The first step in the careers of most successful associates in law firms is gaining the trust of the partners they are working for. The best associates are given assignments, complete them thoroughly and without errors, do so without aggravating the partners they are working for and then ask for more assignments. The ability to do good work and want more work is something that gives the partners the associates are working for security that the work will be done properly. The associates' reputations for caring about their work, being reliable and doing good work makes them stand out. In addition, these same associates work well with others, support the firm and its objectives and are nice to be around.
In contrast, the associates who get weeded out will often cut corners in their work, question whether the partner really needs certain things done, act unhappy a lot of the time, make errors, and, in general, approach the assignments with a lack of care and attention to detail. They will not seek out work and rarely will treat each assignment as if it is the most important thing in the world to them. Compared to the best associates, this behavior gets noticed and puts them at a lower level than the other associates out there.
1. Superstar Associates Enjoy Their Jobs and Are Enthusiastic
The best attorneys of all types enjoy their jobs. In fact, some of the best ones have said things to me like, "I cannot believe I get paid to do this."
When a really talented associate gets a choice assignment, he often appears so excited he could jump out of his skin. Partners love this enthusiasm and want to give work to (and advance) people who find joy in their work. It is this love of the work that often gets clients good results, impresses clients and makes people around these associates enjoy their jobs.
You are generally only going to advance, get more work and be favored by the law firm if you truly enjoy the work you are doing. Therefore, it is imperative that you work:
in a practice area you enjoy,
with people you enjoy,
in an environment you enjoy.
If you are not having fun, you will not do well. Do you think that the most talented athletes, businesspeople, musicians, actors and others got where they are by not enjoying what they do? Everyone at the top of every profession gets there by loving the work that they are doing, and you should too. When you truly love what you are doing, the people around you want to give you more work and advance you.
If you were to go to a restaurant and be served by someone who clearly did not enjoy their job, how would you feel? You would leave a poor tip. Most people would. It is the same thing with the work you do for supervisors. They want to see enthusiasm and that you love what you are doing.
There has always been a large amount of age discrimination against attorneys in the legal profession. Older attorneys have a difficult time getting jobs in law firms unless they have a lot of business. I have worked with countless attorneys throughout the years that are older and do not have business. The ones who do get hired typically have an infectious enthusiasm for their jobs and clearly love the work they are doing a great deal. However, most older attorneys are not as enthusiastic, they often are a bit angry and they do not appear to love the work as much. I think this may be the reason there is so much discrimination.
The very best associates love the work they are doing and get enthusiastic about it. If you cannot love the work you are doing, the odds are that you are going to be in trouble. Law firms want people who love their work and are incredibly enthusiastic about it.
2. Superstar Associates Treat Partners (and Everyone they Encounter) Like Valued Clients
Being an attorney is a service profession. Therefore, it is important that associates understand how to provide the best possible service to the partners they are working for and also treat others around them in a way that garners respect.
The best associates make partners and others around them feel like everything is taken care of. Things go smoothly.
Years ago, I was being interviewed for a book about how to be a good legal recruiter. One of the things the best recruiters do is take care of all of the details behind the scenes so both sides feel limited stress. The best recruiters make both sides feel as if the transaction happened without them having to do any work. If the law firm tells us about a job, the following may occur:
We may spend thousands of dollars advertising the job.
We email and call hundreds of attorneys.
We take phone calls and speak with hundreds of attorneys.
A week or so later, after 100+ hours of work, we may submit a candidate to the law firm. Prior to the interview, we will spend time with the attorney telling her the positives of leaving her current firm and joining the new one. We may also convince the law firm to interview the new person despite issues they may have with the attorney.
By the time the attorney and law firm meet, both have been vetted, and their meeting goes smoothly. There may be further interviews and back and forth before an offer is made and the attorney is hired. It looks like nothing happened, but an incredible amount of work occurred behind the scenes to make everything go smoothly. The interaction between the law firm and attorney was nothing but positive (despite the fact that had I not been involved, they never would have gotten together).
The ability to make things go smoothly and resolve issues along the way is one of the characteristics of the best attorneys and people in every profession. Partners want to feel limited stress and want the assurance that each assignment will be done properly.
The worst people in every profession create additional stress for people when they do work.
The best associates understand the personalities and likes and dislikes of the partners they are working for. They anticipate the sort of information these partners expect without having to be told. They know what it takes to impress the partner and get on their good side and understand the precise expectations of the partner. This makes partners more likely to give them work in the future because the partner feels that the associate thinks like them and feels comfortable giving the associate work without being micromanaged. It gradually builds trust and makes the partner comfortable having the associate represent the law firm in meetings with clients and takes stress away from the partner.
