all of you, and Ida, I’d love to start with you.
When you’re speaking with law firm partners about associate behavior, is there a common issue that comes up repeatedly and not in a good way?
Ida Abbott: Well, there are occasionally some complaints or some criticisms. One that I’ve heard that really surprised me was the number of associates who come in to discuss an assignment and don’t bring anything to write on, whether it’s paper or, you know, the tablet or something and that’s always a surprise.
Another is associates’ expectations that they’re going to be given all the information, all the answers and that, basically, they have to just go, “Do a little research and it’ll all come together,” without having to dig around on their own.
Stephanie Francis Ward: Jennifer, let’s have you talk about that question next and I want to mention something else, if you don’t mind. When we were discussing this earlier, you had talked about how associates should bring a pad of paper and something to write with every time, everywhere they go while they’re working and I thought that was kind of interesting. Can you talk about that a bit for me?
Jennifer Bluestein: Sure. I think you just never know when you’re going to be interrupted, pulled in to something, distracted by something and, I mean, I see it with our team assistant. She may come in for a quick question, but if my phone rings and I need her help with something then she’s writing something down. So, I have sticky pads on my desk, facing the people who sit in my chair because there aren’t enough people walking around with paper at all times.
So it’s not just a first year associate kind of thing, it’s just if you leave your desk, chances are you’re going to get detoured, whether it’s because you decide you want a cup of tea and you run into a partner you’re working with on a matter, or because you decide to stop by somebody else’s office with a quick question. It’s just very helpful to always be prepared.
Ida Abbott: It’s a good habit to do that no matter what age or experience level you’re at because even if you’re out at lunch and you meet someone, or at a cocktail and they have information that they can give you, or it’s something you want to follow up with them, to have something available to write on to make a note to yourself is really important. So Jennifer’s point about always having something to write on, I think is a really good suggestion.
Mark Herrmann: You’d think that “carry a pencil” would be the most basic advice that you could possibly give everybody, but I’m going to suggest that there’s something that’s even more basic than that. Woody Allen said that 80 percent of success in life is just showing up. I’d say that 80 percent of success in law is just doing it. Just doing it, because I think the fundamental thing that absolutely drives partners crazy is you ask somebody to get something done on Monday and you call them on Monday and they say, “Oops, I forgot about it. Sorry.”
And then everybody is toast. Everybody is dead. So if you are asked to do something, do it. Do it. Of course, that’s the first-best alternative. The second-best alternative is to explain a week before, “I won’t be able to get it done on Monday, please make alternative plans.” Because at least that way, the ball has not been dropped come Monday, right.
So just getting things done when they are supposed to be done is hugely important. Eighty percent of success in law is just like diligence and responsibility, not necessarily quality.
Stephanie Francis Ward: Well, that issue of not meeting a deadline, Mark, do you have a sense of what’s that about? Is it because the associate forgets or because they overextend themselves?
Mark Herrmann: I think it’s a collection of different things, but it’s…the key is that’s it’s the cardinal sin, that is just once, if a brief is due on a certain day and it turns out the ball has been dropped and no work has been done and it is critically important that we have rolled the ball before then, it is very likely the partner will never again come back to you for help, because if I can’t trust you to get it done or at least tell me you’re not doing it, you just can’t be in my life.
Like, the law is just too filled with people who are compulsive and deadlines that are too important and whether it’s, “Oh, I’ll just take an extension,” or, “It doesn’t matter,” or “I didn’t make a list, so I forgot. I really would have done it if only I had remembered.” What the excuse is doesn’t really matter. It’s just, it has to happen and if it doesn’t happen, you have to tell me with enough time in advance that I can recover that it isn’t happening.
Stephanie Francis Ward: And do you find too that for young lawyers, they might not be the very best lawyer because they’re just getting started, but they can impress people by always meeting the deadline and maybe even meeting the deadline a day early?
Mark Herrmann: I understand being young or being inexperienced. I cannot understand saying I’m going to have it on Monday and not getting it done on Monday, except under the most extreme circumstances. You know, plane didn’t get me home, death in the family, severe illness. If there’s a real reason, but even then call and tell me it’s not getting done. Let me know that it’s not getting done, but there’s a difference between inexperienced and irresponsibility. You can forgive inexperience. That solves itself over time. You can’t forgive irresponsibility.
