The past three years have been fraught with challenges for law firms and early-career attorneys. Demand for legal services has continued to expand, and the need for legal talent to help meet that demand has been at an all-time high. The market for associates has been incredibly hot with escalating salaries, big signing bonuses, and the offer of more flexibility around where associates can work than ever. However, firms have struggled with managing and developing attorneys in a remote and hybrid workplace. In a profession that leans heavily on an apprenticeship model for development, many senior practitioners are spending less time in the office and have not significantly shifted the way that they work with their junior counterparts to match the development that would have happened in a pre-pandemic, principally in-person work environment.
The lag in associate professional development (and consequential poor work product and less than ideal professional conduct) has not been met with the consequences and repercussions that those now in partnership and leadership would have experienced when they were junior attorneys.
And recent surveys say that many of these well-paid, flex-working, and highly sought-after early-career attorneys are not happy. They report feeling isolated and not being meaningfully connected with peers and colleagues in this remote work environment. They do not see how the work they are doing relates to the bigger picture and the career they want for themselves.
Today it is more important than ever for associates to take the lead in the progress of their professional and career development. With a looming recession, we are already seeing firms making cuts. Here, we review things associates can do now to improve their experience at work and ensure they avoid being on the list of people considered for layoffs if (when) things slow down.
Take ownership of your work and seek to add value
As an associate, you’ve been told to think of the firm’s partners as your clients. This means that you should be thinking about how your work can make a partner’s life easier. When you are given an assignment, avoid treating the work just as a task to be completed so you can move on to another task. Start to think like a partner; understand how the assignment fits into the larger client strategy, and take ownership of the work you are assigned. Look at deadlines and plan your time accordingly, be proactive, and ensure what you are working on is seen all the way through. “Your ownership shouldn’t end when you send a draft to the partner in an email,” said Vanessa Widener, managing partner and civil litigation attorney at Anderson, McPharlin & Conners LLP in California. “I get so many emails every day, it is likely I may not see something right away, so an associate that follows up stands out as a go-getter and is highly appreciated.”
To be an appreciated team member, learn partners’ styles and preferences. When it comes to communication, ask at the onset how they prefer to be communicated with: Do they want you to just call when you have a question, send a text, ask via email, schedule time to discuss? Do they have a writing style you can learn from their redlined drafts? Do they prefer single spaces after sentences, or do they avoid using adjectives or adverbs? “The associates that I enjoy working with the most write intentionally ‘for me,’” said Mark T. Cramer, shareholder in Buchalter’s Los Angeles office and chair of the class action practice group. “They know what edits I am going to make; they know if they start a sentence with ‘however’ I am going to change it to ‘but,’ so they use ‘but’ when they write for me. It shows me that they care and they are learning, and that really differentiates them.”
Communication is key when seeking to add value. The partner (and most definitely the client) won’t be happy to learn you spent ten hours researching something that the partner has the answer to on their desk. Managing expectations and facilitating regular communication are necessary to provide the level of service that will make you stand out. If you are unsure about something, ask a senior person, but do not wait and do nothing. “I’d rather rein someone in than have to prod them like a wet noodle,” said Cramer.
Add value by anticipating what needs to happen next. Josh Wurtzel, civil litigation partner at Schlam Stone & Dolan in New York, suggests: “If a motion to dismiss comes in, don’t wait for the partner. If you haven’t heard from anyone, read through everything, then make a call to the partner, give your suggestions on how you think it should be approached, and offer to write the first draft opposition.” When you are asked to do research, go the extra step and come back with what the law is and how it applies to the case, along with your recommendations for the approach moving forward. “Even if your suggestions are not 100% on point, people appreciate and recognize the value add and effort in that situation,” said Wurtzel.
Express your interest to learn, improve, and grow
Associates I work with sometimes worry that they will be perceived as overzealous or bothersome if they ask for help or feedback from the senior people they work with. I hear the opposite complaint from the partners I work with: If they notice the absence of questions and follow-up, they interpret it as either the associate feels confident, or they don’t care about improving. “If you are working on something that takes a good amount of time, make sure you talk with the partner to understand how your assignment fits in the bigger picture of what the strategy and objectives are for the client,” said Pooja Nair, partner and business litigator at Ervin Cohen and Jessup in Beverly Hills. “Expressing interest in learning should always be well received because ultimately the partner knows the work product will be better if you have a better understanding of the situation.” Make a point to ask questions and get feedback on your work. After a motion or contract is finalized, you should reach out to the partner to schedule a conversation to discuss and better understand the changes made and why they were made.
Identify areas where you would like to improve your skills, and then find professionals in your organization who have mastered those skills. “You can reach out to someone and say, ‘I hear you are amazing at depositions; I would love to sit in, I won’t bill for it,’ or ‘I think you are a fantastic writer; I would really love to work with you on something,’” suggests Cramer. It is likely the attorney will be flattered, and this kind of interaction will further develop the relationship. Plus, you will learn something you’re interested in, and the attorney you work with will likely feel invested in your success.
A huge benefit of regular physical proximity with colleagues is the opportunity to build familiarity and communicate often, which leads to connection and meaningful relationship-building. In other words, people at work get to know you and like you, and you get to know and like the people you work with. These relationships are avenues to improved learning of legal skills along with the inner workings and politics of a law firm and are critical in building a professional support system and ultimately true friendships. “Some of my best friends are people that I have met through work and have gotten to know over the last twenty-five years,” said Cramer.
