Accountability is usually a bad word. Or at the very least, its mention brings dread to lawyers at all levels. When someone says “accountability,” it’s because something went terribly wrong. There is a failure tinged with scathing judgment about the associate’s commitment, intelligence or both. The partner is frustrated by being let down. The associate is “in trouble,” and stressed because of it and the consequent cascade of feelings of failure and thoughts of career disaster. When the topic of accountability surfaces, it’s not because things went well, and the associate is always to blame.
But is that blame accurately placed? More to the point, and because blame is not productive, is the associate the person in the best position to remedy the predicament? No, not usually.
While some associates don’t have the intellect or drive to thrive at a firm, many can produce much higher quality work product when the partner focuses on process. Further, and practically speaking, the partner who eschews this responsibility does so at the partner’s own peril; the associate, especially if quite junior, may not have the maturity or work experience required to understand what’s missing and what to do differently, obvious as it seems to the partner. Quite simply, to avoid frustration, the partner must have reasonable expectations about the associate’s level and ability to understand what the partner needs and why. The partner must also provide support.
Enter accountability. Accountability at its worst is a finger-wagging rebuke. Accountability, at its finest, is a powerful partnership in which a supportive process produces better outcomes. If asked what a partner wants from an associate, the partner’s answer usually boils down to one salient deliverable: The partner wants the associate to think critically, producing excellent work product. The partner does not want the associate to “check the box,” delivering work that is superficial and nearly worthless.
When you actualize the power of an accountability partnership, you, the partner, have someone in the boat rowing with you. And that person is a strong rower. The irony is that a powerful accountability partnership is one in which you, the partner, are accountable. You heard it right: You have responsibilities in the partnership to set up the associate for success. You need to think of yourself as a teacher, so that you instinctively support the associate. The associate consequently is enabled to produce higher-level work. The associate’s commitment in the accountability partnership is to take direction, work hard and strive to learn as much as possible while serving you and the client. Before you resist, citing lack of time as the reason, consider that you don’t have the time to do it all yourself. You need the best possible support so that you can effectively serve current clients while bringing in new business. Paradoxically, if you fail to heed this advice, you will spend more time doing the work yourself. Let’s set you up to avoid this paradox.
Seven Habits for Creating A Successful Accountability Partnership
A successful accountability partnership requires you to utilize the same skills that make you a great lawyer—being proactive, deliberate and practically strategic. Incorporating these seven habits into your management style will facilitate the structure necessary for mutual accountability and success.
1. Be the teacher. For the associate to produce the best work, remember you are a teacher and act accordingly. Your goal is to develop the associate into a fine lawyer, whom you can increasingly rely on for years to come.
2. Have reasonable expectations. Be realistic about where the associate is on the journey to develop into an exceptional lawyer. Ideally, you are challenging and developing the young lawyer and providing the support necessary to succeed.
3. Ensure understanding by encouraging questions. When you give an assignment, be sure to ask the associate, “What questions do you have?” This signals that you assume the associate has questions. Schedule time to discuss the project after the associate has had time to review the file. Make it clear that you expect the associate to be prepared with a list of questions.
4. Don’t just delegate; plan. Setting up the associate for success requires you to be thoughtful about timelines, taking into account how much time you and the associate each need to fulfill your respective obligations.
5. Be accessible. Whether you are working distanced because of the coronavirus, travel or being based in different offices, as the partner it’s your responsibility to be accessible to the associate. It should go without saying that if an associate has a question, you want to answer it to ensure that the work stays on track and without delay. No associate wants to “bother” a partner, so be positive about contact and schedule “casual” check-ins.
6. Check in at meaningful milestones. A critical aspect of a partner’s plan is establishing milestones for checking in. Such check-ins ideally occur once the associate is immersed in the facts and has a sense of the legal landscape and at other significant junctures. This minimizes the risk that the associate inadvertently deviates far from the proper course, and allows for timely course correction.
7. Incorporate time for a second “associate round.” Work backward from the deadline, and request the associate’s first draft with sufficient time for you to provide comments and for the associate to incorporate those comments into the final product. Realistically, on occasion you won’t have this luxury, but your default cannot be the “it’ll be quicker if I do it myself” trap. This robs the associate of the opportunity to learn, and robs you of that strong rower. If you do the work, the associate doesn’t learn and you continue to do the work. There’s that pesky paradox.
The prescribed techniques are not micromanaging. A micromanager hovers, dictates every step and does most of the work. When you choose to be accountable, the associate is accountable, empowered and supporting you. This is the power of an accountability partnership.