Retreat for professional reflection

In just a few hours, I am going on retreat.  I’ll be in Wyoming, which dials deep into one of my top values — freedom.  (The image to the left is the view from my “office” during last year’s retreat.)  A retreat is, for me, time devoted to looking at where my business is, what’s going well and what isn’t, and what the next steps are.  I’ve gone on retreat around this time each year since I started Life at the Bar, and it amazes me what comes of the time.

One of the problems lawyers have with their practices is that we rarely take time to reflect on our goals and our progress toward them.  Instead, we tend to be in fast forward motion, moving forward all the time, but not pausing to ask whether our motion is getting us toward what we desire.  Michael Gerber, author of E-Myth Mastery and related books, argues that entrepreneurs must work on their businesses as well as in them.  It’s the same for lawyers, because even those lawyers who are working at mega-firms are, in a sense, leading their own businesses.  We too must stop and reflect on how our business, our practice, is running.

A retreat is the ideal way to do this evaluation.  Not the typical law firm retreat, replete with meetings and cocktails and chatter, but a private retreat.  A retreat can be enormously useful in as little as 3 hours, though a longer retreat is restorative as well as better suited for deep reflection.  Depending on what you need, both personally and professionally, you might consider retreating at home, at the office, or to a hotel/retreat center.  Consider what you need, both in terms of what creature comforts will facilitate your turning inward and also in terms of what support you need.

What questions should you ask yourself on retreat?  The list is truly endless, but here are some good ones:

1.  How well am I functioning in the office?  What changes do I need to make either in the office environment or in how I prepare myself for my workdays?

2.  What is my business vision?  What kind of practice do I want, and how well am I developing that practice?

3.  Who are my clients?  How is client development working for me, and what changes do I need to make?  What new activities do I need to undertake?

4.  How satisfied are my current clients?  How can I better serve them?

5.  Am I an active member of the legal community?  Am I meeting my own expectations for pro bono work?

6.  Am I maximizing my energy through good self-care?

7.  How is my work/life integration?  Am I honoring what’s most important to me?

8.  How am I performing as a leader?  Who must I be to become a better leader?  Where do I want or need to step up into a leadership role?

9.  What one change can I make in my life or my practice that will create greater satisfaction for me?

As we move into fall and toward the end of the year, it’s an ideal time for review and revision.  Give yourself — and your practice — the gift of a retreat.  Please contact me if you’d like support in designing a retreat or in helping with strategizing to help you reach your goals.

Under pressure? Don’t get rattled.

I noticed another lesson in the Olympics last night.  I watched the 400m relays and saw the U.S. men’s and women’s teams disqualified for dropping the baton.  The men quit running after the drop, but the women’s team anchor Lauryn Williams picked up the baton and ran the rest of the race.  It was hard to watch the drops and the runners’ responses, knowing how hard the athletes had trained and that one slip terminated any hope of winning.  I wondered if the women knew that the men had dropped the baton and, if so, if they were shaken by their teammates’ error.

Coverage cut next to the women’s 10m platform diving.  Although the Chinese divers were considered almost a lock for gold and silver, the story behind the competition was about Laura Wilkinson, the 30-year old diver hoping to wrest a medal from competitors about half her age in this, her last competition.  She’d injured her wrist and right tricep, and her dives were sufficient only to put her in 9th place.  What I noticed (as an ignorant viewer, not even a diving enthusiast) was her spirit and composure.  Although she was clearly disappointed that her dives earned such low scores, each time she mounted the platform, she smiled genuinely and gave each dive her all.

What do these sketches have to do with lawyers?  As I watched the competitions last night, I started thinking about one of my former clients — let’s call her Jane.  When we began working together, she was second-guessing herself at every turn.  Jane had a rocky start in practice and had made some mistakes.  She perceived that everyone was waiting for her to fail, and she was determined not to fail.  (Did you catch that?  She was determined not to fail, not determined to succeed.)  Her hours were being sliced because she spent so much time trying to avoid making mistakes, and yet she made them anyway.  She was discouraged, frustrated, and fearful.  And yet, Jane knew she’d performed well in the past and wanted to do so again.

