Friday, July 8, 2011

Summer Associates - Know Your Client

I sympathize with summer associates - and I remember being one.  You walk through the doors of this strange place called a "law firm" often armed with very little in the way of factual and useful information.  Unless the summer associate has had the opportunity to work in a law firm or maybe has relatives that are lawyers, the information that they have is typically a wacky gestalt of things they have experienced from TV, their law school experience, and their previous jobs.  TV we know (and they know) gives them the wrong idea.  However, often law school and their previous job experience also positions summer associates in a less-than-ideally-productive way.  Let's take a look at how this situation develops and some advice that summer associates should keep in mind in order to maximize their chances.

So they know that TV is probably not an accurate window and they are not typically too invested in the model that they have seen there.  However, it is often more difficult for them to realize that most of the "advice" that they get from their law school experience is also counterproductive.  For example, law professors with minimal, decades out of date, or no work experience passing on what they have "heard" as authoritative advice does the law students a disservice.  Also, most of the advice passed around by the other law students and the career services office is not useful either.

Also, summer associates that have worked at a typical "corporate" job before will often assume that they know what "work" is from their previous experience and that their law firm experience will adopt the same paradigm.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  Most regular jobs involve a management structure where the law student has been on the bottom.  That is, typically their experience has been one in which they show up to work and someone (a manager) tells them what to do.  The manager is also responsible for them - responsible to provide them with work, responsible for coordinating their work schedule, responsible for making sure that they are reasonably happy, responsible for giving them feedback, responsible for "reviewing" them and correcting them if they do something that the manager does not like.  In a very real fashion, most jobs that summer associates have had train them to take orders and not to have any responsibility for themselves. 

I know that a summer associate reading that last sentence would cringe and think something like "That's not true!  I am a very responsible person!"  Of course you are, but we are talking about a different type of responsibility here.  In their "work" experience, there typically has always been a hierarchy and authority/responsibility flows from the top down.  They have also typically experienced a situation where the entire company that they worked for is generally dedicated to the same goal or shared purpose - or there is a recognition that when the employee spends time working for another manager that that also provides value to the first manager indirectly by providing a benefit to the company as a whole.

Quite frankly, this model gets inverted in a law firm - and the quicker that summer associates (or new associates) come to understand this the better.  Strangely, summer associates often understand and accept this model as applying to attorneys, but somehow differentiate themselves from attorneys and think of themselves as "employees" in the corporate sense - more in line with their experience.  This often causes them to make the wrong moves in a law firm.

For example, summer associates seem to implicitly understand that a practicing lawyer can not expect his clients to manage the lawyer's schedule so that the lawyer is not overworked.  They also seem to understand that the clients will typically not provide feedback to the attorney unless the feedback is solicited from the clients.  They also understand that the client is not the lawyer's "boss" in the hierarchical corporate sense.  Nor are clients responsible for providing the attorney with work, keeping the attorney happy, correcting the attorney, or indeed any of the "management" activities that the summer associates expect from their corporate experience.

Here's the big thing that summer associates and new lawyers need to understand and internalize:

The senior lawyers in the firm are not your "bosses" in the corporate sense - they are your CLIENTS.

Let's give some examples of what this means and how it differs from the "corporate" experience that a law student might expect.

Example 1 - If a client commissions a lawyer to do some work and the work is not satisfactory, the client is not going to waste their time explaining to the lawyer why it is unsatisfactory and how to improve.  Instead, the client is just going to get a new lawyer.  That seems easily understandable to summer associates.

However, they sometimes have a hard time understanding the similar situation where, if a senior attorney (the summer associate's client) asks the summer associate to do something and they screw it up, the senior attorney is typically not going to waste their time (and it is wasted because they can't bill for it - unlike the corporate environment that would pay the laywer just for being "at work") trying to fix the summer associate - instead they will just go with another summer associate that will do a better job.  Instead, it appears that many summer associates expect a more "corporate" model where they are "trained" (in that someone is externally responsible for increasing their knowledge and utility, and it is paid for on the corporate dime because they get to pursue their training during "working hours" that they are paid for).