Being the best possible associate has a lot in common with being an outstanding server in a restaurant. A good server is going to know when to fill your water glass, when to take your order, when they need to speak with you about a delay, how to time your appetizer and main course, and when to present the check. The very, very best servers will exceed expectations and get the best tips. Similarly, the best associates anticipate the needs of their superiors and make sure they are addressed on an ongoing basis.
The best associates empower those around them by virtue of their presence. Partners are given extremely good service which makes them feel good about the associate. The good service makes them feel respected, like they can trust the associate and like they are valuable.
Even fellow associates, paralegals and legal secretaries are treated extremely well by the best associates. The best associates know that when they empower people around them, the entire firm is stronger. This is a leadership trait that is very powerful and important for advancement. Leaders make others (and the group) stronger based on their presence.
Most of the best associates have mentors on their sides. These mentors generally attach themselves to the associate (as much as the associate is attaching themselves to the mentor) because they are attracted by the associate's enthusiasm and desire to provide such outstanding service to every aspect of their job. When a partner feels respected and as if their knowledge and guidance is important, they naturally want to help younger associates who go out of their way to (1) anticipate their needs and (2) do a good job for them.
I am still in touch today with many of the mentors that I had when I was younger and practicing law. One of my strongest mentors was a partner who was very powerful, but at the same time quite socially awkward. I would sit in his office for hours while he analyzed cases and was generally astonished by how brilliant many of his insights were. I told him how brilliant I thought he was, spoke highly of him to others and loved the assignments and work he gave me. I am pretty confident that all of this helped our relationship and the bond we had together.
Many of these older attorneys become mentors to the associate because the associate is able to be vulnerable and ask the partner for advice. This creates a bond between the two of them where the partner feels invested in the associate's career. Partners want to be in a position where they can offer advice and help associates. The bonds that come about as a result of the mentor-mentee relationship are something that protect and help advance the careers of the most successful associates.
An additional factor that I have noticed is that the mentor-mentee relationship typically works the best when there is a certain amount of informality to it. Partners will generally feel free to open up to some extent with the associate. A mutual understanding will develop over time where both people are on the same team, and the associate and partner both would sacrifice somewhat for each other. There are countless instances I have seen in my career where an associate and partner start a law firm, or move to another one together. They have a bond together that seemingly will keep them working together forever. These bonds are incredibly important and something that every associate needs to work to earn. These bonds will protect you for the rest of your career.
The biggest mistake you can make is not cultivating mentors.
When I am visiting law firms, there are always various associates who sit at their desks looking slumped over, tired and as if putting in another hour may lead to their final demise. Their offices are generally filled with papers randomly scattered about and perhaps some crumpled clothes in a corner. They may be wearing a crooked tie, and their hair may be a mess.
The best associates know that the people they are working for are like clients. They need to look good and be in control at all times. If a client was to walk into that associate's office and see how messed up everything (and the associate) looked, they would not have a lot of confidence giving that associate more work. Partners, associates and others want to have confidence in the associate, and confidence means being in control.
Being in control takes many different forms. For example, being in control means:
looking your best,
keeping your office clean and organized,
having your shoes polished,
having your clothes dry cleaned,
not acting inappropriately,
taking care of your health,
not letting your personal life interfere with work,
not playing and talking on your cell phone at work all the time,
not abusing substances,
having good hygiene (shaving, showering, getting your hair cut)
not having affairs with people in the office (regardless of whether either party is married),
always acting professionally with colleagues and others.
I have seen people not get hired, or get fired, for tons of reasons when they do not look in control. The more in control you appear, the more trustworthy you appear, and the more likely you will be considered a good associate.
If you had some sort of horrible cancer and went to the doctor, how would you feel if the doctor himself looked unhealthy, unkempt and unorganized? I do not know about you, but I would run from that doctor before I let him operate on me (and most people would).
A significant number of the attorneys inside of law firms are not committed to the work. This lack of commitment becomes obvious in a huge variety of ways to partners and others. You need to be 100% committed to the firm you are with and the work you are doing to get ahead.
As a recruiter, I am regularly approached by attorneys who are interested in moving firms for the wrong reasons. If you move every few years (consistently), then the next law firm you work for is not likely to believe that you are committed to them. This lack of commitment will make them trust you less, it will make it more difficult to get mentors and your advancement will be that much more difficult as well. There is nothing wrong with moving firms; however, generally you only want to move firms if there is a real chance that doing so is likely to put you in an environment where you can be committed.
If you are not committed to the firm you are in, it will show in all sorts of ways. Often, when many associates move, a partner is incredibly rude to them and dresses them down after weeks of the associate doing very hard work (or they receive a review which is not that strong). The associate then gets upset and starts looking for a job.
My advice: this is often a time to show the firm you are committed by working even harder and getting over the bump in the road. This will go a long way toward keeping you employed in the long run.
Your reputation is largely built by your reliability, enthusiasm and how seriously you take every matter the partners assign to you. Whenever you are given an assignment, it should be the most important thing in the world to you.