Jennifer Bluestein: To be fair, Mark, I think we tend to, as we get older, forget how brutal that first year of practice is. It is, I think, incredibly overwhelming. When I was a first year associate, I didn’t have a Blackberry, we barely had email. My first year…
Stephanie Francis Ward: Your life was probably a lot easier.
Jennifer Bluestein: Easier and harder, different.
Stephanie Francis Ward: Yeah.
Jennifer Bluestein: I had to be physically in the office, but I didn’t have to multitask as much because if I was in the office, I was there to work. Now you have this push and pull of, “Gee, I have my kid’s soccer game. Can I turn this off for an hour? Can I be present in what I’m doing outside of work? Am I going to drop a ball because of that? Am I going to miss an email that says, ‘Oh, I need it tomorrow rather than Tuesday’?”
And so I think sometimes just the influx of emails…I found an email in my box this morning, wasn’t terribly urgent or anything, but it had come in yesterday and I didn’t see it. How does that happen? It happened. And I think part of it is how you recover and how you have a check on yourself every night to, kind of, do that final look through of all your deadlines, everything on your to-do list to make sure that really nothing falls through the cracks.
Ida Abbott: Oh sure, but I think what Mark’s talking about and I agree with you and I think it is overwhelming and it’s very difficult and some of the problems that associates have is that partners give them phony deadlines. They don’t really mean it.
They wait till the last minute to assign something or it sits on their desk for weeks before they turn it around and give it to you and say, “I need it tomorrow,” but that being said, the issue of responsibility is critical because if you’re working in a firm and you don’t turn in something on time or you don’t let people know it’s going to be late, it’s hard to imagine anybody sticking…being kept around very long if you can’t rely on them and…
Mark Herrmann: But…let me say a word in defense of partners. It is true that partners sometimes give phony deadlines, but partners weren’t born that way. They weren’t born giving phony deadlines. Partners were made insane by the passage of events, right?
It’s not that the current associate is no good, it’s that 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 I’m not going to let that happen with the new person who’s here sitting in my office, who says he’s going to get it through on Monday and he, even though he might be a responsible person, has the same look of…he’s haunted by the ghosts of incompetence past and I’m not going to tell him I want it on Monday. I’m going to tell him I need it the Wednesday before because I refuse to be dead again, right?
Partners are driven insane by what happens to them before. I think that’s why you get the phony deadlines.
Ida Abbott: Except an associate’s sitting there. Sometimes it’s for that reason, you know, and it’s too bad that partners develop bad habits based on bad experience, but also a lot of times partners also are the ones creating their own messes and the associate, you know, rightly or wrongly, is looking at it and saying, “You’re incompetent,” or “Your past experience shouldn’t be my problem. I need to manage my own work, and be honest with me.”
Now the first couple of times we work together as a partner, you may have to pay a little closer attention to me, but on the associate’s side, if I’m told Wednesday, I totally agree with you, regardless of how unreasonable it is. It needs to be done on Wednesday.
It’s just what you hope happens–in spite of all the insanity and pressure and influx of messages–is that the two of you can have a conversation and maybe even develop a relationship where you can talk about it and you won’t even get to that point if, as a partner, you are totally unreasonable or as an associate, you let me down.
Mark Herrmann: That’s right. And, I think, you develop that relationship over time. That is…
Ida Abbott: Yeah.
Mark Herrmann: A partner might give a phony deadline the first time and the work comes in on time and right and the partner goes, “Ah, maybe not like that clown from seven years ago.” And then you give another phony deadline and you get things on time and right and you go, “Oh, a trustworthy person.” And then eventually, you get to the point where you’re telling associates, “Here’s a small, little matter. You can handle it essentially on your own. Here’s the rule: Don’t commit malpractice without seeing me first. Otherwise this case is yours,” right?
And at that point, you’ve earned the person’s trust. But the key is the first time around, the partner is probably looking at you with some suspicion because the partner doesn’t remember all of the good experiences he had in the past, he only remembers the times he’s been screwed to the wall. And he’s hedging against that, rightly or wrongly.
