October 23, 2012


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What Your Associate Wants You to Know about Your Working Relationship

By Marcia Pennington Shannon

Everybody can use a helping hand. Don't leave your associates floundering without guidance. If you want to work well with them and keep them in the fold, listen to their words to the wise.

I recently had the opportunity to take an informal survey of some law firm associates, who shared the ins and outs of working with their supervising lawyers. The associates ranged in class from recent law school graduates to those several years removed from law school. Each shared recommendations for how their supervisors could enhance their working relationships.

Following are the suggestions most often cited by the survey participants. Some are clearly common sense, some may seem provocative, but law firm managers and supervising lawyers would be wise to listen to what these associates have to say.

"Tell me how you like things done."
Whether they are in their first year or their fifth year, associates say it would be helpful for the supervising lawyer to specify what approach to projects he or she prefers. For example, some attorneys want a written memo in response to a question, while others prefer a quick oral report.

Taking the time to explain a bit about one's overall supervisory style would also be useful. Some partners like to debate with their associates as a way of digging to the essence of an issue, while others just want the requested information without discussion. Some prefer that the associate check in on a daily basis when working on an assignment, while others prefer to just receive the end product unless the associate has particular questions. In addition, some prefer to communicate via e-mail, while others want face-to-face interactions with their associates. Associates feel that the more they know about their supervisors' styles, the better they can meet their expectations.

"Clearly communicate what you expect when assigning the work to me."
All associates in my survey mentioned this one. Upon being given a task, they would like as much information as possible. When pressed to describe what information they would want from the assigning lawyer, they cited the following:

· "Give me a time frame, including how long you believe this project should take an associate at my level to accomplish."

· "Give me a specific deadline."

· "Describe the format in which you want the final work product."

"Remember my level of experience. I'll take longer to complete an assignment than you would."
More-junior associates feel that this is of particular concern. They believe that too often supervisors are disappointed with the product, or the amount of time it takes to complete an assignment, because they don't take into account an associate's level of experience when assigning work. The associates' recommendation: Have a discussion about the assignment as well as the level of knowledge and experience the associate has in this area at the beginning of the project.

"Provide background information, suggestions for resources, and how you might approach the task."
Further questioning of associates on the way they prefer assignments to be given revealed that all of them feel the best supervisors give them an overview of the matter, even if the associate is only working on a small piece of it. Such overviews include background information, ideas for starting points and resources, and thoughts on how the more-experienced lawyer would tackle the assignment. This approach to assigning work serves as a learning tool for associates.

"Make yourself available."
Several of the survey participants discussed the frustration of getting an assignment and then not being able to discuss it further with the assigning lawyer as questions and issues arise. While associates do understand that a supervising lawyer is busy, they believe that by not making time to answer their questions, senior lawyers keep projects from moving forward.

"Advise me on what is appropriate to delegate to a secretary or paralegal."
Many associates are inexperienced when it comes to delegating. They not only need assistance on what is appropriate to delegate, but also how to do it. Supervising lawyers can also advise more-junior associates on how to have productive relationships with assistants.

"Help me prioritize work."
It is not unusual for associates to juggle multiple assignments. Consequently, they often need assistance in judging what takes priority. This is particularly difficult when assignments come from more than one partner. They hope that partners can help them manage their workloads and discuss priorities with other partners when necessary.

"Make clear what is urgent and what is not."
Survey participants said that if an assignment is urgent, they would do whatever it takes to get it completed. But, they indicated, too often an assignment becomes urgent because something sat on a supervisor's desk or the lawyer is creating a false deadline that doesn't reflect the actual time frame needed. Associates feel that when either of these instances occurs, the supervisor expects late nights or weekends even though the situation doesn't require it. This makes associates feel unappreciated, and as a result, retention becomes an issue.

Associates hope that supervising lawyers will be realistic about whether an assignment is a real emergency. If it is, they want an explanation of why it is an emergency—and a word of appreciation for stepping up to the plate at a difficult time. Remember, if an associate feels valued, he or she will be there for the next emergency.

"Advise me on appropriate dress for this setting."
This issue has become difficult for everyone! Having clear guidelines for dressing appropriately in your particular workplace can alleviate much of the angst in this area. Everyone understands they are in a professional setting, but the dress code can be different from one firm to another. Clarify this with all employees.

"Give me ongoing feedback, both constructive and positive. Don't wait for the annual evaluation, please."
Many associates complained about hearing negative comments at an annual review, long after the actual incident occurred. They believe that prompt feedback adds to their learning, whether it's positive or constructive. They define constructive as being clear about what was done incorrectly and suggesting ways to do it properly in the future. Associates not only want to know how they are doing, they need to know to stay motivated.

"Remember that most of us are not motivated by a sink-or-swim mentality. Mentor us."
The sink-or-swim mind-set says, "I had to figure this out on my own, so you do, too." Get beyond such old-guard attitudes. Today's associates want supervisors to mentor them. They want to know their supervisors care about their professional development and will actively look for ways to support it.

A Personal Recommendation for Managers: Take Your Own Survey

Here's another idea to consider: Why not build an action plan for associate development that includes taking an informal survey of your own? Learning how to best improve the working relationship between the partners and associates in your firm will reap great rewards for everyone.