Example 2 - Conversely, in a law firm, the summer associate (and new associates) are mostly responsible for their own training - and it needs to be done mostly on their own "dime".  That is, it needs to be done on unbillable time in addition to their billable work.

It seems like the summer associate's first reaction to this reality is to bemoan the "fairness of it all."  However, when they hear about a practicing lawyer having to study the law on their own, non-billable time in order to be able to better represent clients, they just nod and accept it.  They think "of course - no client is going to pay for that study of the law, and the lawyer certainly needs to do it to keep current and do a good job."  However, the summer and new associates seem to think that it is unfair when their "clients" - the senior attorneys - expect the same thing from them.  This disconnect frankly blows my mind to an extent.  Many senior attorneys are thinking to themselves: Are you not a lawyer (or soon to be lawyer)?  Should you not expect to be treated like one?

Example 3 - Time/work management - The summer associates expect that the attorneys are coordinating between themselves to schedule work for the summer associate and will 1) provide the summer associate with a perfect amount of work to keep them busy, but not too busy; 2) while at the same time prioritizing the tasks of the different attorneys for the summer associate, and 3) allowing the summer associate's desired schedule and competing work demands to dictate both the time of completion of the task and the quality of completion of the task.

Yee gods.  Clients just don't do that for lawyers - and when the summer associates think about "lawyers", they realize the ridiculousness of the idea.  That is, a lawyer's clients are just not going to call each other up and schedule between themselves how much work they want the lawyer to do.  They are also not going to be accepting of work that is not 1) provided when they want it and 2) of acceptable quality - not "rushed".  Somehow the summer associates recognize that it is the lawyer's responsibility to manage between clients, but they fail to see that the senior attorneys ARE their clients - and should be treated as such.  That really they MUST be treated as such if the associate is going to be successful over then next few years.  Or else ....

Example 4 - Or else (and this is not likely to happen during the summer, but can happen to younger associates) if the clients (senior attorneys) don't like your work, then they are not going to give you any more.  They are not under an obligation to keep giving you work and accepting an unsatisfactory product - no client is.  However, (and here's a big difference in a law firm) the responsibility for delivering your hours rests with you - not with the senior attorneys.  That is, if your work is bad, then the senior attorneys will stop giving you work, and if you have no work to do, then it is your fault, not the fault of the senior attorneys.  Further, if you have no work to do for a considerable time, you are not contributing to the firm and will be fired.  This will NOT be the firm's fault for "not working with you" - it will be your fault for not satisfying your client.

Again, associates seem to have no problem conceptualizing this when it comes to a "lawyer" - they understand that clients don't have to keep giving work to bad lawyers and the bad lawyer is on their own.  However, they somehow expect a more forgiving, externally-managed, external-responsibility, corporate-style relationship with their own personal clients, the senior attorneys.

The single best thing that associates can do is "unlearn" their corporate experience and shed their corporate expectations.  Their "corporate" expectations are giving them the wrong idea and steering them in the wrong way.  They need to recognize that they are now selling their individual services to clients - with all that entails about expectations for the relationship and how it will be managed.  Summer associates - view yourselves as the "lawyer" that you envision rather than an "employee"  who "works at" a law firm  Also, I hope that you can now understand more what I meant when I said that you don't have a lot of experience taking responsbility for yourself.

Reading back over this, I want to make clear that I am a little more sympathetic than it might appear from what I have to say.  However, I view this post as a kind of "tough-love" and a clear message that I wish had been told to me straight and clear way back when I was a summer associate.  The sooner I had come to realize what I discuss above, the smoother my own personal transition might have been.

Now that I look at it, this post has gotten kind of long, so I'll do another post later about some experiences I (or other attorneys that I have talked to) have had with summer associates who just don't get it - or who attempt to apply well-meaning "advice" (for example, from the career services office or professors), but do it wrong.

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