Stephanie Francis Ward: So what it sounds like you’re saying is that in the best situation you work for a partner who respects you and you respect him or her. And you take them at their word.
Ida Abbott: It shouldn’t be the best situation. That should be the norm.
Stephanie Francis Ward: No, no.
Ida Abbott: And unfortunately, the norm doesn’t happen very often so, I guess, we call it ideal, but to make things worth the best teams. And every time you’ve got two people working together, we’ll call it a team. The best teams work when people can communicate and rely on each other.
Stephanie Francis Ward: I have another question for you. If you’re working for a partner who you don’t know well, how should you go about asking that person questions about the assignment–and maybe you should just ask the partner, “How do like to be approached about work questions?” What do you think, Ida?
Ida Abbott: What a refreshing idea. Why not? If you’re working with somebody for the first time, you should be able to, you know, ask some of those questions. If you’re dealing with somebody…well, first of all, you have to be careful about the questions you ask. You know if you sound totally naïve, like you have no idea what you’re doing, the partner’s already going to be suspicious and nervous about having you do the work.
So you have to know how to ask questions, in a way that sounds professional, and even saying something like, “How would like me to check in with you? Do you want me to check in? Do you want me to give you a periodic update, if it’s something that’s going to take a while? Do you like me to leave email messages or would you rather, you know, if it’s important give you a phone call.”
Asking a few questions is a good way to find that out, but there’s a fine line and you need to have a little…you have to be observant and pay attention to the partners’ reactions. If you are working with somebody who brushes off every question, like you were a total moron, you know you still have to get the information you need, but you may want to talk to the partner’s assistant or secretary, if there is one.
Or somebody who’s worked with him before, but it’s better to ask the questions and then perform up to expectation than to walk out of there without a clue and add to your own strain and stress and run the risk of doing something that’s not going to be up-to-snuff.
Stephanie Francis Ward: And Jennifer, what do you think?
Jennifer Bluestein: You know, I recently was talking to a law firm partner who was saying that there was a discussion that she was involved in recently about a junior associate and whether he asked too many questions. And she was really offended by the discussion. And she said, “We always say, ‘There’s no such thing as too many questions.’ So why is it a problem? If he’s asking questions, he should be.”
And she was very adamant about and it made me curious and I said, “Well, what was the complaint with it? It can’t just be that he’s asking questions. It’s too frequent; it’s stupid questions, what’s the problem?” And she said, “Well, they seem to feel that he was just kind of all over the board. And he came in all the time with different questions.”
And that to me says that the individual wasn’t thinking things through to come in with well thought-out questions that, kind of, one followed the other logically. It was if the associate got one question answered, went back to his desk, immediately realized that answer led to a different question and it just showed, kind of, how disjointed or unfocused he was or that he didn’t get the assignment.
So I think that starting out with those questions, “How do you like to be communicated with,” is very important and we advise junior associates to do that. We actually give them a checklist, “Here are all the questions you should get answered when you take an assignment. When you start working with somebody, here’s the sheet of paper that you take with you.
I mean talk about spoon feeding, but they find it really helpful, some of them are offended that we’re condescending to them, but generally they like it and that really helps guide the conversation, but that’s no substitute for thinking deeply about the assignment as a whole before you even start the research or put pen to paper.
So I think it’s give and take and at the same time, we also have to keep in mind, we as more senior experienced people don’t necessarily think the thing out before we assign it out. So if we do a good job explaining–we teach a supervisory skills class, which they talk about the goal, talk about the big picture. Talk about what that work is going to be used for.
If we’re doing a really good job in assigning work, then I think it’s going to increase the likelihood of success of the people taking the assignments. So I think it’s more mutual than we care to think about.
Mark Herrmann: That last point is really the key, that if a partner is getting ready to take a deposition, the partner spends whatever, two, three, four days getting ready to take the deposition. If a partner’s getting ready to argue an appeal, the partner spends whatever, two, three days getting ready, reading cases, thinking about the structure, the organization, what has to be said.
