It’s no secret that life in a law firm can be stressful no matter one’s position and seniority. Pressure to bill hours and maximize profits, to retain clients and attract new ones, and to advance or maintain an achieved status in a highly competitive and political environment can have a negative—even toxic—effect on individuals within the firm, and on the firm as a whole.
As owners of a law firm, partners acutely feel this pressure, relying in large part on associates to fuel partners’ individual and collective success. Similarly, associates face significant pressure to generate billings and deliver high-quality outputs, placing their futures largely in the hands of partners for whom they work. Thus, partners and associates function in essentially a symbiotic relationship—they need each other to flourish.
In their supervisory role, partners typically set the tone for, and dictate the parameters of, their interactions with associates. A first partner may approach the partner-associate relationship as one of mutuality. A second similarly situated partner may premise the relationship substantially on advancing his or her own self-interest. Not surprisingly, associates tend to prefer working for the first partner if given the choice.
Partners who apply the below eight principles are likely to foster healthy partner-associate relationships that maximize the benefits to both parties.
Include and empower.
Talented associates want to learn, grow, and be a credit to the firm and themselves. You can help them attain these objectives by including them in meetings with clients, delegating meaningful and challenging projects, granting a reasonable degree of autonomy, and otherwise empowering them to build confidence and develop their own voice as a practitioner. In contrast, so-called “filtering” involves such tactics as a partner taking part in relevant client discussions without an associate present, monopolizing written client communications, and generally taking credit for the associate’s work product. Because it requires additional iterations—for example, extra meetings in which the partner rehashes what the client said—filtering as a “best” practice is inherently inefficient and unfair to the client. Ultimately, it just marginalizes and frustrates ambitious associates.
Share what you’ve learned.
You’ve got a lot to offer less seasoned attorneys given your longer tenure in practice. By generously drawing from your deep well of knowledge and experience, you can accelerate associates’ development as practitioners, making them more valuable to your clients and your firm. On the other hand, if you’re possessive of your expertise, perhaps out of fear that they’ll outshine you, you may stunt associates’ professional growth, limiting their potential to help you do great things.
Don’t sugarcoat reality.
If you’re uncomfortable with providing constructive criticism, it’s time to get out of your comfort zone. Associates want to know how to improve, how they’re perceived within the political structure of the firm, and how to navigate and get promoted within the firm. And they need to know these things because their careers, your career, and the firm inevitably suffer if the truth isn’t told. Intentionally promote an atmosphere of honest, respectful dialogue, with a goal of helping associates improve as legal technicians, as developers of new business, and as citizens within the firm.
Recognize that your success rises when their success rises.
Some partners are tempted to adopt a protectionist approach that says, If I let go too much, associates will threaten my book of business. Therefore, I need to keep them away from my clients and the best work available. The problems with this approach are many. First, it deprives clients of talented, yet less costly contributors. Second, it withholds professional opportunities from worthy associates. Third, it telegraphs that the partner’s trust and respect for associates are qualified. Overall, this approach may appear effective in the short term, but it incentivizes associates to forge relationships with other partners in the firm, or prompts them to jump ship altogether.
Always act with humility and decency.
Let me state the obvious: Partners wield the most power in a law firm. Your associates are watching intently to see the example you set, in both words and actions. If you conduct yourself with humility, not afraid to acknowledge your mistakes and shortcomings, and if you treat with dignity all within the firm—from staff in the mail room to members of the management committee—you’ll find that associates gravitate toward working with you. Letting the stress of the job get the best of you—for instance, ignoring or openly demeaning those below you in the firm hierarchy—sends a strong message to associates that you’re arrogant and not to be trusted or respected.
Get to know your associates as people.
The desire to be known and valued is core to how most humans are wired. Associates are no exception. Partners who treat the partner-associate relationship as purely transactional, or “all business,” miss an opportunity to build bridges of mutual respect and commitment. If you take time to get to know your associates, showing genuine interest in them, you’ll go a long way toward optimizing the relationship. Make a habit of offering praise for a job well done, of periodically taking your associates to lunch, and of showing other random acts of gratitude and kindness. Associates who perceive you as uncaring and mercenary are unlikely to go above and beyond the call of duty when the chips are down.
Be an advocate.
The credo in many law firms includes such notions as “eat what you kill,” “every lawyer for himself or herself,” and “survival of the fittest.” You, as a partner and supervisor, can decide whether, and to what extent, to apply these notions to your work with associates. In many firms, the fortunes of an associate depend in large measure on perceptions within the firm and who in the partnership is willing to vouch for the associate. Assuming a neutral or passive stance when your voice could make a difference to a talented associate’s advancement may seem to conserve your political capital. However, in so doing, you may allow louder voices to prevail, possibly propelling less deserving associates up the ladder. Advocating for your associates, and acting in ways counter to your near-term self-interest, such as equitably sharing billing credit, are likely to engender strong loyalty from your associates, expand your book of business over time, and impact firm culture for the better.
Seek self-understanding and self-improvement.
We all come to law firm practice with unique personalities, values, interpersonal styles, and eccentricities. We’re thrown into a challenging “sink or swim” environment, with little time to think about how we fit in, how we treat people and why we do so, and the path of creation or destruction we leave in our wake. Consider taking an honest inventory of your strengths and weaknesses and their impact on your relationships with associates and others within and outside the firm. Reflect, seek feedback, hire an executive coach, and chart a course for self-improvement, with the objective of becoming a better supervisor, colleague, and person.
By applying the above principles to the partner-associate relationship and beyond, you’ll likely cultivate more profitable and productive associate relationships. And associates in your firm will truly enjoy working with and for you.
This article reflects my current personal views and should not be necessarily be attributed to my current or former employers, or their respective clients or customers.