Archive for the ‘Staffing’ Category

Bonus season has an unintended effect when associates wait until they’ve collected the annual bonus before giving their two-week notice.  If you are an associate planning to stick around, how does this affect you?

A lot of case assignment and re-assignment occurs during the months of January and February.  This is not mere coincidence.  When associates leave, the firm needs people to fill those places.  Sometimes, case staffing gets rearranged entirely, with a lot of behind-the-scenes angling by partners who try to retain their favorite talent.

As someone who plans to stay, you need to be alert of what’s happening around you.  First, if you’re happy about the cases that you are currently working on, then try to find out if any rearranging will affect you.  This has to be done through the grapevine.  Usually, senior associates are more plugged in to what the partners are doing, so try to find out from them.

Second, if you are not currently happy about one or more cases, this might be a great opportunity to try to get switched off a case without offending the partner that you are currently working for.  This works especially well if you happen to know that one of your fellow associates is planning to leave and is working on a sexy case that you’ve been eyeing for the past few months.  Have him or her get you knowledgeable and “up to speed” on the case informally, and put in a good word for you when s/he has officially given notice and needs to transition the case.  This guarantees that you’re a step ahead of anyone else.  It makes you attractive because partners hate to write off time to get a new associate informed about a new case.  And the former partner with the decidedly un-sexy case?  He or she is generally more understanding that re-assignments occur during bonus season.

Third, if you don’t have enough work (a realistic position to be in given the continued deplorable state of the economy), look at this as a chance to get more work.  It always helps when you have insider’s knowledge of an imminent associate departure.  A lot of associates won’t even tell fellow associates until they’ve officially given notice, knowing how quickly work can spread and not wanting the partnership to know prematurely.  But if you’ve gained someone’s trust, you’ll likely know ahead of everyone else.  Use that to your advantage if you don’t have enough work and want to inherit the case.

Good luck, and happy hunting!


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The good stuff

After last week’s theme of layoffs, you might think that working at a law firm is all doom and gloom.  Fear not!  This week, I will focus on the good stuff, the aspects of being an associate that remind us of why we went to law school in the first place.

Why did we go to law school?  What aspects of law school did we really enjoy?  Based on what law students and lawyers have told me, the prevailing sentiment is this: the intellectual stimulation.  Learning the law, understanding the nuances of legal persuasion and argument, sharpening the ability to analyze, dissect, and rationalize.

As young lawyers, associates crave the same intellectual stimulation that they experienced in law school.  But this doesn’t happen overnight.  Too often, based on the manner in which cases are staffed, entry-level associates are only responsible for one, very small, discrete part of the case–and have no concept of the big picture.  It’s only when associates rise within the ranks that they become more involved, gradually assuming greater responsibility and larger portions of the case.  Either that, or get staffed on a smaller case where there’s only one partner and one associate.

So what is the good stuff?  For corporate lawyers, it may involve a legal strategy session figuring out the angles of negotiation, or how to phrase a sentence in a particular way that doesn’t offend the other side but where the client still gets what he wants.  For litigators, it may mean a roundtable discussion with the client and the partners about whether to file a discretionary motion: whether the motion will provide leverage over the other side, place pressure on them to settle, distract opposing counsel or utilize resources better spent elsewhere; or perhaps backfire when the judge throws out the motion and becomes angry, or if opposing counsel fires back with her own motion.

Lawyering is often a chess match: each move must be made deliberately, anticipating the response from the other side, your response to their response, and their response to your response to their response, et cetera.  Each move, down to the minute details of the tone of voice used in a letter to opposing counsel, carries potential consequences down the line.  Legal strategy, after all, is not simply a game of x’s and o’s; it involves understanding all the intangibles of the human condition and taking deliberate actions to use them to advantage for the client.  How do we treat the other side?  Do we take aggressive positions or conciliatory ones?  Do we cooperate or fight?  Should we make concessions now in order to “bank some goodwill” when we may need it later on?  The most skilled attorneys understand human psychology, and are masters at being able to manipulate their own personalities and interactions to fit the situation.

For an associate, being included in these discussions of legal strategy, and observing firsthand how they work and to what effect–that is the good stuff.

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Saying “no” sounds easy, doesn’t it? You just harness your vocal chords, and the word comes out of your mouth. During law school, I took a seminar as a 3L called “Concept of Consent.” The course dealt with the word “no” in all its complexities, and in particular in the context of rape law. By the end of the semester, I had acquired a profound appreciation for just how complicated one word, “no,” can be.

