It is a well-founded legal principle that the role of law firm associates is one of drudgery, tedium, grind, toil, and humiliation. The partner's role, on the other hand, is more as an entertainer and public face of the firm. This is all well and good, and associates cheerfully accept their plight in law firm life. Sometimes, however, this distinction between partners and associates becomes blurred.
Many associates are becoming increasingly active in the traditional partners' domain of developing business and bringing their own clients to The Firm. Associates who are successful in this area often find themselves in the enviable position of distributing their clients' work among needy partners seeking billable hours. As a result, within the law firm structure, roles are reversed, tables are turned. Unless they are someday appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court, associates in this position find themselves at the pinnacle of their legal careers.
An Atlanta associate retained by a large real estate venture writes: "I was in the interesting position of having two partners seeking work assignments from me. One dropped subtle hints that she was interested in getting the project. The other wasn't too proud to beg and flat out asked for the assignment," the associate recalls.
"The latter partner happened to be in charge of hiring when I was interviewing for a position as a summer associate," the Atlanta associate continues. I had to fight the temptation to ask him about his class standing in law school and how he did on the LSAT since these things seemed so important to him when the firm was deciding whether to hire me."
A fifth-year associate at a major San Francisco firm was also in a position to assign work to partners. "When the Litigation Department learned that my client had a major suit on its hands, I suddenly became every partner’s favorite associate. One partner, who had never previously acknowledged my existence, even asked me to lunch so he could talk to me about the case and go over his credentials. I felt the power," the associate writes, "the power of the partner."
Associates in this situation must be prepared to successfully play the role traditionally reserved for partners. The following guidelines, if carefully followed, can assure that the utmost satisfaction will be derived from the experience:
- Wait until 4:30 on Friday afternoon to assign the project to the partner and demand to have it completed by Monday morning. After the partner works all weekend on the assignment, take two or three weeks before reviewing it. Ignore all substantive aspects of the partner's work but chastise the partner for any grammatical or typographical errors.
- When assigning the project, give the partner complex and convoluted instructions. If the partner asks a question or indicates any lack of understanding, roll your eyes, sigh and ask with a tone of annoyance in your voice, "Where did you go law school?"
- While the partner is working on the assignment, have your secretary call every hour to ask if it's completed yet.
- Calculate how many hours you think it will take the partner to complete the work. Tell the partner not to spend more than one-third of that time on the assignment.
- When the partner comes to your office to talk to you about the assignment, take and make personal phone calls, finish reading a few documents on your desk and dictate a letter to your travel agent. Every five or ten minutes, tell the partner, "This will only take a second. Stay where you are."
- If the work product is impressive, have the partner put your name on it and send it to the client. After this is done, order the partner to turn the assignment into a promotional article for publication under your name. If, however, the client complains, the State Bar comes knocking, or The Firm is hit with a malpractice suit, give the partner full credit for the assignment.
While associates should enjoy the role reversal to the fullest extent, it must also be remembered that reality can quickly come crashing down.
The San Francisco associate says her fantasy came to a sudden end when "the partner who heads my department called me into his office and berated me for a mistake he himself made in a memorandum sent to a client. Then he gave me a huge assignment he needed to be completed right away and reminded me my billable hours were low during the previous month.
"I immediately reverted back to my obsequious associate ways," the associate says. "I apologized profusely for the mistake, promised to get my hours up and obediently accepted the assignment which I stayed up all night completing."
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