chevron-down Created with Sketch Beta.


Practice Areas & Settings

Tips for Success as a New Supervising Litigation Attorney

Gary Ivan Smith Jr

Tips for Success as a New Supervising Litigation Attorney
gremlin via iStock

Jump to:

As you climb the ranks at your firm, many of your duties are obvious; however, many young lawyers are unaware of their duty to prepare the next generation for professional success. This is an explicit mandate of Model Rule of Professional Conduct 5.1, which requires that not just partners but any “lawyer having direct supervisory authority over another lawyer shall make reasonable efforts to ensure that the other lawyer conforms to the Rules of Professional Conduct.” Model Rule of Professional Conduct 1.1, in turn, requires all lawyers to possess “the legal knowledge, skill, thoroughness, and preparation reasonably necessary for the representation” of a client. The supervised attorney’s duty of competence is thus thrust, at least in part, on the supervising attorney, even a young partner or senior associate.

If you are a new supervising attorney, consider the following common missteps and how you can avoid them and help those you supervise thrive.

Engage Associates in Different Life Cycles of Cases

Associates aren’t often exposed to many aspects of a case’s life cycle until later in their careers. As a result, they don’t comprehend how the various stages of a case interplay with one another.

In complex practice, associates may not see discovery practice, summary judgment or Daubert briefing, trial, appellate practice, or even initial pleadings practice for years, depending on how they are staffed across a firm’s case portfolio. It is particularly important for those in complex practice, which tends to proceed on a slower track, to think carefully about how they staff cases. Do not discount the value of seeing all aspects of a case, as the interplay between pleadings practice, civil discovery, and the jury instructions that follow years later is not always obvious to new practitioners.

Consider implementing guidelines for the exposure and milestones an associate should attain on their path to partnership. This practice helps align the expectations considered towards partnership and increases the diversity of an associate’s experience.

Allow Associates to Remedy Their Work Product

A common managerial misstep is receiving work from a new associate that needs to be fixed and fixing it yourself. By not allowing the associate to cure the issue, you are setting both the associate and yourself up for more issues later. Without a course correction, the associate will likely repeat the offending practice. Having an associate remedy the issue takes more time initially but less time overall while advancing the associate’s skills.

Encourage Associates to Participate in Legal Training Programs

If your firm doesn’t hold regular legal training, perhaps take the initiative to propose or lead one. Consider trainings on deposition practice, expert discovery, settlement negotiations, drafting pleadings, and drafting motions. To avoid repetition, encourage diversity of topics, and increase access, consider recording the trainings and making them available to your associates online.

At smaller firms with less capacity or resources for formal training programs, consider encouraging associates to observe proceedings to gain exposure. Have an associate shadow you during an initial case management conference, sit in on an expert witness deposition, or listen in on a motions hearing. Associates can gain a lot from simply observing these proceedings.

Respect Associates’ Personal Time

Finally, it cannot be stressed enough that attorney burnout remains alive and well.

You can be mindful of burnout by doing the following:

  1. Provide sufficient warning of impending projects and deadlines. If you know a particular period will be time-intensive, let the associates know well in advance so they can plan their lives accordingly.
  2. If resources permit it, overlap your staffing. Cross-pollinating associates on more case teams than is strictly necessary increases the chance that someone can step up when another is buried.
  3. Respect your associates’ time off. Respect vacation time and treat parental leave as sacrosanct.

Fostering the development of young lawyers benefits the supervised and supervising lawyer, the client, the judiciary, and the profession in general.