Friday, January 30, 2009

tip of the day - standing out

A commenter asked about how young lawyers can "stand out" these days when it is so important to show your worth to the firm.  My observations here apply in BigLaw, smaller offices, government jobs, etc.  

What I have found over the years is that younger lawyers do not take OWNERSHIP of a matter.  I don't know whether they assume the partner/senior attorney will eventually oversee and fix everything, or they have been happy collecting 160,000 starting salaries in some places and feel they can clock in and clock out as long as they bill the hours, etc., but I notice a definitely loss of ownership of matters.

What this means is that when there is a project: a brief, a corporate agreement, etc., you assume responsibility from beginning to end.  And even at the end, you may further assume responsibility to remind clients/other attorneys of upcoming deadlines, or if you see a development in the trade press, etc., to bring it to someone's attention.  This subject is a bit hard to articulate, so let me try to elaborate.

When I was brought into a project, I assumed that I was there from start to finish.  I assumed that I was a critical team member.  Let's say it was legal research, and drafting a memorandum.  I would obviously, promptly conduct the research.  If the research indicated there were new developments (such as pending legislation or court cases), I would track those down, not just tell someone they were out there.  I would work with Lexis staff, our librarian, etc. to find the information.  I would draft the memorandum.  I would deliver it promptly. If there was follow-up, I would take care of that promptly as well.  Sounds easy, right?

Well, let's say that another project comes up in the middle of first project.  Unless partner two has spoken to partner one about interfering with first project, it is still my job to finish project one. Even if I have to stay late, work weekends, etc.  And of course, I have to keep moving on project two. This may mean I have so cancel some social or other engagements.

Let's say I am supposed to head out of town to visit family.  Do I just tell these people I am heading out and dump my half-completed research?  NOOOOOO.  This will make you stand out in a bad way.  Either complete the work before you go (don't tell me there's no time, I've completed many assignments in the middle of the night from my home computer), or take the work and a laptop and get it done in a timely fashion while you are gone.  Everyone has outside commitments.  This doesn't mean you can leave unfinished work.  Take ownership of any project just like it is your solo project -- show that you are dedicated and that you take your work seriously, and that people can always depend on you.  

Once I have sent out my memo, do I just go into oblivion?  NOOOOOO.  Especially if you are out of the office, make sure the other attorneys have everything they would need:  your memo, copies of your cases, legislation, etc., and of course, all your contact information.  Tell them you are available for any questions (they probably won't call but this makes you look responsible and interested).  Check your messages and return calls and emails if they do have questions.  If there was some unfinished business, like you need to speak with some third party, take their contact information, follow up, and report back.  People will notice that you handled this responsibly.  

One of the things I hear from attorneys is that the younger attorneys don't seem to "care" about matters.  After your particular task is done, don't just check out and move on.  This isn't McDonald's where you just ring up the special combo no. 1 and move on to the next drive through customer.  Check in with the assigning attorney to see if they need anything else/ask how the matter is going (maybe they will even take you along to some of the follow-up, because you seem interested and invested!).  This demonstrates that you are a "team" member, and remember, your goal is to stay on the team.  

Happy Friday, everyone.  


f-3 said...

Thanks for the advice, HP. Honestly I only took ownership of a few of my summer projects, and am glad to be reminded of these considerations.

Follow-up: Related to your point about finding time -- how do you push back properly without ticking off other partners, so that you have the time to be thorough and to take ownership on your current projects? This seems like a dicey time to say "no" (if one is lucky enough to have work come one's way). Any advice would be much appreciated.


Anonymous said...

I think it's very important for associates to take "ownership" of their projects, but you should add a caveat that this "initiative" is not always welcome for all partners. With the economy in the dumps right now, a younger associate would be extremely lucky to take part of a project from beginning to end. Today's young associate will get a 1/100th portion of the project to work on and that is usually because a partner or senior associate is trying to keep the younger associate busy.

The advice that you gave is really good and I would say would apply to the younger associate when times are good. Your advice might be freaking out some associates who never got the opportunity to "take ownership" in a project, no matter how much persistance he/she has made in requesting such a project.

As f-3 has mentioned, there is a fine line between appreciated persistence and flat out annoyance (much like the "gunners" we encountered in law school). I doubt a post can ever summarize what an associate can do to tread this fine line (since it is a subjective observation an associate needs to experience first hand). I think an associate needs to take ownership of a project to the extent he/she can, BUT also be mindful that extreme persistence is not always welcome and to keep tab of which partners or which projects would actually appreciate a display of ownership. There is no "one-size-fits-all" approach to partners, projects, or clients. It is important for an associate to observe and know how to read situations in order to provide an effective and appreciated response.

