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Balancing Professional and Business Responsibilities at a Law Firm

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The responsibility of new lawyers is to become able professionals. This requires the associate to learn about the firm's philosophy and policies and to demonstrate a "can-do," team-player attitude: in short, to assimilate oneself into the firm. It also requires the associate to develop the professional judgment that is essential to the delivery of excellent client service and legal research and analysis.

Partners' expectations of associate attorneys are influenced by clients' and the firm's expectations of partners. Supervising attorneys, the associate's immediate "clients," are accountable to firm clients for the delivery of excellent legal service. A supervising attorney, in turn, expects and requires the assigned associate attorney to demonstrate excellence in work product, service to client and community, and enjoyment of practice and relationships with colleagues.

The new associate expects to receive quality training from the firm. The associate, however, must take the initiative to discover what the firm, supervising attorneys, and their clients expect of each other; and then, to learn how to perform practical tasks that extend beyond an academic notion of "legal work" to encompass the operation of the practice both as a business and as a profession.


Supervising attorneys expect you to:
  1. Attune yourself to the profession and to the business.
  2. Understand and clarify assignments.
  3. Manage your workload and time.
  4. Manage your assignments.
  5. Stay on track by thinking broadly and narrowly.
  6. Communicate progress and status.
  7. Produce a useful work product.
  8. Develop meeting and telephone skills.
  9. Plan your career.
  10. Lay the foundation for business development.

Learn to attune yourself to the profession

Whatever your practice, as a lawyer you do more than dispense a service that is predesigned or is measurable by concrete criteria. You cannot simply look up rules and plug in "what is right." Instead, you must use technical expertise and apply judgment to determine how to best achieve each client's goal. The process you follow in delivering legal service, and the result reached, will define the quality of your representation of the client, and your reputation in your firm and the profession.
Therefore, as new lawyers refine analytical skills and technical competence, they face these additional obligations: to set a course to build professional judgment — a unique and crucial resource to a client — and to become attuned to economic realities affecting their firms.


That a lawyer possesses professional values is the expectation shared by the firm, the public, clients, and supervising attorneys — the foundation of the legal profession.

Key to developing professional judgment is adherence to principles of professional conduct. Professional conduct encompasses ethical responsibilities and legal etiquette. The self-discipline and dedication with which each lawyer adheres to the principles of professional conduct is also the touchstone of whether the profession will be accorded the privilege of remaining self-regulated.

Although most completed a course in legal ethics as law students, new associates will find it essential to review ethics principles regularly as they encounter and work through real problems. Ethical responsibilities that affect assignments from the inception of practice include: confidentiality, attorney-client privilege, identification of potential conflicts, supervision of non-lawyer assistants, advocacy principles, and trial conduct. For example, a common conflicts situation oc-curs if an employee of the firm's corporate client suddenly asks for advice in pursuing a course of action inconsistent with corporate interests and policies. Litigators must also review Fed. R. Civ. P. 11 (and any state version), and new opinions interpreting it, which requires any lawyer filing papers in federal court to make reasonable inquiry as to whether the papers are "well-grounded in fact," and are supported by existing law or by a "good faith" basis to justify credible argument to reverse or to modify existing law. Lawyers certify by their signatures that the paper is not filed to delay, harass, or increase the expense of the litigation.

Professionalism contemplates attention to "common sense" rules of etiquette and protocol. Frequently, discovery practices reveal a lawyer's flagrant breach of etiquette toward other lawyers, witnesses, or court reporters. For example, a medical doctor informed a state's grievance committee that the lawyer who took his deposition refused to address him as "Doctor!" Seemingly losing ground in today's world, yet an invaluable business commodity and ingredient of professional conduct, is being courteous. Examples of courtesies too often forgotten include:
  • Courtesy to the clerk and other court personnel
  • Courteous behavior to a client's employees
  • Punctuality
  • Holding nonemergency calls until the conclusion of a meeting
  • Prompt return of calls
  • Proper speaker phone usage
  • Cooperative interaction with the firm's support services staff, legal assistants, and secretaries
  • Placing only the client's file on the desk during a meeting with that client
  • Ensuring the secretary will greet the client promptly in the reception area when you are delayed

Economic Realities

A new lawyer also needs to gain a threshold understanding of economic realities imposed by firm and client. Some of the demands placed on you by supervising attorneys are influenced by your firm's response to external economics and the service expectations clients have of them.