Before we began working together, Jane had already come to recognize what she called “the clutch,” the sense of fear and inadequacy that paralyzed her.  When in the grips of “the clutch,” Jane found it difficult to write for fear of saying the wrong thing.  She found it difficult to edit, for fear of missing mistakes.  And even though she’s articulate and well-spoken, she found herself stuttering and talking in circles.  The harder she tried not to make these mistakes, the worse things seemed to get.  I suggested to Jane that trying to perform well while in the clutch was unlikely to work, because the clutch is simply too strong.  Our work focused on learning how to get out of the clutch.  Here are a few ideas Jane implemented:

1.  Stop and recognize the clutch.  Name it.  There is innate power in recognizing what’s happening.

2.  Breathe.  It sounds simple, but taking a few deep breaths kicks off a string of positive physiological changes that work to counteract the effects of the clutch.

3.  Figure out what exactly is going on in the moment.  What needs to be done?  What is in incoming data?  What is the next right step?

4.  Select and take an action.  The next right step can be as small as going to get a cup of coffee or stretching.  It could be choosing to edit a brief by reading it out loud, which draws on a different part of the brain and increases the chances of catching typos and errors of grammar and logic.  Or it might be taking another deep breath, adjusting to assume a more powerful stance, and moving forward with an oral presentation.

When Jane learned to take these steps, she found that she was usually able to meet the demands of the moment.  Within a couple of months she was performing on a higher level, feeling much better about herself and her work, and sufficiently confident to make a move just a few months later to a better-fitting practice.  She tells me that “the clutch” still shows up sometimes, but that she is now able to recognize it and deal with it, and it’s no longer the paralyzer that it once was for her.

Returning to the Olympics, I’m not suggesting, of course, the the relay runners “just” got rattled, and the results show that grace under pressure won’t necessarily lead to a gold medal, either literally or figuratively.  Training, physical conditioning, and skill play huge roles.  However, knowing how to escape “the clutch” increases the opportunity for training, conditioning, and skill to shine through.

Attaining leadership in a bar association

Working on a bar association committee or project is a good way to get leadership experience quickly. The reason is simple: because of the number and variety of bar associations (the ABA, state, city/county, area-of-practice, group affiliations, etc.) and the number and variety of sections and committees within each, leadership opportunities are

Why should you consider bar involvement?

1.  To grow your professional network. Having a broad group of colleagues will prove useful over the span of your career in ways you probably can’t even imagine right now. Networks are useful if you need co-counsel on a case, if you’re conflicted out and want to refer a client to someone in whom you have confidence, if you’d like to take a deposition in an office in a distant city, if you’re looking for a new position, on and on and on.

2.  To contribute to the profession. The work produced by each group will vary, but you may have an opportunity to contribute to a report studying the challenges faced by women attorneys of color, the impact of multiple tiers of partners, or the latest revision to substantive or procedural rules of practice. You can use your skills and develop them further through this work.

3.  To contribute to society in general. Some groups will focus on work that directly impacts individuals, such as writing a report and passing a policy supporting or objecting to proposals relating to privacy, public health, and more. Although bar associations don’t have lawmaking authority, some have quite a bit of clout. You could potentially even end up testifying before Congress on behalf of a bar group.

4.  To advance your business development goals. If your practice is supported by referrals by other lawyers, or if it’s in an area that often requires involvement by a lot of lawyers, bar associations can create the opportunity for you to become known by your potential referral sources.

5.  Because it’s fun. When you find a group that’s a good fit for you, networking and conferences become a time to reconnect with friends and accomplish something of professional benefit. That’s a good deal!

So, how do you get started?

1.  Identify the bar group or groups that might be a good fit for you based on your goals and interests. Do you want to be involved with a local group or a national group? (If you’re looking to create a referral network, this is probably the #1 question you’ll need to answer.) Is your primary interest in a subject area, or would you be happy working in a substantive subcommittee of a non-practice-based group? (For patent law, for example, you might join the American Intellectual Property Law Association, or you might join the ABA or a state bar and seek involvement with an IP law section.)