Anonymous said...

HP is clueless. All of the stuff he's talking about would take up a ton of extra time, and itd be a huge waste of time if you dont plan on gunning for partner. Very few associates are going to make partner, and equally few plan to stick around long enough to try. The vast majority plan to pay off their debt and lateral into a smaller firm or the govt. At their NEXT destination, they WILL take ownership, because they will look at their current job as permanent job, and not just a stop along the way. If associates know that theyre leaving in a couple years, whats the incentive to do anything besides bill one's hours? Not getting fired is simply a matter of billing your hours. Thats the problem with high attrition--its clear the firm doesnt give a shit about the associates, so why should they care about the firm?

Anonymous said...

To the anonymous poster immediately above - good luck hanging onto your job or getting another one after that.

Anonymous said...

12:25, my question had prompted this post, and I don't think he is clueless at all. You said this would only be good for those gunning for partner. Guess what? Some of us are gunning for partner and want to know how. Some of us take pride in our work even if we decide we don't want partnership, because it feels good.

Anonymous said...

Great post HP

Anonymous said...

3:23: He's not clueless to the extent that he's providing advice about how to make a good impression on one's way to partnership. His advice is useful and insightful as far as that is concerned.

However, those people gunning for partner are, of course, already doing the things he's suggesting. Hes clueless if he genuinely doesnt understand why associates dont "care" about making the partners' lives easier. Its because the partners look at associates as expendable, walking billable hour machines, and couldn't care less about making associates' lives easier.

2:16: At least where I work, what matters is delivering consistently solid work product, and delivering a reasonable quantity of it. AND, you need to have a couple partners who like you, both to defend you, and to serve as references for later. HP has posted in the past about why associates dont try to branch out more. Its because they dont plan to stick around.

I guess thats where I'm occasionally dumbfounded by HPs posts. Does he fail to realize that these people who consistently fail to exhibit even a modicum of normal, good business sense are all planning to leave? He is seemingly astonished at their behavior, but its underlying reason is obvious.

f-3 said...

12:25 / 4:30pm - I guess I see your point about taking care of the billable hours first and foremost, but taking ownership, as HP described it, IS a way to deliver solid work product and to make partners like you - which are things that you said matter at your firm.

I agree that some of what HP suggested is time-consuming, but it can also just be a few simple steps - track some new developments, work a few extra hours on the weekends, check in and make sure you answer remaining questions, and in general just show that you care. It doesn't seem to necessarily take "an extra ton of time" as you said it would at every turn.

Mads said...

Two things I have noticed working at a small firm:

1.) The lawyers like seeing you just do what needs to be done even if it is below your pay grade. When filing is piling up, I file it. If a lawyer needs something photocopied and it is at the back of the supports staff's pile, I just do it. I was told that this made me stand out and they appreciated it.

2.) They can never remember all our schedules. If they give you work right before you are supposed to go on vacation don't just go cancel your vacation, they may have forgot!! Say something like "I am happy to do this for you, can I work on it when I return or would you like me to do it while I'm away?" Or if you don't think that shows enough commitment say "Is it ok if I work on this from (insert vacation spot)? I already booked my flight and can't get my money back. Etc. Anytime I was given an assignment while I was supposed to be away, as soon as I responded that I would work on it while away I received an immediate reply of "I forgot all about that. Don't worry about it. Either X will do it or it will be here when you get back. Enjoy your trip."

Now maybe I am just lucky. But, if partners in a small firm can't remember associates schedules I'm guessing partners in a big firm never can. It can't hurt to politely remind them.

Anonymous said...

Great post HP, and great comments.

Anonymous said...

HPs comments are fine, though of course well known to anyone with a clue.

The problem is that he appears mystified by why younger attorneys don't take ownership these days. Apparently HP is unaware of the high use of leverage and the firm model that brings associates in for grunt work and then spits them out.

Firms do not invest in their associates and do not take the time to seriously mentor or train associates. And with good reason. The firms have focused on profit and run the firm like a business.

Partners might lecture about this still being a profession, but they're only deluding themselves if they think associates buy this nonsense. We're bright and we can easily see past the charades and the rhetoric to the PPP and the day in and day out approach partners have toward taking any time to teach associates or train them.