Become aware of the firm's philosophy and goals, its services and "products," client base and general market targets, and various pricing structures. Increasingly, firms develop and offer services in response to needs expressed by existing clients and to opportunities they have identified in market segments. That is, firms are focusing outward to identify and meet client needs rather than exclusively inward according to traditional delineations among substantive legal specialties. New lawyers can gain a practical sense of their firm's services by observing techniques used by its rainmakers and other client-oriented lawyers to attract and retain clients.

It is worthwhile to become acquainted generally with your firm's organizational structure and management and to develop an awareness of economic realities of business operations. New lawyers become familiar immediately with those aspects of "economics" that directly impact their daily performance: "keeping time" recording time, recording client file expenses, and meeting deadlines. Absent inquiry, however, many remain unaware of other aspects of their firm's business operations: the concept of attorney utilization, work-in-progress, billing policies and procedures, collection time lags and procedures, impact of late time slips on cash flow, investment in the firm's new associates, training, technological resources and data bases, types of expenses that are recovered from clients, firm client development activities, etc. For example, a report that summarizes work-in-progress on a matter is an important financial management tool because it measures the time lag between performing the work and billing; firm management reviews this type of report to monitor timeliness of billings, billing value, productivity, investments in time, etc.

Also acquaint yourself with the role of your firm's legal assistants, accounting staff, word processing, messengers, data processing staff, file room clerks, and other support service personnel.


Ensure that you meet your obligation to demonstrate professional conduct — by adhering to ethical responsibilities including: confidentiality, attorney-client privilege, identification of potential conflicts, supervision of nonlawyer assistants, advocacy principles, trial conduct, and legal etiquette.

Acquaint yourself with an overview of the economics of your firm's business — goals, client base, key services, pricing structures, basic principles of financial management, and so forth.

About Harrison Barnes
Harrison Barnes is the founder of LawCrossing and an internationally recognized expert in attorney search and placement. Harrison is extremely committed to and passionate about the profession of legal placement. Harrison’s writings about attorney careers and placement attract millions of reads each year. LawCrossing has been ranked on the Inc. 500 twice. For more information, please visit Harrison Barnes’ bio.

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Harrison Barnes does a weekly free webinar with live Q&A for attorneys and law students each Wednesday at 10:00 am PST. You can attend anonymously and ask questions about your career, this article, or any other legal career-related topics. You can sign up for the weekly webinar here: Register on Zoom

Harrison also does a weekly free webinar with live Q&A for law firms, companies, and others who hire attorneys each Wednesday at 10:00 am PST. You can sign up for the weekly webinar here: Register on Zoom

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Harrison Barnes is the legal profession's mentor and may be the only person in your legal career who will tell you why you are not reaching your full potential and what you really need to do to grow as an attorney--regardless of how much it hurts. If you prefer truth to stagnation, growth to comfort, and actionable ideas instead of fluffy concepts, you and Harrison will get along just fine. If, however, you want to stay where you are, talk about your past successes, and feel comfortable, Harrison is not for you.

Truly great mentors are like parents, doctors, therapists, spiritual figures, and others because in order to help you they need to expose you to pain and expose your weaknesses. But suppose you act on the advice and pain created by a mentor. In that case, you will become better: a better attorney, better employees, a better boss, know where you are going, and appreciate where you have been--you will hopefully also become a happier and better person. As you learn from Harrison, he hopes he will become your mentor.

To read more career and life advice articles visit Harrison's personal blog.

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About Harrison Barnes

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