2.  Next, identify a subgroup of that bar that you find interesting. Look through the sections, committees and subcommittees, or the list of projects that the group maintains. Your goal is to identify a small working group that will be a good fit for your skills, your interest, and your goals — in that order.

3.  Bar association working groups almost always need help. Perhaps you’re already a passive member of a bar group, receiving information and maybe attending CLE programs. To reap the benefit of membership, you must be active. Decide how much time you have available and what kind of assistance you’d like to offer. You may be able to get a feel for current projects from the group’s website.

4.  Contact the leader of the subgroup you’d like to join and volunteer. For all but the most prestigious groups, I can almost guarantee that a committee chair’s favorite words to hear are, “I’d like to help!” Find out how you can make a contribution. Look for something fairly short-term, so you aren’t boxed in and you can prove yourself quickly, and do a great job.

5.  Attend the business meetings of your selected group. Most bar associations meet at least annually, and those who attend are the leaders. If you want to become a leader, meet them. Learn more about the group’s activity, who’s involved, what its history is, and how things operate. Ask about the leadership track — how might you become a committee leader, a Section leader, or an association leader? Contribute to the conversation and volunteer where appropriate. Show your interest and your ability.

6.  Once you’ve taken on a few projects and done well, you will start to advance. Depending on the group, you can probably expect to become a subcommittee vice chair (or some equivalent title) within a couple of years, and sometimes much faster. Should you choose to advance in leadership, you’ll know much more about how to do so in your selected group; if not, you can probably continue at your current level of involvement and accrue additional benefits.

Are you playing to win?

Last night, I was watching the men’s gymnastics Olympic competition.  I was struck with the approaches, at least as described by the know-it-all knowledgeable commentators.  (I admit to some impatience with the Olympic commentators, who magnify every misstep and cluck over the athletes’ failings, but that’s another story.)  Some gymnasts played all out, trying their most difficult moves and performing brilliantly — or not.  Others seemed to play it safe, preferring to execute flawlessly what they knew they could do well rather than to stretch for a more difficult series of moves.

Recently, I asked this question: Are you playing to win, or are you playing not to lose?  One astute commentor asked whether I intended the question to be answered with regard to litigation or personal life.  One reason I like asking this question is because it can apply in professional life (in general or in some particular aspect) or in personal life (again, broadly or narrowly).   Let’s look at some examples.

1.  There’s an almost palpable fear among some associates (and some partners), especially given the current economic situation and the layoffs at some law firm.  Some associates take the approach of doing their best work, making suggestions and volunteering to assume responsibility, looking for every opportunity to prove themselves rising stars.  That’s playing to win.  Others do their best work but don’t reach out.  Instead, they play the law firm version of the “Whack a Mole” game: “if I raise my head too high, I may get whacked, so I’ll just stay under the radar and work hard and hope that’s good enough to avoid any problems.”  This is a classic version of playing not to lose.

2.  Or imagine a lawyer who feels the crush of time.  Too much client work, followed by too many business development or networking commitments, followed by too many personal commitments, followed by not enough time for relaxation or renewing personal time.  A lawyer who plays to win might look at her commitments, choose which provide the highest return, and eliminate or delegate the others.  Painful choices, perhaps, but the end result is likely to be less stress and more time available for the high-return activities.

A lawyer who is playing not to lose would likely try to maintain the load, perhaps giving each commitment “just enough” (she hopes) to get by, with every good intention of changing things next week but feeling constrained by others’ expectations (and her own) to keep all the balls in the air.  If you’ve ever lived like that over a long period of time, or if you’ve observed someone who has, you know that all too often, some of those balls go crashing to the ground with consequences that range from inconvenient to catastrophic.

