The Secrets of Superstar Associates

Tom Hentoff
Partners want an associate who takes ownership of a case. They don’t want to always have to check in and check up on the associate.

Partners want an associate who takes ownership of a case. They don’t want to always have to check in and check up on the associate.

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Superstar associates are easily spotted. They are young attorneys who establish that they can handle as much responsibility as is thrown at them, and want more. Long before they are up for a vote, their election to the partnership is all but a foregone conclusion.

What separates the superstars from the rest of us? Why do some associates so clearly outshine their peers, even those with seemingly equal or greater natural gifts? Do superstars share certain habits or routine practices foreign to the merely good, or even very good, associates? And do those habits and practices simply arise from innate characteristics, or can they be learned? What can a new lawyer learn from superstar associates to help earn trust and gain responsibility?

In search of answers, I interviewed a dozen young partners whom colleagues had identified as former superstar associates. In wide-ranging and candid discussions, they told me what they thought contributed to their success. They also gave advice.

Although one cannot bottle “essence of superstar associate,” one still can distill those traits and practices into secrets of success. These are secrets not in the sense that anyone has hidden them from anyone else, but in the sense that many—even experienced—lawyers seem unfamiliar with them. Some traits and habits may be emulated easily; others cannot. Each helped the superstars win the respect and reliance of the partners at their firms.

Superstar Associates Work Hard

Although you might say that the significance of hard work is not much of a secret, note four things about these lawyers’ approach to hard work that distinguished them from their peers.

First, the lawyers I spoke with emphasized that when they put in long hours as associates, they did it not for “face time” but because it was necessary to do a first-rate job on the time-consuming projects that newer associates are given, and, thus, to demonstrate their reliability. “Partners will have more confidence in the associate who has dug into the facts and has a command of her part of the case. Then, that is the person who will get the opportunities.”

Second, they said that working hard gave them more control over their own dockets and, thus, more choice about the work they did. They explained that if they were proactive and volunteered for the work they wanted to do, and were legitimately busy doing it, they could avoid being sucked into the bottomless cases in which they had no interest.

Third, many in the group said that some of their best career opportunities came when they were already fully committed but said yes anyway to work that gave them great experience. “When opportunity knocks, you need to take it,” said one trial specialist. “There’s a strong human incentive not to, but the best opportunities seem always to come at the most inconvenient times.”

Fourth, they said that at the end of each year, despite their hard work, they rarely were among the top-billing associates in their class, because they refrained from working for work’s sake and got off the treadmill when case commitments permitted.

When asked about balancing work and personal life, several admitted that it is especially hard in the early years to do a great job on cases and have a lot of time for other things. They emphasized, however, that once you establish a track record of success and reliability, partners don’t feel a pit in their stomachs when you leave at 5 PM to play volleyball, or go to the beach for a week.

Superstar Associates Care about Building an Excellent Reputation

Superstars understand that from their very first assignments as new associates, partners judge their performance and discuss it with other partners. As one respondent cautioned: “Your reputation is set early on. You will spend the rest of your career fighting or benefiting from your early reputation.” “Assume early on,” advised another, “that the first few projects you do will have an overwhelmingly important effect in creating a reputation for you. You will create a reputation—are you a ‘go-to’ associate or not?”

Superstar Associates Think Like Partners Do

From the earliest point in their careers, these lawyers gave themselves assignments in addition to those the partners gave them. One advised: “It’s important to figure out what else should be done on the case, to participate in the team’s strategizing. Don’t be afraid to look into an issue on your own and spend a little time with it, to see if it should be suggested to the team.”

Many agreed that “partners want an associate who takes ownership of a case. They don’t want to always have to check in and check up on the associate.” Cautioned another: “If the partners feel they are managing you and double-checking on you, you are not on track.”

Thinking like a partner, especially for young attorneys, also means carving out areas on the case they can take over, gradually becoming indispensable. Almost all of the superstars had stories about volunteering early in their careers to master some large, complex, and often unpleasant aspect of a major case. They learned the critical facts better than anyone else.