If someone wants to be a partner and actually thinks he has a shot then I guess kissing up (read: ownership) is worth it. Otherwise, no reason to be a sucker and do more than necessary.

Partners like HP have built their houses and bought their cars on the very business model that causes associates to leave lucrative jobs in droves and then lectures about ownership. Delusional and sad, but typical.

Anonymous said...

Great post HP. The advice is solid and I agree with it, but wouldn't it make sense if partners simply told associates this when giving the assignment, thus avoiding the whole problem of what-should-the-associate-do to begin with? I simply mean an extra 10 seconds of simple explanation.

Obviously, the reality is that associates are disposable and your advice is practical based on this reality, but in a macro sense, this issue underscores one of the significant problems with big firms.

Hiring Partner said...

Anonymous 6:01; your post demonstrates the problem. Someone who sees a project through and takes responsibility isn't sucking up; this is called doing a good job.

At the end of day, if upper managment comes to us and tells us we need ot lay off 3 associates from each group or team, I am going to look at hours of course, but I am also going to look at seniority, and an overriding concern will be how critical this person is to the team. If I've got someone who is a terrific team player, who never lets us down, who I know I can depend on in a crunch or otherwise, whose work is solid, who brings a great attitude and who maybe even clients know and like, that person is going to have an upper edge. Yes, in the end, everyone is fungible (even partners!) so you want to make an impression that you are important to the team effort

Anonymous said...

I like how HP focuses exclusively on paragraph 5 of 6:01's analysis, while conveniently ignoring paragraphs 1-4 and 6.

Anonymous said...

10:43, What do you expect? HP is a Partner. They look for one flaw in an associate's work product, make the associate feel like crap, and completely ignore any good work in the bulk of their assignment. They then take all the credit for the work while wining and dining the client. Buth then fire associates indiscriminately when the partner can't solicit more work and then point to that one flaw to justify the firing as "merit-based." HP can't help's in his nature as partner.

Anonymous said...

11:37: I'm inclined to agree. I'd initially though that HP was somehow blind to the reasons for widespread dissatisfaction among associates, who consequently don't take "ownership" of assignments. He's not, he's just willfully/deliberately ignorant.

In addressing problematic associate behavior, he's intentionally opting to ignore the underlying reasons for that behavior.

Anonymous said...

I don't believe that partners are saints. There are plenty of greedy ones, and I believe that like everybody else, they are watching out for their self-interests first and foremost. No argument there. What bothers me is that the whiners above are blaming other people (partners) entirely, and using that to justify piss-poor attitudes, lack of professionalism, and no sense of responsibility towards one's own career.

I don't know HP, and I don't know or care how greedy he is. But he is not using the blog to screw you out of your money. He's telling you how to advance your career. What do you lose? You get to choose whether to listen or not. When I come here, I find the advice useful / practical in differentiating myself in this market, and I'm going to run with it.

So you're bitter and jaded - go take it out on the partners who actually treat you like shit, rather than flog someone who's trying to help.

Anonymous said...

11:37 here, I'm not complaining. I think partners are well within their right to fire at will when the work stops pouring in. A law firm is a profit generating enterprise, not a church or support group. I'm just pointing out the perspective of the law associate. Partners complain that associates don't take ownership their work, yet they fail to realize that the partners' action/inaction is a major part of an associate's attitude at work. The law firm model was different when these partners were associates: several years ago an associate who stuck it out for 7-10 years was virtually guaranteed a partnership. Today the partnership track is muddled with words like subject criteria, gender quotas, and affirmative action. Why should 10 associates bust their butt for one partnership spot that may or may not be given to someone based on merit?

Anonymous said...

2:51 PM:
I could not have articulated it better. HP's advice has been more than useful for me. HP is telling us, from the perspectives of partners, what kind of behaviors are desired. There is no need to bash HP for having good intention for the readers. Plus, some of the comments here accuse HP of bad, allegedly typical, partner qualities without any evidence at all. Its not like HP has screwed you of your promotions.

HP, please do not get discouraged by comments like above.

Anonymous said...

HP wants this blog to be successful, so he should take a hint from the last blog written from the perspective of a hiring partner--anonymouslawyer. Even though it was fiction, it was sensationally popular because the fictional HP acknoledged that mediocre work ethic from associates was a two-way street.