If a partner is assigning a legal research project, the partner…it flips into his head that he needs some legal research, he picks up the phone. He asks the associate to come down the hall and then the partner absolutely butchers the giving of the assignment because he didn’t take two minutes to reflect on what the person receiving the assignment has to know on background and how the information should best be conveyed.
And what the project really is, right? So the partner butchers the giving of the assignment and any fair partner ought to realize that follow-up questions to qualify the assignment are not disrespectful or wrong. It is just because the assignment is probably not being explained probably because the partner gave no thought how to explain the assignment.
Jennifer Bluestein: Right. Right and we see that. I mean, I can tell you what I felt when I was a junior associate most physically was the first time I was asked to do a deposition outline. If you really want to do a proper deposition outline, you have to understand, you have to pull the complaint and understand what makes a prima facie case, which the evidence that’s going to be required for summary judgment or not required. What are we looking for to get out of this deposition?
And if you’re just told to go do a deposition outline, a first year associate doesn’t always know, “Hey, I got to pull the complaint and see what the causes of action are. What are the allegations? What are we trying to prove or disprove?” That never happened in my first year when I was asked to do a deposition outline. It wasn’t until I went to…I need a program in my firm that I started thinking about how does discovery in a deposition actually relate to what you’re trying to prove or disprove in that summary judgment brief?
Stephanie Francis Ward: Okay. Let’s switch gears a bit. Ida, for someone who’s never worked in office before they start an associate position, what are some important things they need to know?
Ida Abbott: How to listen, how to observe, how to work with staff. I would probably put that, you know, at the…close to the top. How to work with all the people you’re going to be working with, to pay attention to, not just yourself, but to them and how they operate. A lot of times you walk in there, you’re scared, you’re looking around and this is an alien land and like anything else, you walk in thinking that you’re prepared. Feeling in your gut that you’re not and you’re terrified.
And the best way to kind of get the lay of the land is to pay to attention to it and to see what’s going on and how things work. And a lot of the questions that you need to have answered are, basically, about how things work. How do you get something done? Where’s the equipment that you need, the technology that you need? Who are the people to call and the nuts and bolts that should be reviewed in any orientation, but don’t necessarily get covered and so I think that’s a big part of it.
And I think that one of the things that we were talking about at the very beginning. The whole notion of being responsible and that means being responsible to the other people, the people you’re going to be working with and the people who are going to depend on you, should be right up there at the top, as well.
Stephanie Francis Ward: And, Mark, what do you think?
Mark Herrmann: I think that the thing that associates frequently don’t understand when they come into an office, the most important thing, is that a draft is not a draft. When a partner says prepare a draft of something, you don’t prepare some sort of crappy, unacceptable work product because, after all, it’s only a draft and it’s going to get improved over time and so you can put something that you know is not your best work on the partner’s desk because after all, it’s only a draft. I think what associates don’t understand, is that there’s no such thing as a draft.
A draft means you put…you fire off every last neuron in your brain to produce the absolute best quality work that you can and that then goes to the partner’s desk so if it is absolutely perfect, you send a draft in the corner because you only call it a draft, the partner has to give input, but you are actually producing your absolute finest work product and the reason you’re doing that is because whether you like it or not, the partner is looking at what you produced and is assessing you based on it.
And if you give a crappy draft and put it on somebody’s desk, their reaction is going to be, “This person is not very good; never going to be a real training project to make the person good. I think I’d rather work with other associates,” which is exactly the wrong reputation to have within a law firm.
So when you produce a draft, produce the very best draft that you can produce so the partner gets it and thinks, “Ah, this person is somebody I want to hold close to me. A competent person who I want to use on all of my matters,” and that’s the way you create a reputation. So don’t be deceived by the word “draft.” I think that’s a deceptive term for people to use.
Ida Abbott: You know, Mark. You’ve brought to mind something that always strikes me as a surprise, is when I hear from associates, when someone says, “Remember you’re always being assessed? You’re always being judged by the people around you who observe you and work with you.” And a lot of times I hear from associates, “Why should they judge me? They don’t know me. They should look at the quality of my work and the person I am and they can’t tell that just by observing or listening to me.”