3.  Consider a lawyer who would like to leave the practice.  I had an opportunity a few days ago to spend time with the fabulous Monica Parker, author of the recently-released book The Unhappy Lawyer: A Roadmap to Finding Meaningful Work Outside of the Law, and we were talking about the challenges that lawyers face when they start thinking about leaving practice.  Money was one of the first ones we hit on: not only has the lawyer often become accustomed to a particular income and lifestyle, but he or she may be facing a family who’s come to rely on that income and lifestyle.

Perhaps for a lawyer in this situation, playing to win would include a hard look at the budget, a searching look at alternatives that might feed both the soul and the bank account, and exploring the relative importance of professional happiness and money.  Playing to win might even include considering what this lawyer likes about the practice and how to get more of that and less or what he or she dislikes.  I suspect that playing not to lose would involve a more fear-based, narrow look at how to avoid giving up (that is, losing) anything.  I also suspect that playing not to lose would result in no career change.

So, with those examples, I’ll ask again: are you playing to win?  Or are you playing not to lose?

Discrimination against women in law firms?

Former law firm associate Catriona Collins sued the law firm that had employed her, Cohen Pontani Lieberman & Pavane, claiming that she was passed over for work assignments and ultimately dismissed on the basis of her gender.

Last week, the ABA Journal reported on Judge Kimba Wood’s Order denying (in part) the firm’s motion for summary judgment and permitting the case to proceed to trial.  A New York Law Journal article reports the fact in more detail than the ABA Journal’s summary:

The judge said remarks by Cohen Pontani managing partner Martin B. Pavane that Collins was insufficiently “sweet” in dealing with a paralegal “could be construed as reflecting discriminatory animus.”

“A reasonable jury could find that Pavane’s statement indicates that (1) he holds stereotypes that women should be ‘sweet’ and non-aggressive, and (2) that Pavane believed that Plaintiff did not fit this stereotype,” Wood wrote in Collins v. Cohen Pontani Lieberman & Pavane, 04 Civ. 8983.

Collins joined 30-lawyer Cohen Pontani as a litigation associate in 1997. . . .

According to her November 2004 complaint, Collins was told in 1999 that she would never be promoted to partner, despite positive reviews, because the partners, all of whom were then men, were “uncomfortable” with her. The firm’s Web site currently lists two female partners.

Collins claims she was thereafter passed over for work assignments that were instead given to male associates. This allegedly led to her having low billable hours, which the firm then cited in denying her salary increases.

On Sept. 16, 2003, Collins sent an e-mail to Cohen Pontani partners citing an article about the potential benefits of having women serve as lead counsel in patent litigation. She said Cohen Pontani was “behind the times” because women lawyers at the firm were not being given positions of responsibility.

She was terminated on Sept. 18, 2003. The firm claims it fired Collins that day because she sent a series of “insulting and unprofessional” e-mails to lawyers and paralegals distinct from her Sept. 16 message. According to Cohen Pontani, Collins had a history of clashing with other lawyers and staff and the Sept. 18 e-mails were the “last straw.”

While the suit itself is interesting, the ABA Journal report produced comments that are fascinating.  Many of the comments are brief, concluding that the firm did discriminate against Collins or that a woman who is criticized for being insufficiently “sweet” is no worse off than a man who is criticized for being insufficiently “masculine.”  A few of the comments purport to share stories from women lawyers who were faced similar situations and yet made partner at their firms.  One woman reports being the only woman left from her class by her 5th year of practice and realizing that more junior male associates received preferential treatment:

Later, of course, when I realized what was going on and that the partners weren’t going to lift a finger to help me – and in fact, said that the reason for the problem must be that I wasn’t “nice” – I did get angry. Then, I admit, I wasn’t “sweet”; I came to the conclusion that I could get my job done, or I could have all the staff think I was “nice”, and since their behavior was unfair, I was not so worried about them liking me so I’d get my job done. Nonetheless, this is an impossible position to be in. At one point, our head of secretarial services, the person who was responsible for instructing the staff on what their jobs were and how to do it, explained to me that she fully sympathized with staff who didn’t want to work for women, because after all, they shouldn’t have to do menial work for women. I repeated this to the supervising partner; he thought it was funny . . . .

