Three Steps to Becoming a Better Associate
Now that you’re an associate attorney, what steps can you take to become a better associate for yourself and the partners you work for?
I write this not as a “guru” who’s got it all figured out. I am not saying – “This is what I did, and it’ll work for you.” Because I’m still here, trying to become a better associate. My purpose here is to pass along some acquired experience, and hopefully wisdom, in an effort to assist you who are entering or at least early in this uncertain and anxiety-ridden tenure as an associate to become a better associate.
1. Immerse Yourself in Your Practice Area
During law school, I clerked with a district attorney’s office, for a municipal judge, for a couple of civil solo practitioners, and for a real estate attorney. But what I didn’t do is have any experience in the area in which I would spend more than 75% of my time in my first four years of practice – trucking defense litigation. I had limited knowledge of the insurance industry. No real knowledge of the trucking industry, and certainly no familiarity with the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations. And I had no expectation that over the course of four years, I would peruse hundreds of thousands of pages of medical records.
That is to say, you’re likely going to enter a field with which you’re largely unfamiliar. That’s to be expected. But those you’re working with (and against) have had years, if not decades, of experience. I had to be a quick study. What were the rules that the truck drivers and motor carriers I was representing were operating by? What sorts of injuries could reasonably be expected to be associated with what types of collisions?
Depending upon the firm that hires you, your billable hour requirements will likely be hefty. But there’s going to be knowledge you must acquire that you’re going to be unable to bill to obtain. It’s going to require perseverance and dedication to develop the base of knowledge necessary to be proficient in your practice area.
And yet there will still be occasions when a partner approaches you about participating in a corporate bankruptcy trial that’s six weeks away. And not only do you know nothing about corporate bankruptcy, you’re not even admitted to practice in the bankruptcy court. So you just dig in.
2. Work Proactively within Your Parameters
You may work for one partner or a half-dozen. Each of them has expectations for the scope of work you are to undertake. One may be comfortable with you taking a case from the initial pleadings and working it more-or-less autonomously to its resolution. Another may expect you to work from a task-based assignment system. Know your role with each partner, and operate within those parameters.
Over the last four-plus years, I have consistently worked with several partners at my firm. I’ll identify them by their practice areas, so as to keep the self-incrimination to a minimum.
- In my first three years, I worked primarily for Trucking Lawyer. We had regular meetings, sketched out our strategies for each case, and I operated with significant freedom within each case.
- When it came to Personal Auto Lawyer, for the first your years, most of my work was task-based and closely supervised. As needed, I wrote reports to clients, attended hearings and depositions, and drafted pleadings. Once the particular assignment was completed, there was nothing more to be done for Personal Auto Lawyer until the next task was assigned. Over the last few months, Personal Auto Lawyer’s needs have changed, as has the willingness/ability to trust me due to the work I had performed over the first few years. Now, I have a set of tasks to undertake with every new case that comes in, and together we plan for how to approach the case.
- I only semi-regularly receive case assignments from General Business Liability Lawyer, but when I do, he expects me to operate largely autonomously. I keep him in the loop and ask for guidance and advice when I encounter unfamiliar circumstances. But by and large, the cases are mine to run with.
- Whenever I get a call from Insurance Coverage/Municipal Liability Lawyer, I know that whatever the case or legal question at hand, it’s going to be something bizarre that I’ve not dealt with before. This lawyer’s approach is different than everyone else. He tells me what outcome he wants to achieve, and it becomes my job to get us there.
With each of these partners, there are different roles and expectations. Once you have identified your role, anticipate the needs of your partner and take the steps necessary to meet them in advance of deadlines or expectations.
Be proactive, not reactionary. If there’s an expert deposition approaching, know how early your partner likes to begin preparing, and have ready for her all the documents, reports, or resume information she may need to try to punch holes in the expert’s opinions or credibility. Do you have a dispositive motion hearing approaching? Be ready with the motion and exhibits, any opposition responses, and printouts of whatever caselaw may be needed to convince the judge of your position. When you go into a planning meeting, know the case better than your partner. Familiarize yourself not only with the status of how the case is currently positioned, but what the next course of events needs to be.
To use a sports analogy, play on the balls of your feet, not sitting back on your heels.
3. Understand the Time-Value of Money
Above all else, an associate’s job is take make the partners money. This point can be summarized fairly concisely: Bill your time – all of it! Your ability to bring in money is directly tied to your future.
Some days it’s going to be easier than others to make money. When you spend the entire day in a deposition, your time is pretty simple to keep up with (unless you’ve received and responded to dozens of emails during that time, because you can rest assured that the days you’re away from the office are the times your inbox will be barraged). The days that it’s trickier are when you field a dozen phone calls, work on reports for multiple cases, and draft discovery responses. If you want until the end of that day to write down your time entries, you’re either going to over- or under-bill the amount of time tasks took.
I’ve had conversation with people who told me they were a couple days behind in writing down their time. My mind was blown! That’s just no way to operate. I keep a notebook with me at all times in which I down my time for every task – the time I start and when I finish. Every single time. In fact, I have every notebook going back to my first day of practice.
A significant sub-part to this point is to know how work needs to be worded in order to be paid by the client. Some clients are very particular about verbiage in the bills, or the amounts of time they will pay for certain tasks – regardless of what the reality is for the amount of time something takes to actually perform.
I was once advised that we should “give our clients the privilege of paying us for the work we do for them.” But that privilege should only extend to the amount of time something actually took, not more and not less.
As an additional resource on lawyering generally, I recommend reading Keith Lee’s blawg, Associate’s Mind, as well as his book The Marble and the Sculptor. And for the humorously forthright reading about practical lawyerly topics, you should visit the Boozy Barrister. For a valuable resource on making sure you take the right measures to get paid for the work you do for clients, see Portia Porter’s book Can You Stiff Your Divorce Lawyer: Tales of How Cunning Clients Can Get Free Legal Work, As Told by an Experienced Divorce Attorney, which despite its alarming title is aimed to assist lawyers.
Photo by Ricardo 清介 屋宜.