Assume this hypothetical: a partner has approached you with a new assignment and you have a legitimate reason to say “no.” You are already swamped. What do you say to this partner? “No. I’m too busy.” This is the most common reply, and is almost always the wrong one. Let’s see what is really going on here.

Any time you say “no” to a partner, you need to be aware of several things. First, what do you really intend to say in your refusal? Second, how is the partner interpreting your refusal?

“No” is a loaded word. It may mean, “I don’t have time to work on a new case right now” or “I am holding out for a better case” or “I really do want to work with you on this case but I am swamped for the next year because of a trial” or “I have heard terrible things about you and wish to avoid you at all costs.” What is your intention when you say “no”?

The partner may likewise interpret the “no” in multiple ways. She may think, “‘No’ means I need to push harder” or “Is this associate really swamped?” or “How can this associate refuse without even knowing any details about the case?”

Given the ease in which miscommunication may occur, what can be done?

First, simple awareness that “no” is a loaded term is a step in the right direction.

Second, no matter how busy you are as an associate, always listen to the partner present the case before responding. If she doesn’t elaborate, ask details about the case. Many associates are afraid to do this because they believe that, if a partner has already spent the time explaining the case, they have implicitly consented to being on the case. This may be true if you allow a partner to get into the substantive details of a case. But that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m referring to the discovery of important information: how much of your time does the partner need? when does she need this time? now? a month from now? Perhaps you are swamped for the next week but then your schedule clears up. Perhaps the partner doesn’t need you until next week. You may very well have said “no” to a partner giving you a top notch case simply because you didn’t communicate and ask the right questions.

Third, after finding out the relevant information, if you still have a legitimate reason to decline the case, do so politely. Make sure you let the partner know that you appreciate the fact that they considered you, and encourage them to consider you in the future (especially if it’s a partner you actually do want to work with in the future). Associates sometimes fail to recognize that when a partner approaches with a case, the selection may not be arbitrary or random. Yes, sometimes it is, but you can’t assume this. Perhaps the partner thinks that a particular case is a good fit for you, and you–by blowing her off–just burned your bridge with that partner, and likely conveyed a bad impression to the whole partnership of your “bad attitude” for refusing a case in a mindless fashion.

While the context varies according to individual situation, try a response like this next time you have to decline more work because you are already burning the midnight oil: “Thanks for considering me for this case. I’d love to work with you on it, but I am already working on [x, y, and z cases] with [a, b, and c partners.] I’ve been told by [a, b, and c partners] not to accept any more work for the next [w weeks/months] but if you’d like to talk to them about staffing me on this case, that would be fine with me.”

By doing this, you’ve conveyed gratitude for the offer, provided details and specifics for your current workload and the time frame for that work, and transferred the issue from “I don’t want to work on another case” to “The partners I am working with don’t want me to work on another case.” It’s much harder for a partner to get mad at you for refusing to be on her case when you’ve presented the issue as partner vs. partner as opposed to partner vs. you.

So, before you say “no” next time, remember that it’s a loaded word that requires lots of clarification.

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Saying “no” to a partner feels like telling your kid “no” when in the candy aisle at the grocery store. You feel like you’ve wronged someone, even though deep down inside, you know it’s for the best.

One of the most difficult things to do is to say “no” to a partner. It’s difficult on so many levels. On a basic human level, most human beings like to be agreeable. It’s just our nature. We generally try to avoid conflicts. Even litigators, whose very job is based on conflict, would probably prefer to keep the fighting to opposing counsel, and not have internal disagreements with their own team.

There’s also the fear factor. We all know about the huge disparity in power between partners and associates. Basically, partners have the power to fire associates. Associates don’t have the power to do anything, really. So when a partner asks an associate to help out on a project, even if the associate is thinking, “no,” at the back of her head, she’s probably wondering: “Are there going to be consequences if I say no? Is the partner now going to think I’m lazy or not a team player? Is that partner going to tell all his partner friends that he thinks I’m lazy and not a team player?”