And I find it kind of interesting that we’ve got, you know, professionals coming into law firms who don’t realize that everything they do is observed by others and sometimes, many times, those others really count, in terms of the opportunities their going to get. The work experiences that are going to come their way and how important it is to recognize that you’re not in a bubble and the quality of your work product is not the only thing that matters.
Mark Herrmann: And it’s entirely fair that partners do that.
Ida Abbott: Sure.
Mark Herrmann: That is part of their job. They will be asked to evaluate people. Part of what they’ll be asked to evaluate is personal presence and how do they speak and quickness of foot and, you know, is this person likely to be able to interact well with clients? There are a million different questions that partners have to answer about the associates and the only way to answer them is to observe.
That’s part of the job. It’s also how you give feedback. To call somebody into your office and say, “Three martinis at lunch and the way you were acting afterwards was a little wrong. Try to get it under control next time.” Or whatever the feedback is, but you get that by observing people and that’s how you give constructive criticism, too.
Stephanie Francis Ward: Speaking of the three martinis, let’s talk a bit about business development with young lawyers or attempts to get business development. Mark, are there some common faux pas you see with associates in the business development area?
Mark Herrmann: I think the most common faux pas, at least at large law firms, is that associates don’t attempt business development. They think, “I am in a big law firm that only handles very big transactions or litigation matters, nobody is going to come to a second, third, fourth, fifth year associate with a very large case and so therefore it is not worth the effort. I won’t do it.” Instead of thinking, “This is a race that will be won by the turtle.”
It is a long race that extends over a period of decades and the way to start developing business is by starting it today and that means staying gently in touch with your friends and colleagues and associates, not because you’re developing business, but because you’re a human being and it is nice to do that.
And remembering just to stay in touch with people, see how they’re doing, tell them things they might need to note, eat a lunch with them occasionally and, in addition, at a very early stage, it’s beginning to develop a reputation and if that means teaching CLE courses or writing a short article about a brief that you got out the door last week and it forced you to think about an issue.
And you came up with an approach to the issue that nobody had really written about in the cases and so you take that idea and you put it into a publication. That publication will not win you a client, but 20 years from now, when you’ve written one article a year for each of the last 20 years and you have a list of publications as long as your arm, you will walk into a beauty contest and say, “Here are my publications,” and people will be impressed. So start now because it’s a journey that is won by the person with the most perseverance, really.
Stephanie Francis Ward: Jennifer, what do you think?
Jennifer Bluestein: I think we have to really think about how client service blends into client development because we have a very robust client-development training program and tools that we give to associates. And one of the things that we get them to understand is your first client when you walk in the door is every attorney you’re working with in the firm.
And so that’s client development. It starts internally. It extends externally, but there’s a path to it and we try and model this every step of the way and that somehow makes it easier for them. The idea of bringing on a new client like Aon is really scary to them and they think they can’t do it. So showing them a path that reasonable is something that makes it achievable and then not so scary.
And then the other thing that I try and talk about with associates is you would be amazed what happens to your friends from law school along the way–where they end up, where they go–and keeping in touch and being helpful. Not just being helpful on a particular litigation matter, but being a resource for them, to being a friend is part of what keeps you in touch and puts you and your firm out there years from now where you’re really in a position to have some unique offering to them, and that’s helpful.
So what I see from associates because they’re afraid to do that because they think they’re selling something, and I say, “Look, if you had a friend that needed a new nanny and you knew a nanny, would you help them?”
“Well, yeah, I’d help them.”
“Okay, so if you see a friend who’s at a company that’s getting sued left and right and they’re not happy with their legal counsel because they’re not very responsive or they’re in a different time zone, wouldn’t you want to help them?”
“Well, yeah, but that’s different.”
It’s not different, because oftentimes what you see is that there is something you, your firm, your personality style offers that’s different from what they already have and if you build those relationships, you start hearing that. So, I see client development as very doable, as opposed to a challenge, a grind that they have to just get used to.
Stephanie Francis Ward: It’s interesting to me that the young lawyers are, as you said, afraid that they’d be selling something, as the profession has changed so much; they weren’t a part of it when you didn’t have to sell. That’s intriguing to me.