One of the biggest mistakes young associates make is turning in work that is not complete and perfect. You should never show a partner a memo with a typo on it, for example. When a partner asks you to do something, you should not delay completing it. Showing partners anything less than your best with every assignment will upset and alienate them.
In most law firms, you are expected to work every day of the week if there is an important assignment pending. Earning a reputation for being prompt, reliable, and thorough will help you tremendously.
Partners discuss the associates they work with among each other all the time. If you get a reputation as someone who does not take work seriously and does not do things effectively, they will simply stop giving you work.
When I was working in large law firms, there were always associates inside of these law firms who did not have any work. Often times, they may have done a poor job on just a few assignments for one or more partners and gotten a bad reputation that spread like wildfire throughout the entire firm. I have seen this happen to more attorneys than I can count, and it is never a good thing.
Your reputation will be built not just on the work you do, but also on your personal behavior, relationships with subordinates and colleagues and others. You need to do everything you can to develop a reputation that will help you.
Many law firms will, unfortunately, judge you and evaluate you based on the number of hours that you bill. However, this is not always the case. If you seem to be billing simply for the sake of billing, this is not likely to impress partners (they are your clients after all). You should be billing lots of hours only when it is necessary to get command of what you are doing so that you can be as effective as possible.
Attorneys who understand the matters they are working on in great depth are generally more effective than those who do not. If you take the time to dig into a matter so that you can win a negotiation, or complete a transaction to the benefit of your client, then this will be respected by the partners you are working for. These partners will love it when you have a better command of the facts and law than the other side (or even them). This will give these partners confidence assigning you additional work and having you work directly with clients. This is the main reason you want to work as hard as you can.
If you are working on a matter with a partner, you generally need to be in the office working with her when she is working on the same matter. The partners you are working for expect you to be around when they are in the office. If it is a Saturday, they will feel good knowing you are there supporting them even if they just want to pop in and ask you a question.
If you are given a very important assignment the day before a holiday weekend, the partners need assurance that you can be relied upon to do the work. You need to be seen as reliable and available at all times to take on assignments for the people you are working for. Sometimes the best opportunities may come when it is the most inconvenient. If you develop the reputation for reliability and are there to help when others are not, this will benefit your career tremendously.
Making work means finding things to do. This is part of the legal profession. You cannot simply stand around waiting for work to come to you. Attorneys who operate this way rarely stay busy for long. If you are given a matter to work on, it is always important to find other things that can be done to get the client a more effective result. This mindset creates higher billable hours and more profit for the partners and the firm.
As a partner, your job will be to find work that needs to be done and convince your clients about the necessity of this work. This will keep you busy, protect the client's interest (and hopefully make them more money) and create additional profits for you and the law firm. This is the type of thinking that law firms like to see.
Your job is not simply to do assignments; it is to have work to do. Partners do not like when associates are constantly stopping by their offices with questions like, "Do you have any work I can help you with?" This becomes something for them to worry about. The better approach is to make each assignment lead to a new one by suggesting additional research, briefings, or finding a connection between that assignment and something that another client could benefit from.
The best associates want to learn everything they can about practicing law and being better attorneys.
When they are given an assignment in one area of the law, it is not uncommon for them to do extra reading about this area of law during their free time or attend seminars to learn more. Litigators may ask to go to court with partners so they can observe (even if they are not billing). They will ask various questions about how things work and throw themselves into whatever they are doing.
The best associates consider learning and improving extremely important. In order to get better, they will also try to work and learn from the very best partners (and senior associates) in the firm.
In addition, the best associates are always learning in other areas. They may try and become more effective personally by learning to become better team players, feel less stress at work and become better overall people. They will observe the best traits of the partners and try and model their own behavior after them.
One of the real "career killers" of associates is any sort of dishonesty. The list of dishonest things I have seen associates do (and get caught for) is very long. In most cases, they ended the associate's career in the given law firm.
If you make a mistake on a matter, the best thing you can do is make the partner(s) you are working for aware of it. They will respect this because you are protecting them (and the client) and giving them the opportunity to fix the problem. In contrast, if you make a mistake and try to cover it up, it is almost always fatal, and you will generally get caught.
Here are some lies I have seen people get caught for:
Lying about hours worked
Lying about completing an assignment
Lying about doing work for another partner
Lying about being sick
Lying about who caused a mistake
Lying about needing time off to attend a relative's funeral
While not all of these people were fired for these infractions, the lack of trust each of these episodes engendered put the associate in a position where advancement in the firm became very unlikely.
There are very few associates out there who have an unquestionable reputation for reliability, are completely trustworthy, make the jobs of partners easier, are committed, know how to create work, attract mentors, take responsibility, want more work all of the time, are constantly growing, and all of the other qualities of the best associates. This is one reason why there are so few people who ever make partner in the largest and most competitive law firms.