Then there’s the rather naive assumption, when you are a first year, to think that partners know best how to manage your time. You figure: partners are experienced, they’ve worked with first years before, they know what we’re working on, they will figure it out for us. Bad assumption. Very bad. Partners often do not know how busy you are, or what else you are working on. They have the ability to find out what you are doing, but they’re not going to spend the time analyzing your time entry sheets to determine whether you can work on their new case. So don’t assume that if a partner asks you to jump into a new case, that means he really believes you have the time to do it.

Finally, partners are very persuasive. Think about it: skills of persuasion are clearly important if you are a lawyer. Partners are the ones who “made it,” so it’s not surprising that, as a general group, they tend to be persuasive people. They also know how to turn on the charm when they need it the most, when they are desperate for help on a case, and no one is available. Try to resist it.

The point of this post is not to tell you to always say “no” to a partner. In many cases, you should say “yes,” especially if the case is exciting, you will be given new and interesting responsibilities, or the partner is someone you enjoy working with. There are many other situations when you should also say “yes.” The main problem is that most associates, especially junior associates, don’t understand how to say “no” even when they are simply unable to take on more work. This leads to an inordinate number of problems down the road. Now that you understand some of the reasons for why it’s hard to say “no,” stay tuned to the next post on how to say “no” and live to tell about it.

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In Las Vegas, scores of gamblers surround a roulette wheel, placing bets on colors, numbers, ranges–a dizzying array of possibilities. They all have their strategies: placing bets on a lucky number, playing the 0 or 00, betting on streak patterns of red or black, alternating between even and odd. At the end of the day, however, none of those strategies matter. The fortunes of these gamblers are determined by the random skip, hop, and bounce of a small white ball and its interaction with a spinning wheel. It’s a game of chance, and the house–on average–always comes out on top.

This week’s topic focuses on staffing at law firms, the process by which associates get assigned to a case. The process varies depending on whether the associate is a first year fresh out of law school, or is a more experienced associate with a track record at the firm. Today’s discussion focuses only on staffing for entry-level associates. As you may have guessed, I believe that staffing for first years is like spinning the roulette wheel: a simple act of chance.

Let’s say you are a recent law school graduate. You just started work this week. The economy is still on the ropes, law firms have been laying off attorneys, and you are just happy to have a job. Perhaps your interest is corporate work, specifically M&A work. Your firm knows about this interest because you told them when you interviewed. Or maybe that’s what you worked on two summers ago when you were a summer associate at the firm. Nevertheless, M&A work is really slow right now at your firm. Maybe you find out about that, or maybe you don’t know. Either way, it’s your first week of work and you’ll ready to jump in and practice law.

A partner stops by your office as you are pretending to be busy (even though you haven’t been staffed on a case yet). She says, “I have a new case and could use some help. Do you have time?” If you are like most first years, you reply honestly, “I do have time.” It’s the truth, so why not say it? She continues, “Great. Meet me in my office at 3 and I’ll get you started.” That’s the end of the conversation.

What just happened? Before you knew what was going on, you’ve just been staffed. You placed a wager, a huge bet, on a number–but you did it blindly. You have no idea who this partner is, whether she is someone you want to work with, what the case is about, whether it’s even corporate work, and what level of involvement you’ll have on the case. At 3 pm, the wheel stops spinning and you’ll know what you landed on. But don’t be surprised if it’s not your dream case.

The reality is that first years have almost no control over how they are staffed on their first case. They are new to the system, and are generally not aware of what cases are out there, or which partners are managing those cases. It’s practically impossible to say no to a partner when you aren’t staffed on a single case, especially when you are still in your first week. The natural response is just the opposite: yes! whatever you want! Those are the prevailing sentiments.

Our hypothetical associate could have been more savvy: ask the partner what the case is about, who the client is, what the partner envisions the associate’s role to be, how many other attorneys are on the case, what the associate’s substantive role will be, and what percentage of the associate’s total workload the case will require. Those are all astute questions that will gain a partner’s respect and give the associate information about the case that can help him decide whether the assignment is suited to his career path. For example, if the partner says that the case involves massive document review for a complex litigation case that just came in the door, our hypothetical associate may try to decline the assignment by informing the partner that he is interested in corporate work, not litigation. Asking questions doesn’t necessarily guarantee that the associate will be able to refuse the assignment, but it at least gives him information which can lead to options.

The moral of today’s post: when it comes to being staffed on your first case, try to ask the right questions before blindly accepting the assignment. When gambling, you can’t beat the house, but you can help your odds. Do the same with your law career.

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