Jennifer Bluestein: But they didn’t go to law school to sell. If they wanted to be salespeople, they would have done something else. That’s that, kind of, cognitive dissonance a lot them have.
Ida Abbott: It’s the same with partners.
Jennifer Bluestein: Sure.
Ida Abbott: Partners don’t like to think of what they’re doing as selling, either.
Stephanie Francis Ward: Right, but they were at the firm at a time when you didn’t have to sell.
Ida Abbott: They weren’t allowed to.
Jennifer Bluestein: Exactly. [laughter]
Ida Abbott: When I started, you know, in the dark ages, it was illegal.
Mark Herrmann: You mean against the law in the 1970s, I was thinking just against the practice, which was true even in the 1980s…
Jennifer Bluestein: Yeah.
Ida Abbott: Absolutely.
Mark Herrmann: Where people were being told, “Don’t worry about generating business; business always comes into this place. We always have plenty to do.”
Ida Abbott: If you’re a good lawyer…
Mark Herrmann: “Keep your nose to the grindstone and get the stuff done and that’s your job and we really don’t want you to waste time developing business” and, I mean, I heard those words spoken and even through the early 1990s.
Ida Abbott: But, you know, what’s interesting and this is a failure that I see a lot is associates that don’t take advantage of opportunities that come their way. And there are opportunities. Even being invited…your firm takes a table at a conference or a bar meeting or something like that and either the associate says they’re going to go and then they turn it down, or they don’t want to go because it takes them away from billable work and they think all that matters is sitting behind their desk and doing the work.
And getting out there and being known and being visible and going to that luncheon and making sure that you sit next to a partner, if there is one, at the table or somebody…
Stephanie Francis Ward: You want to avoid the fun tables, that’s for sure.
Ida Abbott: Yeah, what you want to do is use that opportunity to make some connections and to do some networking and then to build relationships, so that it’s not just who you know, but it’s who knows you, or the ability to participate in some outside organization and to take a leadership role where you really become visible and have a reputation, as a leader. There are a lot of opportunities that either come your way that associates turn down or that are there for the taking if you show a little initiative and recognize that it’s important to do it.
And it’s hard for, especially associates who are under such pressure to bill hours, and who are mostly introverts to begin with and so the idea of going to luncheon is not going to be their favorite exercise, but looking for ways that you get out there and build relationships and get to know people and get known as somebody who’s competent and shows initiative and leadership.
Jennifer Bluestein: And to be fair, I just want to point out; I am seeing a lot of that initiative in the law school students and graduates of the last few years. I was at the ABA meeting the last several days and there were law students and new grads everywhere. At every program I went to and they were going up and introducing themselves to people. And they were talking that they had their elevator pitch. These were driven, focused people.
And I think maybe the economic difficulty that they have in securing jobs will make them that much more successful later on because they have no fear now. They’ve got to get right out there and brand themselves or whatever you want to call it these days to get their job and that’s going to help them and serve them really well. And I’m actually really excited about the leadership and the confidence I’m seeing in our junior associates. They’re really–and when I say “our,” I mean our country–I think they are a really great, driven group.
Stephanie Francis Ward: That’s an interesting point. I think that’s everything I have. I want to thank you all so much for joining me. I really appreciate it.
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Partners might drive associates crazy, but associates can control some of that with their own behavior, lawyers tell ABA Journal Podcast moderator Stephanie Francis Ward. Tips include never leaving your office without a pad of paper; asking questions—providing they’re well thought out—when assigned a matter; and remembering that at work, you are always being judged.
In This Podcast:
Ida Abbott, a former Heller Ehrman White & McAuliffe partner, now advises on the management, retention and advancement of lawyers. Abbott is based in Oakland, Calif., and also directs the University of California Hastings College of Law Leadership Academy for Women.
Jennifer Bluestein is director of attorney professional development at Greenburg Traurig. The Chicago lawyer also chairs the Professional Development Consortium, an organization that focuses on training issues for lawyers.
Mark Herrmann, a Chicago lawyer, serves as the chief counsel of litigation and the chief compliance officer at Aon. He’s also the author of The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Practicing Law and writes a twice weekly column, “The Inside Straight,” for Above the Law.