While it’s easy to line up (largely anonymously) either for or against Collins on the basis of only a small amount of information about the case and the evidence, the comments — and the amount of time the responders took to share their comments — are striking.  I’m inclined to agree with the several commentors who suggested that the case will likely settle and so we’ll learn nothing more, but the conversation is, nonethless, fascinating.

I’ve worked with assistants (plural!) who’ve told me flat out they prefer not to work for women, and I’ve seen a number of women succeed in law firms (of various sizes) apparently without facing substantial gender-based issues.  Anyone care to comment here?

What challenge bothers you most?

One of my favorite questions to suggest to a lawyer who’s in conversation with a potential client or looking to deepen a conversation with a current client is this: When you’re stuck in traffic and you’re thinking about your business, what’s the challenge that comes to mind most frequently?  I love that question because it’s so universal and because it creates an opportunity for someone to share what’s really of concern, which isn’t always the same thing as the surface concern that may have prompted the conversation.  (The question is drawn from James Hassett’s marvelous book, Legal Business Development: A Step-by-Step Guide.).

Q&A: When an assignment goes awry

I’ve begun including a new feature in my weekly email newsletter Leadership Matters for Lawyers, called “Ask Julie.”  Readers can send in questions, and each week I select one to answer in the newsletter.  Last week’s question and response generated quite a bit of discussion, so I’m sharing it here.
The question…
I’ve been working for a partner for two years now (since I started with the firm) and I still have no idea what he wants.  He assigns something to me and tells me what he wants, but when I deliver it, he tells me he wanted something different.  Last week is a perfect example.  He asked me to prepare an outline for a deposition he’d be taking, and he told me that all he wanted was a topic outline with reference to the key documents.  He specifically said he didn’t want any questions.  So I prepared the outline and left it in his office, and about an hour later, he stormed into my office, furious that I hadn’t given him questions!  I ended up working all night.  I’m at my wit’s end with this partner.  What do I do?
Julie responds…

You’re in a tough spot, no question about it.    It’s difficult enough when an assigning lawyer doesn’t give enough information for you to know what he or she has in mind, but when you’re told to do something and then told that you should have done something else, it’s a no-win position.
A few suggestions that might help:  
  • Always, always take notes when this partner is giving you an assignment.  If you see him coming and you don’t have a pad and pen, get one immediately.
  • Be sure you ask clarifying questions so you’ve pinned down exactly what he’s telling you he wants.  For example, if he says he doesn’t want deposition questions, you might ask whether he’d like an outline that mirrors how the questions might go or whether he’d like a topic-only checklist.
  • For larger projects, send a confirming email and check in with the partner while you’re in the process of doing the work.
  • To the extent possible, anticipate the changes that he might make.  So, having had this deposition experience, you might choose always to write out questions (or to dictate them for quick transcription) even when he says he doesn’t want questions.  There’s a balance here, of course, between anticipating what the partner might want from you and burning time that will be cut as unnecessarily spent.  But once you’ve identified a tendency, do what you can to prepare for it.
Consider where your breaking point lies.  Your frustration is evident in your question, but how serious is it?  Should you have a respectful but pointed conversation with the partner about his reversals? (“Bob, it seems to me that fairly often you ask for one thing but really want another.  An example is when you told me not to write deposition questions, just an outline, and then asked for questions when I gave you the outline.  I know you aren’t doing this intentionally, and I want to give you exactly what you want and need to advance our cases.  How can I ensure that I’m doing that?”)  Are you ready to look for another position, either inside your firm or elsewhere?
The sole advantage of this situation is that you are learning to evaluate what’s needed for projects independently of what the partner requests.  Learn to balance your independent action with what’s likely to be useful (and therefore billable) and you’ll stand a better chance of satisfying this partner and advancing your own professional development.