Superstar Associates View Everyone as a Client

One of the group said that he expressly advises young associates to “treat the partner like a client. By that I mean learn all the facts, analyze them, figure out the legal issues, anticipate questions, and propose reasonable alternatives about how to go forward. Whether it’s a memo or a deposition, do what you think the partner would do, and then present reasonable alternatives for her to choose among because she’s in charge. If you do that right, it will lead her to trust you—because you will have thought of many of the things she would have thought of. The next time an important matter comes around, she’s thinking, this guy thinks the way I do.”

The superstars provide this type of client service to everyone with whom they deal—not just clients and partners but also fellow associates, staffers, judges, and even opposing counsel. They listen to other people’s problems and then make the effort to understand and present solutions. Thus, one respondent asked to name a trait he believed uniquely contributed to his success, answered: “Probably the thing I’m best at is I’m a good listener.”

Generally, giving client service to non-clients means conveying respect, appreciating urgency, understanding real and perceived needs, and making sure to meet and exceed expectations. “You can always tell how people treat others. The very best lawyers treat their secretaries and legal assistants impeccably. I’ve always found it to be uniform in that regard. By treating the people who work under you with respect, you empower your team members and make them an effective team.”

Superstar Associates Treat Their Professional Development Like a Case on Their Docket, with Themselves as the Client

These lawyers extend the idea of client services to themselves. Unlike most other associates, they plan for their own professional development, set goals, and examine big-picture and small-picture items to achieve those goals. Many associates, said one, “don’t realize they can apply their talents and hard work not only to their cases but also to planning and controlling their work life.”

Superstars seek out the cases they want to work on and plan ahead to be too busy to take on the less satisfying cases that will do less to develop their talents. “Take initiative for your own caseload,” advised one. “Don’t wait to be called by the assignment partner. Make the assignment partner your last resort. For me, my first assignment from the assignment partner was my last.”

Some of the respondents marketed themselves within their firms by figuring out where there were unmet needs, for instance, in a specific practice area, then setting about to fill them. One made himself an expert in electronic discovery because he knew that would benefit everyone in the litigation department. Another worked on regulatory litigation that was important to the firm even though his colleagues found it boring. It turned out that he enjoyed the federal court issues the cases raised, and he sought out more of them.

Superstar Associates Think Like Students but Don’t Act Like They’re in School

They consider their work to be an extension of their education and constantly take the opportunity to learn by example—whether by seeing how a senior attorney analyzes a case or by seeking to work for an excellent brief writer.

Superstar associates want to learn more about all aspects of the practice. They are more interested in learning than in protecting their time or their feelings. Thus, more than one said that associates should try to work with that talented but difficult partner whom others avoid. Advised one respondent: “Always seek to work with the best people. A lot of associates shy away from partners who seem difficult. I’d urge the opposite. Seek them out; those are the people you learn the most from.”

Many emphasized that “student mentality” is rampant in law firms—and a major impediment to success. Associates with a student mentality treat completing an assignment as a goal in itself, rather than as part of a larger effort.

By contrast, the superstars understand early on that they are members of a team working for a common goal—the best result, within ethical bounds, for the client.

Superstar Associates Are Enthusiastic

Like anyone else, partners want to work with someone who appears to respect them and enjoy the work they do together. Superstars know this and typically convey enthusiasm when they are given a project.

Speaking in their roles as partners, the interviewees agreed that it is depressingly common to give an associate an assignment and be met with a sigh or other off-putting body language that implies the partner or the work is viewed as unpleasant. “I really don’t need to see associates roll their eyes when I give them an assignment. I will take a trooper over a prima donna who [requires my] climbing over a wall to deal with each time.” What you should want to communicate, she explained, is that “you are a pleasure to deal with and you can be taken seriously as someone who could have a position of leadership.”

