Tips for Junior Associates to Effectively Communicate and Build Relationships at All Levels of the Law Firm Food Chain
It’s your first day at your new law firm. It’s a big law firm, or at least it feels big. Maybe this is your first job out of law school (possibly your first full-time job period). Maybe you lateraled over from another firm, or came from an in-house or public sector job. You survey your office—your office. The shiny computer, the phone with too many buttons, the view out of the window (looking at the high-rise building next to yours), the bare walls where you will hang your diplomas, pictures of your family, and tasteful yet eccentric art. You think about the work that will soon land on your desk, and the intellectual rigors and stimulation that are to come in your long and successful legal career.
But outside of that office is where the magic happens. More likely than not, the keys to your success will be found in the relationships you develop—not only with clients and potential clients outside of your law firm, but just as importantly, with the lawyers and staff with whom you work. Make no mistake about it: the practice of law is a team sport. To construct the building blocks to a successful career—particularly early on, when you may not have regular client contact or the tools to build a book of business—junior lawyers need to learn to communicate effectively and build relationships with members of their law firm “team,” from the legal assistant to the managing partner.
Doing so takes work. The approaches to use—and traps to avoid—depend on who you are interacting with on the law firm “food chain.” These common-sense and experience-based tips will help you effectively communicate and build relationships with non-attorney staff, other associates and partners that will increase your chances of navigating the sometimes perilous waters of law firm life.
- Say “thank you”—a lot—and mean it.
As you soon will learn—if you have not already—your law firm’s support staff is critical to your success, and that of the firm. Legal assistants, paralegals, IT and practice support, marketing and other administrative employees are all working to make sure you and your J.D.-toting colleagues have the best chance to succeed. So show your gratitude on a regular basis—not only has the staff earned it, but it will make them happier and more productive, resulting in better client service. (My mother is so proud of me right now.)
- Set clear expectations.
Those supporting you can only give you the help you need if they know what is expected of them, so it behooves you and them to make your expectations clear. This holds true for specific tasks and projects you assign, and day-to-day matters staff members handle for you. It pays to encourage an open dialogue to avoid a communication breakdown, and so you can anticipate problems and obstacles in order to deal with them more effectively.
- Provide constructive and honest performance feedback.
Not only do staff need to know when they are doing something right, it is just as important to let a staff member know when his or her performance is not meeting expectations. While it can be tough to provide constructive criticism, particularly for lawyers new to a firm, it is important for the staff member’s professional growth and their efficiency in supporting you. It is also important to minimize the firm’s legal risk in the event the staff member is let go for performance reasons. If he or she sues the firm and can point to your endless praise (or lack of constructive criticism), that may be enough to get a discrimination or retaliation claim before a jury—or worse.
- To those associates senior to you—always be ready to lend a helping hand and learn.
Don’t fall into the trap of believing that because someone’s nameplate doesn’t say “partner” they don’t deserve your respect or best effort. In most cases, senior associates are still with your firm because they do good work, and often are considered “partner material.” They have walked in your shoes, and succeeded. What does this mean? You can learn a lot from senior associates, and if a senior associate takes you under his or her wing you will be better off in the long run. So don’t scoff at senior associate assignments, and be eager to help and learn. Who knows—you might catch a shooting star.
- To your peers—remember that they are your greatest allies.
This is not law school—no one is tearing pages out of library books. You have made it, so to speak, and now have the opportunity to make a name for yourself on the merits of your work. If you were a summer associate, you likely have already experienced the camaraderie amongst your peers. Cultivate those relationships—among other things, your peers are a great sounding board for legal and firm-related issues, and a reliable barometer for your own career progress. Just as importantly, many of those peers will move on to in-house roles in which they will be doling out business. When that time comes, you’ll be glad you kept in touch. And who knows, you may even develop some lasting friendships, as this author has.
- To those associates junior to you—be a mentor.
If it hasn’t happened already, the time will come when you will have more junior associates working with and for you. It may be hard to fathom, but that means someone out there looks to you as an example of what a talented and (moderately) experienced lawyer should be. Take the time, formally or on an informal basis, to mentor those junior to you. Mentoring makes the junior associate and you better lawyers. It helps the firm deliver better client service. It demonstrates your initiative, leadership potential and capacity to your firm’s leaders. (Pssssst, it feels good too.)
- You do have clients—they are called partners.
If you ask junior and mid-level associates whether they have any clients, many will tell you they do not. Wrong answer—every partner in the firm is that associate’s client. Some associates will get outside client experience sooner than others, but you must never forget that the partners are your clients. What does this mean? Be timely. Be respectful. Be responsive. Be willing to help out whenever possible, particularly in a pinch. Get to know the partners, whether you work for them on a regular basis or not. But above all, do top-level work for the partners. Follow those rules, and the partners will be your champion when you need it most.
- Be hungry, but don’t bite off more than you can chew.
As a junior associate, it is important to establish a reputation as a hard worker willing to pitch in on a moment’s notice. To be sure, this means some late nights and weekends, but if the quality of your work matches your enthusiasm, it generally pays off in spades as you become seen as a “go-to” associate. There is a possible downside, however—taking on too much work. The pitfalls are serious: among the most grave are work that is not delivered on time and/or is not of the caliber expected by the partner. But if you find that you have taken on more than you can handle, effective communication is the key— give the partner as much notice as possible; take ownership of the situation; offer a solution; and ask how you can make amends. It is a situation we have all faced, and as long as it does not become a regular occurrence, handling it the right way can turn a negative into a positive. (P.S. make sure you learn from your mistake.)
- If you don’t ask the question, you’ll never hear the answer.
The partners in your firm have a wealth of knowledge and experience—and it is all at your disposal. But they are busy, and while partners likely are willing to make the time for you, it is incumbent upon you to make the first move. So, take the bull by the horns: ask if you can work on the deal, attend the deposition, help prepare for oral argument, meet with the client, or by-line the article. Much of the time, the answer will be “yes,” and at a minimum you will be on the partner’s radar the next time a great opportunity arises.
The Bottom Line
Being a successful associate at a large or mid-sized law firm is hard work. Where many attorneys go wrong is by focusing myopically on the legal work they are doing, to the exclusion of communicating effectively with others and building relationships with colleagues. While the work is important, those people you work for and with, as well as those people who work for you, are every bit as important to your long-term success. Following the tips above in your law firm dealings will go a long way toward helping you build a successful legal career.
Christopher D. Durham is an attorney with Duane Morris LLP in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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