Several readers wrote in either to express sympathy for the questioner or to provide some additional thoughts.  Some of the feedback I received included excellent points that I want to share with readers, especially the questioner.  Those comments follow (with the authors’ permission): 

Reader #1

Excellent suggestions.   
Only one additional thought for you.  More senior (than the trapped lawyer) supervisors sometimes operate on the afterthought level.  They may not have said what they meant to or the lawyer may not have understood.  It could be helpful for the lawyer to give the senior a copy of the notes.  Or even better to outline briefly what the senior said is wanted and give that to the senior.  And include a request for any suggestions the senior might have about the work outlined in the notes.  In some cases, it may help to send short work in progress reports to be sure there is a record of what the lawyer understood the senior wanted.  
Of course, nothing is simple or perfect.  The senior always may say at the end that’s not what was wanted, but going through an iteration process sometimes does help.  Even with the most inept senior.  And as a last resort could help with the review committee if the firm (wisely) sets that process up. 
Reader #2 (edited for emphasis)
I read your response to the young associate’s question of how to keep the partner happy if he changes the assignment all the time and felt compelled to respond even though comments were not invited. Frankly, I think the point of view of the partner should be considered by the associate as it highlights the inexperience of the associate in understanding the nature and purpose of the assignment. If the associate wants to take the partner literally and do “no questions” and a “topic outline” then she will never understand an assignment from any other lawyer. I think for the benefit of your readers, particularly young female associates who I have seen over 25 years not “get it” when they receive an assignment, that you ought to give the other point of view.

Here’s my two cents which comes from being a partner during the past 19 years as well as the owner of two law firms and getting my battle scars in a third large firm where I was an associate and worked with a number of partners. A partner is bombarded with more work and demands than can be met in the available time. He/she relies on associates knowing a file, knowing what information must be extracted from discovery to put together a winning strategy, and having the ability to put the facts and theory in a single lucid and useful document that a partner can literally pick up the day before the deposition, review quickly and take to the deposition with the necessary documents to ask questions.

If the partner asked for questions, the associate (as I have seen on too many occasions) would fill the paper with meaningless questions about background and other formulaic material that a partner already knows how to cover (e.g.. what is your name, how long have you worked at the abc co., what positions have you held?) So as a partner I too would say, I don’t want questions from the associate. What I want and need is an outline, by topic, with a listing of issues and subtopics that get to the heart of the matter, annotated with documents that pin the witness down on key admissions that help the case, with the documents attached to the outline in a useable format (such as one copy for every party attending, the witness and the court reporter, and a blank exhibit sticker on it so the appropriate marking can be added at the deposition, all in a folder or clipped together in a way that I can tell what question the materials apply to, and the top copy being my copy, highlighted in the areas I need to focus on); that would be a useable document and superb work product from an associate.

For example, if the topic is “knowledge of the contract in question”, the list of subtopics should include: did Mr. Smith see the contract, learn of it by reference in an email, learn of it by reference in a conversation, learn of it by reference in a meeting, learn of it by reference in a purchase order or subsequent communication from the other party, and after each subtopic (of course there would be more subtopics) a short sentence that indicates what the law firm knows about each of these scenarios, such as: “Mr. Smith was cc: on the email from Mr. Jones of 5/1/08 referencing the contract” and attach the email.      