I've written, appreciated, and enjoyed almost every blog entry written by HP. However, i think this particular one has set off a nerve because it appears to cast the blame for poor associate work ethic entirely on the associates, without acknowledging that the structure of the firm is also largely to blame.

If HP wants this blog to really gain popularity, he has to go beyond merely providing advice about how to get a summer job, get a full time offer, and ascend to partnership. A significant number of readers fall into none of those categories. He has to speak with at least minimum empathy to the legions of associates just like the ones he currently manages. And, he has to offer a meaningful, reflective commentary, not merely on the reality that associate work ethic and morale are low, but WHY they are low.

So long as he just blames poor associate work ethic on laziness/generationY/ingratitude/etc, the blog will never become what HP wants it to be.

Anonymous said...

11:37 - 2:51 here. OK, so I'm won't go on and on about why you should strive to do a good job regardless - you'll just think it's preachy and condescending. Let's just look at things from the angle of **your own** self-interest.

Yes, sucky managers (partners in this case) kill morale, and make you hate every minute at work. I totally get that. But if that prompts you to do a sucky job in retaliation, you're just letting somebody you despise ruin your career, because (bad) partner is going to bad mouth you to other (potentially good) partners, and you'll simply be known as The Guy with an Attitude Problem. Do you think other partners are going to believe you're a gift from heaven "if it weren't for Partner X making life miserable for me"?

Think about your clients too - these are the very people who may very well be your ticket out of a law firm to a happier life. You're not going to get anywhere with your clients if account partners don't like your work and cut you out of the loop.

The point is something HP has said before, and has been told to me in every job I've had: Take control of your career, and that includes the attitude you bring to work. Sounds totally corny, but if you think partner action / inaction is a "major part of an associate's attitude at work," then you're just letting someone dictate your options. Why give them that satisfaction?

Anonymous said...

4:38: I think everyone here would agree with you. Being a mediocre employee is always undesirable, for numerous reasons. Too many associates choose to simply give up, rather than fight for a better job.

But I think that 4:24 got it right. I guess that many of the upset readers were hoping that HP would morph into anonymouslawpartner when it came time to offer his philosophical musings on the nature of life at a large law firm. This post clearly indicates that this HP is not Jeremy Blachman, for better or for worse, and that revelation has disappointed some of the readers.

Anonymous said...

6:01 here.

Since others have elaborated on it I will simply say you either have a reading comprehension problem or, far more likely, you have tunnel vision like so many partners.

in any event, the point is that the problem is with you. yes you. it's not us who don't get it. it's you and partners like you who are completely and utterly tone deaf to all that is said around you.

you fail to see that the business model you've created to pad your bank account is precisely why these problems have occurred.

you whine about associates not taking ownership when what you really mean is that associates are no longer willing to suck up to you and would rather leave for a job that pays half or a third the salary than deal with you when they know the odds are slim that they'd become partner.

droves of associates do this and yet you are mystified as to why associates are uninterested in taking "ownership"? It's clear you've got the blinders on.

and by the way, ownership comes when you actually get to make decisions, talk to clients, and have some true autonomy. instead, partners of your ilk have associates draft pointless memos and burn the midnight oil to complete assignments at artificial deadlines. that's not ownership.

you just fail to comprehend what ownership really is about and it is because you, and other partners, have been unwilling to look inward to figure out why associates that excel academically and work so hard to be able to start their careers at elite firms are turned off and leave.

competition to get into top law schools and graduate at the top of a given law school's class is FAR harder than it ever was. there are more people trying to get in and hardly any more seats at the top schools than there were decades ago.

these people are bright and ready to take on responsibility, but you (or partners who sound like you) throw a hissy fit when an associate doesn't read their mind and include some random point in the pointless memo with the artificial deadline.

in short, you have not had a single moment of introspection and just presume all the problems you see around you are because of everyone else.

Anonymous said...

5:02 PM:
Assume that what you said is true. All partners are evil. They all see associates as tools to unjustly enrich themselves.

Even if all those are true, HP is not asking for a whole lot of responsibility here. That is simply basic professional responsibility. Even 22 year olds with only an undergrad degree on their first corporate jobs are demanded that kind of responsibility.

Assume all partners are incarnations of Lucifer himself. Is it unjustified for these evil people to demand only a basic level of responsibility from associates when they are paying people without much relevant experience a starting salary that would make mid level managers at Fortune 100 companies green with envy? The compensation (with bonuses before the crisis) for entry level BIGLAW associate can reach 160-190k.

