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January 26, 2022 Leadership Development

Associating with Associates

Douglas D. Church

Maybe I’m wrong but in my experience, newly minted associates tend not to seek me out, even though I’ve always let them know that I am available if they think I can be of some assistance to them.  Perhaps it’s because they are intimidated by the idea of just dropping in on The Senior Partner without a real case to discuss.  Maybe they are worried about their billable hours and don’t want to go “off the clock”!!  Or, perhaps it’s as simple as not knowing what to say to someone of a different generation! Talking to the Senior Partner doesn’t have a billing category, but maybe it should!! I have heard that some firms have a nonbillable category called “mentoring” – activity that can be beneficial to both senior partner and associate. Given the value of mentoring to law firms, maybe some portion of it should count as billable! Whatever the reasons for associates’ reluctance to reach out to those of us who are long of tooth, I have reached a conclusion:  It’s up to me to seek them out!!  And there are many reasons this is a “good thing” in no particular order:

  • Fresh young minds will stimulate your own mind;
  • Finding out what the younger generation is focusing on will help you better understand how to connect to it;
  • Engaging with your new associates will help them bond with the firm by developing an intergenerational connection to the “old guys” in the firm;
  • You actually have knowledge and experience that can benefit them;
  • You will open the door to future conversations without the fear or intimidation that may have prevented them from reaching out to you in the first place; and
  • For goodness sakes, you might even become friends!!

Let me be clear about one thing at the outset:  All of our new associates are inherently smarter than me!!  Maybe you remember a time, like I do, when undergraduate GPA’s and LSAT scores didn’t have to be off the charts to get you into law school. That is simply not true today. Competitive admission practices have led to a law school “brain trust” that is far beyond my class of 1970! Thus, it is not my intention in visiting with the associates to prove that I am smarter than they are, far from it. I have found that their research skills are extraordinary compared to mine and that they have great analytical and writing skills. More often than not, it is me asking them for help when it comes to legal research in particular!  What I have to offer is over 50 years of experience in the practice of law and it is that resource that is frequently worth contributing to the conversation. And, it sometimes even happens that more than a few professional events in those 50 years were not part of any law school curricula! It won’t always be the case that “I’ve been there and done that” but surprisingly, it is not unusual for me to find a comparative situation that may serve to provide some guidance on a particular matter. Beyond the practice of law experience, I also have the “people skills” and connections that come along with serving a variety of clients and dealing with the other business, educational and charitable institutions in our community for more than a half-century. I have a few things to say to young lawyers how these activities contribute to that elusive skill known as “building a practice”.  And I know where lots of “the bodies are buried”.

Associating with associates isn’t all about pending cases or matters! One of the great joys that I have experienced in my conversations with associates is to discover the incredible range of outside interests in which they engage. I have associates who run marathons, participate in triathlons, sky dive, race stock cars, build furniture, sing in choirs, play in orchestras and bands, write poetry, and volunteer in an amazing array of charitable organizations, as well as much more. Finding out about their lives out of the office adds to the understanding of what makes them tick and where they find satisfaction and stimulation. Occasionally, it leads to an opportunity to introduce them to a client that just happens to fall into one of their outside interests! 

As a young associate in the early 1970’s, my then senior partner, made a routine of inviting me to lunch with him and for a road trip around our county. He would point out places of interest that I would never have known about without his input.  Since a good deal of his practice was in real estate and probate, he could associate almost any house or farm with a family that he had represented for some reason. Because he did title examinations, he frequently would give me a multi-generation history of a particular parcel of real estate! Or his probate experience would be related to which child ended up with the farm and what fights over the estate had occurred years ago.  Our lunches together inevitably involved friends of his who were bankers, real estate agents, insurance agents, newspaper editors and other “big wheels” in our community.  What a great exposure and learning experience! Getting the associates to join me for lunch is not so easy today, nor are the road trips, however, the same idea is at work in my meetings with them:  create networking opportunities and linkages to the other human resources in our practice areas that will help them when all else fails.  The old saying is true:  Sometimes it’s not what you know but who you know!  And, quite naturally, we know many more of the “movers and shakers” than they do!

It is clear to me that the practice of law has changed in many ways and some of those ways are not so good. Sitting in front of a computer screen all day, eating at your desk, worrying over billable hours, texting instead of talking, not having or taking the time to learn about your surrounding business community, all illustrate some of the “not so good” changes that have overtaken our profession.  When I stop by the office of a new associate, if for no reason other than respect for my senior status, the recent arrivals to our firms will stop what they are doing, usually, and take the time to visit. It doesn’t take much to start the conversation: “What are you working on today? Tell me about it and tell me what you hope to accomplish?”  Or: “How was your weekend? What are you doing for fun these days?” Or: “What can I help you with today?”  Have you ever met a lawyer that didn’t enjoy talking about himself/herself? 

Finally, here is the caveat:  Don’t overstay your welcome! As associates they really do have some pressures that need to be appreciated. If they have a time sensitive assignment (and that should be your first question), stop by another day. If they are preoccupied with an issue that is keeping them from actually engaging with you, excuse yourself and move on.  You will know if you are infringing on their time by their behavior and simply react accordingly. But on those occasions when they DO engage, it will be an extraordinary opportunity to build a relationship that will serve you both for years to come and it never hurts to create a chance to bond with your colleagues!

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Douglas D. Church

Partner, Church Church Hittle + Antrim

Douglas D. Church concentrates his practice on civil litigation, mediation, and municipal law, including representation of municipal corporations. He served as Town Attorney for the Town of Fishers from 1980 to 2015 and was City Attorney for Noblesville from 1988 to 1996. He is routinely involved in civil litigation matters before the courts of general jurisdiction throughout the State of Indiana as well as United States District Courts.