Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Summer Associates - "Clients" Not "Bosses"

In my previous post, I discussed how summer associates often have internalized a "corporate" paradigm and subconsciously expect that such a model will be followed when they "work at" a law firm.  Instead, a law firm operates very differently - lawyers must take responsibility for themselves and the senior attorneys are really the clients of the younger attorneys.  However, as summer (and new) associates attempt to internally resolve the dissonance between the "corporate" and "law firm" models, they often make wrong or nonsensical moves.  Let's take a look at some actual experiences that I have had or have discussed where summer associate's lack of understanding of the law firm model led them to the wrong move.

Before we get started, recall from my previous post how summer associates seem to understand and accept certain types of behavior with regard to "a lawyer" and their client, but somehow fail to realize that the senior attorneys are the associate's clients.  In each of the situations below, if the summer associate had regarded their relationship with the senior attorney as lawyer-client, then they would probably have done the right thing.  However, the summer associate's indoctrination to the "corporate" model (or in some cases just plain lack of understanding) steered them the wrong way.

Example 1 - Consider a hypothetical - IBM (or some other large corporation with a lot of legal work to have done) calls a lawyer and asks the lawyer to do some work for them.  In response, the lawyer says "Sorry, I'm doing work for [tiny company], I can't be absolutely sure that I will have time to do your work, so I don't want to take it on."  This is obviously not reality.  Instead, the lawyer would thank IBM for coming to them and either 1) make time, or 2) offer IBM a timetable that they can make while managing their other work and see if it is acceptable to IBM, or 3) tell IBM that they will call them right back and then go back to the tiny company, and try to work out a schedule that will allow them to satisfy both the tiny company and IBM.

That is, the lawyer would WANT to take on the work and would do his darnedest to try and make it happen.  The lawyer would not, for example, tell IBM that IBM will have to call the tiny company and work out between them how many hours the lawyer should be spending on IBM's work vs. tiny company's work.  The lawyer would work to try to be able to take on IBM's work - the lawyer would make it "his problem" to find a solution, not try to pass it back and make it "IBM's problem" to find a solution. 

And there is a simple reason for this - job security.  IBM has enough work for the lawyer so that the lawyer can bill plenty of hours - the tiny company does not. 

For most summer associates, the above example seems pretty obvious.  However, consider the situation where a senior attorney calls a summer associate and asks a summer associate to do an assignment.  In response, the summer associate says "I can't, I'm doing something for [a first year associate]" and then leaves it at that.

Wow.  Someone has failed to understand the model and failed to appreciate that the senior attorney is a much better client to have than the first year associate.  You are talking IBM vs. tiny company in the example above.  The senior attorney is much more likely to have work to keep the summer associate busy.

Instead of the response above, the summer associate should have acted like the attorney in our hypothetical - thank the client for the call and make it your problem to try to make the situation work if you can.  For example, propose a timetable that you can commit to and see if you can bring the senior attorney's work on board.  Also, if there is a question about the timetable, the summer associate should take the initiative to call the first year associate and try to work out a schedule that works for both the first year associate and the senior attorney - then call the senior attorney back.  In this regard, the summer associate would be an active, responsible participant serving his or her client.  It also shows the senior attorney that you know how to manage clients.

This is in contrast to the "corporate" model - under the "corporate" model, the "employee's" responsibility would end when they merely inform the "manager" of their schedule.  The manager would then have the responsibility to work with the other managers assigning work to the "employee" to develop a new work assignment for the employee.  In the "corporate" model, all of that management and scheduling is not in the employee's hands - the employee is "externally managed" rather than "internally managed" like in the law firm environment.

Again, what's the bottom line with why the summer or new associate would want to take on work for the senior attorney?  Again, it's job security - just like for the lawyer in the example above.  Recall that in the law firm model, the associate is responsible for getting the hours that they have to bill - if the lawyer is not billing, it's not the client's fault.

Unfortunately, the summer associate has failed to impress the senior attorney with their attitude.  The senior attorney is thus likely to send his work elsewhere (to another summer associate) in the future - and the summer associate has missed out on a great opportunity.  Someone else will benefit instead.

Career Services Advice Gone Wrong
The example above also give us an opportunity to see how well-meaning advice by the summer associate's Career Services Office (CSO) can be mis-applied to the detriment of the summer associate if the summer associate does not understand how the advice should be applied.

That is, assume in the above example that the summer associate's CSO warned the summer associate to "be sure not to over-schedule yourself".  The summer associate then interprets this advice through a "corporate" lens to mean that they should only take on one project at a time and be very reluctant to take on any project that they are not absolutely sure that they will have plenty of time to do.

Well, that just doesn't reflect how it works for a practicing attorney (which the summer associate, when pressed, would likely admit) so it really is not the model that the summer associate should attempt to apply.  Instead, an attorney on hearing that advice would continue to be aggressive in soliciting work from clients, but would make extra efforts to determine how long something would take and then maybe leave themselves and additional 10-20% margin.

So, in the example above, instead of just saying "I can't, I'm doing something for [a first year associate]" because the summer associate is worried about having enough time, the summer associate would have been pro-active.  They would know how long their current task would take, give themselves a reasonable 10-20% margin, and then schedule the next task with the senior attorney.  After all, if all goes well and they get done a little earlier, the senior attorney is not going to complain about them getting started earlier.

For example, assume that the summer associate is working on something that they have been told will take them "the rest of the day".  The senior attorney then calls up and asks them to do work.  The summer associate conveys that they are happy to get the call and would be happy to do the work.  They have something that they are finishing up right now, but they will be free to start on the work "around noon tomorrow" - would that be acceptable to the senior attorney?  (If not, the summer associate should aggressively try to work out the schedule with the first year attorney as discussed above.)

You can see in this example how the summer associate has given themselves an extra 3-hour window tomorrow morning in case their current project takes longer than it is supposed to.  If instead they get the project done tonight, just approach the senior attorney early tomorrow and say you wrapped up your previous project faster than you expected.  Everyone likes nice surprises.

This is really how the CSO's advice to "be sure not to over-schedule yourself" should be applied.  The advice should not be used in any way to make it look like you don't want the work.  Again I urge summer associates to shed the "I am an employee" model and adopt the "I am a lawyer serving my client" model.

Don't Diss The Tiny Company Either
Some people might interpret my example of IBM vs. tiny company as implying that it is OK to short-change the tiny company or to communicate in any way to the tiny company that they are not a desired client or that they are valued less than IBM.  That is certainly not the case.  The tiny company should be treated with respect and the lawyer's work for tiny company should be good.  The lawyer also should not approach tiny company and say "IBM asked me to do work, so of course I am going to put your work on the back burner" - or worse yet, that "I am going to stop doing the work I said I was going to do.  Your work obviously is less important than IBM's." 

The same should apply with the senior attorney and the first year associate substituted for IBM and the tiny company.  IBM calling does not relieve you of your responsibilities to tiny company - and it is the lawyer's responsibility to work it out so that both parties are satisfied.  Most summer associates can clearly see this and just need to internalize the firm lawyer-client model in order to be able to successfully apply it.


  1. I followed your link from the comment on my page. Great site! It's good to have an experienced, practicing lawyer on here.

  2. Thanks Revan! - Although recalling the
    story that you are currently relating on your blog , I'm just sorry that the message didn't get out to you sooner.