Low to mid level managers at Fortune 500 companies probably make only almost half that amount. Yet they are demanded a much higher responsibility. They are accountable to company's profitability. Junior associates are not. Business schools grads with average experience of 5 years are demanded much higher level of responsibility their first job right out of b-schools. All that responsibility for a salary almost half of what a 1st year BIGLAW makes.

Bottom line is, big law junior associates are paid a very high salary. Partners are justified in demanding a certain level quality for what they pay. In the end law firms are just businesses who are in it to make money. Just like any businesses they are entitled to make decisions based on economic cost benefit analysis.

Most biglaw associates have not worked a real professional job before. In the outside world, the level of responsibility demanded by HP is not much, especially for the amount they are paid.

Anonymous said...


A little thick on the hyperbole. I dont think 6:01 was suggesting that HP is evil.

But 6:01 makes a valid point when he notes that most law firm associates will voluntary leave after their educational debt is repaid, and will leave for jobs usually paying 1/2 to 1/3 of what their old job paid. AND, one of the most coveted jobs is "in-house counsel."

So something must be different between working in an ordinary corporation and a large law firm. And whatever that something is, is worth so much that associates will forego 1/2 to 2/3 of their paycheck to avoid it. From a purely economic standpoint, you can't ignore this reality, it is only a matter of explaining it.

And the explanation is not hours; most associates say their hours are the same in house.

I think the explanations offered by 6:01 are as reasonable as any--that the work in a law firm is more mundane, you are treated worse by your supervisors, and you have little/zero chance of advancement. And all of this is intentionally institutionalized by the partnership, because high attrition is part of the business model (unlike most corporations who WANT their new employees to at least stay, if not advance).

The only other industry with the same model is investment banking, where they churn and burn you over a couple years. And while they will talk about "teamwork" and "ownership" in that environment as well, it is no less a bunch of garbage. The very mention of the word teamwork evokes cognitive dissonance, because partners are creating an environment suffocating enough that most members will want to leave the team.

Anonymous said...


You exaggerated my point on both ends and clearly do not understand HP's attempted point. His point is not about just doing your job. As pointless as some of his posts may be, he was not trying to say "do your job." He was trying to say "here's how to stand out." Hence the title of "tip of the day - standing out."

Anonymous said...

I am not in-house, but I've spoken to friends and family friends who work, or did work, in-house.

I think the coveted in-house counsel position is greatly exagerated. As someone mentioned, the hours are fairly similar, and the chance for advancement isn't particularly great. Because of the low-attrition rate and limited positions, you have to wait until someone retires for advancement rather than being promoted due to merit.

Additionally, there is nothing glorious about in-house work from those I've spoken to with these positions. I know some who have return to firms because the work is so mudane, drafting boring contract after boring contract. Additionally, the fact that people are around for so long, and aren't rewarded on as much of a merit system (like in law firms which base a lot on hours) allows favoritism to flourish.

Many I have unluckily spoken to bitter in-house, but it's worth considering.

Favortism exists everyone. Many with power abuse it. You can play the game or whine about it. Your choice.

Junior associates are using big law as much as big law is using them. Having a big law firm on your resume provides MANY opportunities, just like working for one of the big investment banking firms used to provide.

Anonymous said...

I say "amen" to 7:17pm. Whiners always feel like the world has wronged them, and that they deserve so much better. I'd like to see some of these same people try to get a different job, with the same attitude and complaints -- even if they're lucky to find another job, they'll be kicked back out onto the street in five seconds.

Anonymous said...

There's no hope trying to explain notions of marginal, decreasing utility to the gunner-turned-associate.

These guys read every case in law school, briefed them all, went to every class, created their own outlines, and have always done all the work that was assigned to them, even when they knew that there was little/no payoff for doing so. They just believe that they should work hard, even when there's little/no personal incentive to do so.

One group notes that if you work X hours, and get A, vs. work X+Y hours, and still get A, its waste to work Y.

The other group says that the payoff doesnt matter, what matters is "ethics" and "professionalism."

The two groups will always be talking past each other.

Anonymous said...

Yes, we'll always be talking past each other. It doesn't take a gunner to believe that work ethic and professionalism matter, and that one can take pride in one's work and in building one's reputation as a reliable, conscientious professional, beyond simply caring about how much money one is getting for going the extra mile.