Nor should this attitude disappear when the going gets tough. “An associate who’s smiling at 2 a.m., that’s what I remember. That’s how I was. People who still have a great attitude even while under pressure,” one respondent recalled. “I had a reputation for enthusiasm about my cases. Most partners enjoy what they do. If you do, too, they see you as a kindred spirit. And a client likes to see enthusiasm, too. They’re more comfortable handing something to someone who is enthusiastic about it,” advised another.

Superstar Associates Work to Develop Good Judgment

The successful associates consistently emphasized that good judgment was possibly the most important quality for success. Said one: “If I had to boil down being a superstar to one quality, it’s good judgment. That’s something I’ve been learning in my ten-plus years. The real superstars cut through the legal and other issues to evaluate the client’s needs and recommend the best course of action.”

At a junior level, according to another, good judgment means remembering to “watch, listen, and learn.” This includes figuring out what to say—or not to say—in a client meeting, what to do when something ugly happens in a document production, when to ask for help, how much work to take on, and a hundred other things.

An important part of exercising good judgment is knowing you will make mistakes. How to deal with mistakes is one area in which the respondents were unanimous: Address them quickly, fully, and without defensiveness or finger-pointing.

Two speakers voiced the view of many: “When you’ve made a mistake in a matter, raise it immediately,” advised the first. “If you don’t know whom to talk to, figure that out quickly. Share the problem, as much as you might not want to do it. Time has a way of turning small mistakes into permanent mistakes.” Explained the second: “Develop a plan of action, and go to the partner. Say, ‘I made a mistake, I screwed up, I should have asked for this from the other side. But here’s my plan to fix it, what do you think?’ Hiding mistakes is very tempting but a bad idea. They almost inevitably come out, and then you look not only sloppy but also sneaky, which is fatal.”

Superstar Associates Cultivate Informal Mentors

Associates emphasized that they didn’t figure out everything on their own. They were helped, they said, by talented colleagues who gave good advice about solving particular problems and helped them with career development in general. Indeed, they learned many of these secrets from their informal mentors.

Superstars appear to understand two things that many other associates do not. The first is that, from an associate’s perspective, the partner-associate relationship should be a collegial one, not a facsimile of a union-management dispute. No one with whom I spoke even started out with the “us vs. them” mentality that some associates seem unable to shed.

Second, most partners want to be asked for advice and will make time to give it even when they are busy. To hear that someone values your opinion is a tremendous compliment. And asking a partner for career advice validates that what the partner does for a living is worthwhile.

One “non-secret”—a trait the superstars did not share—is more than worth noting: hubris. They admitted to being procrastinators or poor organizers, having bad memories, needing to work on their writing, and fearing public speaking. Their success is not simply a product of raw talent—it comes also from taking a broad and strategic view of their careers and learning how to develop them.

Superstars are perceptive enough to understand what others expect of them and are disciplined enough to deliver it. They enjoy the intellectual stimulation, competition, and problem-solving opportunities that a legal career offers; they proactively seek out the assignments that give them these opportunities; and they view their own shortcomings as simply part of the problems that are their job to solve.

Finally, it is evident that even with talent, intelligence, and drive, being a stellar associate is not easy. That’s one of the reasons there are so few of them. And not everyone wants to be, or should want to be, a superstar. Not every lawyer wishes to put in all the time and effort that they do, especially given important interests and obligations outside work. Being a successful spouse or parent takes a lot of hours and effort, too.

Regardless of your aspirations, recognizing the habits and practices of superstar associates could help you improve your performance as a lawyer in a team environment and let you take more control over your career. And if you discover along the way other habits and practices that also help, don’t keep them a secret.

The full version of this article originally appeared in the Spring 2006 issue of Litigation magazine, volume 32, number 3. Reprinted with permission. ©2006 by the American Bar Association. All rights reserved. Litigation magazine is a benefit of membership in the American Bar Association Section of Litigation. Learn more about the Section of Litigation.

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Tom Hentoff

Tom Hentoff is with Williams & Connolly LLP in Washington, DC.