Consider for a moment that “accountability” as defined by one generation is at the root of the problem that lies with the “failure” of the next generation. But there is a common denominator, which is serving clients. Often associates suffer from fear of failure––catastrophizing mistakes that haven’t yet happened. They procrastinate and become paralyzed or avoidant. You recognize this and have concerns about serving the client. The associate doesn’t talk to you about it and you don’t talk to the associate about it. The result is the associate doesn’t deliver. No one wants to have an uncomfortable conversation, right?
But what senior lawyers often fail to recognize is that most associates want to be accountable; it allows them to determine whether they are succeeding and what to do if they aren’t. If associates aren’t accountable, there is something missing. As the senior lawyer you are best positioned to figure out what is missing and provide it as training and mentoring.
Consider that when partners were associates, they learned the craft from more senior lawyers. As partners, they rely on that experience as a model for how to work with the more junior lawyers. The problem? Each generation’s prior experience differs greatly from the current generation’s experience because norms for working together––largely driven by technology––have changed so much. My father used to dictate memos, which his secretary typed on a typewriter. Everyone worked in the office. That was law practice in the 1970s. Lawyers went to the library––a place not a platform. You get the picture.
So much has changed since Baby Boomers and Gen Xers began their careers. Even before the pandemic, the internet both revolutionized and confounded the practice of law. Some partners worry about the thoroughness of work wondering if the associate read the statute and cases or just googled the answer. Now, of course, it’s a new world as everyone adjusts to hybrid or fully remote working and artificial intelligence, such as ChatGPT, can often deliver a plausible answer to a question.
What does all of this have to do with accountability? For associates to be accountable, certain conditions must exist. The associate must understand the assignment and have the skills to complete the assignment. To deliver timely, high-quality work, the associate must be intrinsically inspired by loyalty, a love of learning, or work ethic and above all service to the client. Fear of the senior lawyer doesn’t work, at least not over the long term. In fact, it’s counterproductive, resulting in avoidance of uncomfortable conversations about performance.
Further, and critically, accountability is directly related to retention. By creating the circumstances necessary for accountable associates, you increase the likelihood that your firm will retain the best associates. They will become more confident in their ability to succeed as they realize they are meeting the standard for which they are accountable. Those who don’t probably do not want to practice law and will leave sooner. This is best for both the associate and the firm.
Five Steps to Train, Retain and Inspire Accountability
Firms that invest in and retain the best associates do so by defining the norms for which an associate is accountable and then managing and mentoring. These five steps are the road map for solving both accountability and retention challenges.
1. Consider yourself a manager. Many partners don’t see themselves as managers of people. They tell themselves that time spent managing and mentoring is an irritating distraction from the practice of law. If you want accountable associates who stay with the firm, you’ve got to shift your thinking. Managing and mentoring are part of the job, so allocate the necessary time. Associates need to know what is expected and how to do what is expected.
2. Be objective about each associate’s skill. This doesn’t mean write off anyone who can’t deliver partner-level product. It means that you get what you need and train the associate by first determining how best to utilize and develop the associate. As an associate, I learned the most from and was incredibly loyal to the partner who recognized my skill level and was satisfied so long as I “moved the ball forward.”
3. Make time your friend. Set up your associate (and you) for success by ensuring sufficient runway for periodic check-ins and mentoring. Creating this extra time requires you to review and think through work when it lands on your desk. Think about what needs to be done and delegate as soon as practicable. Waiting too long frustrates both you and the associate, and often means missing the client’s expectation.
4. Mentor like you mean it. Now that you’ve created some breathing room, you’ve got time to manage, mentor and train. Explain the assignment. Use your objective assessment of the associate’s development to provide guidance and calibrate your expectations of the work product. Meet regularly. Short, frequent meetings at milestones and periodic check-ins are better than longer infrequent meetings occurring after the associate’s work has progressed too far down the wrong path. Manage, but do not micromanage. Create opportunities to learn in the trenches. Don’t be afraid to invest even if it means writing off time.
5. Don’t give up; coach through the obstacles. When there are missteps, misunderstandings or miscommunications, and there will be, use coaching in both the sports and executive sense of the word. A sports coach tells the athlete how to improve performance. An executive coach uses thought-providing questions to hone the younger lawyer’s best thinking, insight and ability to resolve challenges. Use both.
If you follow these steps, you have a good chance of developing a trusting relationship with an associate. You will create sufficient points of contact to mentor. You will mentor. And, importantly, you will communicate by your actions that you value and care about how the associate is integral to providing service to the client. Most associates who want to practice law will see the firm as a place where they can meet the expectations for which they are accountable and succeed, recognizing that they are a valued part of the team and worth the investment.