But in all my years of practice, the associates focus on the boilerplate meaningless questions that everyone learns in law school or can find in any deposition text. The associates fail to think through why they have been given the particular assignment, how it will be used by the partner, and what is the level of detail that would make it a meaningful document for the partner. After all, the partner thought highly enough of the associate to give the assignment to her, and to charge the client for the time, so this strongly suggests the partner wanted something meaningful and useful that he did not have the time to put together himself.
Unfortunately, associates do not understand a partner’s job. If they did, they would have made partner by now. Associates instead jump on the easiest excuse at hand rather than their own lack of introspection of the assignment and its value to the partner and the client.
Your suggestions to the associate make sense but again, taken literally will cause the partner to not want to deal with that associate because it looks more like she is trying to paper a file than do the task at hand. I cannot imagine walking around a law firm without always having a pen and paper with me. One never knows if they will be stopped in the hallway with an assignment, caught offhand with a telephone call while out of one’s own office, or given an assignment simply because they were the first associate in sight and something needed to be done immediately. In any scenario, few things were more frustrating to me than an associate that walked around the busy law firm empty-handed or worse yet, came into my office without pen and paper.
Clarifying questions should be asked, of course. But if done in a way to micromanage the assignment, they are sure to offend. Similarly, sending a confirming email is seen as nothing more than papering the file, and demonstrating one really doesn’t understand the assignment. (e.g. “This email confirms you don’t want questions but want a topic outline for the deposition of Mr. Smith.”) Repeating the words used doesn’t demonstrate real understanding of what the associate was asked to do. Similarly, preparing statements that end with question marks won’t satisfy the partner when the first approach fails and will unleash his wrath when he sees the bill and the time that must be cut.
Too many associates also do not understand that young partners are in the early stages of learning how to delegate and will make mistakes like not explaining what they really need as part of an assignment; if the associate’s problem is with a young partner, she needs to factor this into her assessment of how to clarify assignments so they are done right the first time.
So what is an associate to do? Think. Think about how the document will be used and what will save the partner time such that he has asked the associate to prepare it rather than do it himself. Ask how the partner thinks he will use the document so its format fits the intended use. Ask if it would be helpful to attach a copy of relevant documents and if the partner wants enough copies for all attorneys attending and for the witness and court reporter; don’t just assume. Consider if the partner is senior or junior and whether he/she knows the file or how to do the upcoming task. (e.g. In one case, a junior partner did not know how to prepare jury instructions and asked an associate to do the project, who also had no clue how to prepare the instructions for a state court case. Regardless of rewrites and sleepless nights, neither one was going to get it right until they asked an experienced attorney what the final work product should look like.)
I have seen too many smart associates dig a hole and ruin their career at a law firm by not thinking through their assignments and then blaming it on the messenger. Inevitably, word travels that the associate doesn’t turn in what was asked for, and the assignments to the associate start to dwindle until the associate gets the message that her services are no longer desired at the law firm. Changing law firms will not solve the problem for the associate if she is not applying her own analysis to the assignment and its purpose and case goals because the same problem will occur at the next law firm.
Having defended the anonymous partner, I note that there are lawyers who change every word in a perfunctory letter, rewrite every billing entry, and change their mind as to what they want from an assignment but don’t bother to tell the associate until the last minute. If the particular partner demonstrates that type of behavior, the associate is past the breaking point and should get reassigned immediately. That type of behavior is not the norm, is rarely seen and clearly is unfair to an associate. If a law firm will not initiate a transfer under that circumstance, where it clearly knows about the partner’s track record, then it is time to move on to greener pastures.
Feel free to reprint, ignore or use my comments, in whole or part, if you wish Julie. I would very much appreciate it if the message could get out to the inexperienced associates that as licensed attorneys they have an obligation to think, initiate and improve a case assigned to them rather than work as an automaton whose every move is micromanaged. Associates need to remember that they are valued by the law firm and partner or else they would not have been hired and given the assignment. Too many good attorneys get discouraged early in their career because they do not understand their role in a case and as part of a team with the partner. As a result, the profession is losing good attorneys who get disillusioned early about the practice. The members of the bar need to be proactive and try to reverse this trend whenever possible.
Julie’s final comments
Excellent points, particularly in the second author’s last paragraph.
I’ll also share that, when I was a second- or third-year associate, I was asked for a deposition outline, with no questions and only topics. (My experience is one of the reasons I chose this question, as a matter of fact.) I asked the assigning lawyer whether he wanted any questions at all, or whether he wanted an outline that tied together the facts, documents, and legal positions so he could formulate his own questions, and he said that’s what he wanted. That’s what I prepared and (you guessed it) he was not happy when I provided him the outline, because he wanted questions. I’m not saying that I clarified perfectly, but I do hold that the miscommunication, if there was one, wasn’t attributable solely to my inexperience.
So, the original questioner must inquire which of the suggestions is most on target for his situation. Does he need to clarify, to think more strategically about the assignment, to seek assistance, or something else? Original questioner, please feel free to write in with any follow-up.