With fewer in-person interactions available organically at law firms because of reduced in-office work expectations, as well as different preferences and changed habits around socializing in the office, associates need to take an expressly active role in creating opportunities to connect with peers and colleagues. To expedite these interactions, use technology to initiate relationships, so that when you do connect in person you can get the most out of those exchanges. Research the experienced people at your firm and identify things that you admire in their experience, background, or practice. Then you can reach out with a note like, “I am very interested in working with (X category of clients/Y type of matters/Z type of extracurriculars), and I see that you have had a lot of success in that area. If you are open to it, I would love to share some of my objectives and strategies around building my practice in that direction and would really appreciate hearing your thoughts. Are you available for a video call next Thursday or Friday?”
If you are working with a partner or a peer who is in the same region you are, suggest meeting in person for lunch/breakfast/drinks so you can get to know them a bit better. If you are attending a professional social event, invite a peer you would like to know better to come with you. Find out if a senior colleague you are working with on something is available to discuss the matter in person the next time they are in the office.
There are plenty of opportunities to connect in routine interactions, too. When you start calls or emails to review client matters, ask the partner about their weekend or their experience at that conference you know they attended. Look for opportunities to connect about something besides the work at hand. Mention the volunteer work or extracurriculars you are participating in, and share things that you care about. Show up to the events the firm puts together. Interactions at these events will be even more successful if you have made those initial introductions via email beforehand. Plus, you never know who you might end up talking to and about what. There are opportunities to connect in person that will start or bolster significant relationships that would not be possible otherwise, so be sure to show up so you can take advantage of them.
Develop unique expertise/knowledge that makes you essential
Wurtzel says the best way to ensure that your firm would not consider letting you go is to make yourself indispensable. “Be a critical person on the matter. Know all of the facts of the case—the procedural history, read all the deposition documents. Be on top of deadlines with a clear sense of where the case is going.”
Being of value to partners also means knowing how to effectively and efficiently solve their problems. If you know who internally to go to for help because they are good (paralegals, secretaries, other attorneys) and who it’s best to avoid because they will not be helpful, and where to find templates, and how to utilize and leverage the technology available, you can accurately estimate timelines and will be highly appreciated.
Look for a niche or distinctive expertise you can develop. There are a multitude of reasons why attorneys benefit when they build a niche expertise, and one of them is that when you are the go-to person at a firm for a specific type of matter or issue, it adds value for the firm’s clients and a benefit to the attorneys that will make it more likely they will want to make sure you stay at the firm.
There is science behind the saying “out of sight, out of mind,” with a multitude of studies showing that physical and psychological distance are directly related. Attorneys who have not experienced the benefits that come with regularly working in close physical proximity with peers and colleagues may not recognize that they are losing out on opportunities to grow professionally. It is important to be a highly visible presence if you want to be known, recognized, and valued at your firm.
Building your reputation and visibility may happen by spending time in the office, but it is important to be increasingly intentional to get the most benefit out of now-reduced face time. Many associates report that when they go into the office no one is there, or the few people who are there are working with their doors closed. Associates can get more out of working in the office if they let people know that they are interested in connecting. Maximize your opportunities for face time, and schedule your days in the office around when your colleagues and peers will be there.
Be present and visible in video meetings; that means keeping your camera on, even if not everyone does. Moving to video instead of in-person meetings creates efficiency, but it is wise to treat these meetings with the same intention and objectives you would an in-person meeting. People should see you and hear you. Contribute, ask questions, and use the chat section to connect on a more personal level.
Use your growing niche to get exposure. “People notice when an associate takes the initiative to write or get involved outside of the firm; when it is clear an associate sees themselves as a leader,” said Nair. Nair started her career at a big firm and made a concerted effort to get involved in professional organizations outside of the firm. “Do things collaboratively with the firm, giving the firm exposure. Big firms will allow for that and eventually will encourage it, especially when it yields new or additional revenue. Beyond the short-term value for the firm, it’s vital that associates build their reputations for the long-term benefits to their careers.”
Cramer advises that when work eases up, associates should do things proactively to be visible or to improve themselves. “A dream day for me would be if a competent person came to me and said, ‘I am very interested in working on a class action advertising matter—do you have anything I can work with you on?’ And if I don’t at the moment, they suggest that we collaborate on an article and they take the lead on a draft. We’d get to work on something together, and it could likely lead to another thing… new work, attending a conference together, or another article.” Educate your colleagues on your expertise by sharing articles you’ve written and presentations you are giving on LinkedIn and internal channels, and be sure to bring it up in the conversations you are actively scheduling.
Be productive and professional
Treating partners like clients demonstrates your skill and ability to work with actual clients. Be sure to err on the side of being overly professional, especially in your communication. In emails, use greetings and sign-offs, complete sentences, and accurate grammar. Dress professionally if you are going to be on a video call or in-person meeting with colleagues; show up as if a client were going to be there.
Presentation is important, and revenue is essential. When a firm is preparing to make cuts, it is likely they will review hours billed to assess who is pulling their weight and creating economic value for the firm. If your hours are low, leadership will wonder if there is a reason none of the partners want to give this person work, or they may assume that partners are assigning the person work and this person is just not working enough.
Associates today can’t afford to wait for their firms to take the lead in their professional development. If you want to build a successful and fulfilling legal practice, you need to be more proactive and intentional than any associate before you. And as a junior professional interested in optimizing the experience of working at a law firm, you must prove you have what it takes to be a good lawyer and a valuable partner, and you must adapt to the professional expectations of the firm partners and clients. Even if markets don’t shift and demand for legal services continues to increase, when you take the actions mentioned here, you will gain better, more fulfilling work; make valuable connections and friendships; and advance more quickly in your career.