Associates: The Path To Partnership Is Paved With Hull’s Rules of Client Service

Let me start by saying that I know that not everyone who graduates from law school aspires to be a partner in a big law firm. Or a small law firm. Or any law firm. I’m not suggesting it should be everyone’s or anyone’s goal. Many who make it a goal, and achieve it, come to believe it is overrated. I strongly feel from what I hear and read that partnership has become far less important to many than it was when I graduated (1993), and I doubt it was as important to lawyers of my generation compared with earlier generations. I recognize, then, that this post may not be equally interesting to everyone.

Now that I’ve cleared my throat and caused most readers to change the channel, what I want to say is that, if you do aspire to partnership there are far worse words to live by than J. Daniel Hull’s self-described “World Famous Bad-Ass, Annoying and Infuriatingly Correct 12 Rules of Customer Service.”

I can guess what you’re thinking. Hull’s damn Rules are meant to inform the ways attorneys provide service to their clients, not how associates should treat partners. If we adhere strictly to labels, that is true. But I want to argue that being a junior lawyer who works for, takes direction (and compensation) from and attempts to please senior lawyers is very similar to the experience of any lawyer who works for, takes direction (and compensation) from and attempts to please their customers, i.e., clients. Even if one never aspires to be a partner, then, being a good associate can still be terrific training for how to be a good customer service-oriented lawyer. And, Hull’s rules are a damn good start.

Let’s look at them.

1.Represent only clients you like.

I previously said in another post that, at first blush, this rule seems to suggest we all have the luxury to cherry pick clients. Clearly, most of us don’t have this luxury. Similarly, associates rarely have complete control over who assigns them work. On the other hand, just as lawyers can work over the long-term to shape their practices away from clients they don’t like, talented associates can try to shape their position within a firm. While it might never be possible to completely avoid working for a complete asshole, it should be possible to position yourself to work more often with senior lawyers you respect and like. If there’s more than one complete asshole, then you probably don’t want to be a partner at that firm.

2.The client is the main event.

If you get to work and interact directly with a client, that client is the main event. If not, then the partner who assigned you the work is the main event. If you wouldn’t think of filing or giving a client a document that contains typos or is otherwise sloppy (you wouldn’t, would you?), don’t think you’re going to gain traction with any partner who receives a crappy, typo-ridden document. “Gaining traction” is fancy law firm speak for “having a future.” If nothing else, have your assistant proof read everything before you give it to anybody.

3.Make sure everyone in your firm knows the client is the main event.

4.Deliver legal work that changes the way clients think about lawyers.

Here I suggest you to strive to deliver work that changes the way many partners think about many associates. I witnessed first hand during my career the erosion of how many partners regard associates. I trace it to the point in time when a handful of very lucrative Silicon Valley law firms decided to give the historically high paying New York law firms a run for their money in terms of associate compensation. This seemed to coincide roughly with the point at which late Gen X and early Gen Y law students started graduating. The buzzwords I heard a lot around that time (and I wasn’t yet a partner) was some variation of “undeserved sense of entitlement.”

The good news for associates is that many partners are now so underwhelmed with the commitment of more recent law school graduates that it’s actually not that hard to stand out. In my crude, empirically unsound and untested estimation, a Gen Y associate who puts in the same effort as earlier generations of associates could be a rock star at some law firms. On the other hand, I recognize that many Gen Y lawyers have a different sense of priorities than earlier generations, which I suspect is why partnership is not the brass ring it once was.

5.Over-communicate:  bombard, copy and confirm.

Like most clients, most partners like to be kept informed. If you find yourself working with someone who has limited tolerance for minutiae (and they’re out there) be sensitive to that and adjust accordingly.

6.When you work, you are marketing.

This is true whenever you do anything professionally, whether it’s for a client or a partner.

7.Know the client.

Know the partner. Take an interest in her practice and her clients. Think: how can I make her job/life/career easier. Take ownership of cases, deals or assignments and try to think how you can contribute more to the big picture. Don’t be afraid to make suggestions, but be careful not to do things unilaterally that might run contrary to the lead lawyer’s strategy. When in doubt, ask.

8.Think like the client–help control costs.

Think like the partner who is attempting to think like the client. Part of this is understanding and appreciating where you fit in. Ideally, you bring value to the client since it theoretically costs less for you to spend your time doing a task. This should also have a three-fold benefit to the partner and the law firm. On the one hand, it should free up the partner to spend less time doing more routine tasks and more time thinking strategically and doing more sophisticated tasks requiring experience, training and judgment for which clients are willing to pay higher fees. It should also free up the partner to spend more time marketing and bringing in new business which helps the firm grow. Finally, if leveraged properly, associates are profitable. While partners should not shrink from the responsibility of training, and cutting associate time from the bill is often appropriate, the more the above runs like a well-oiled machine the better for everyone involved.

9.Be there for clients–24/7.

I was going to say, “That’s why the firm bought you that iPhone 5,” but that’s not really what I mean. Perhaps it’s better to say that many clients expect their most trusted advisors to be there when they’re needed, without regard to day of the week or hour of the day. Associates that make it clear they will do what they can to recognize and meet this expectation will tend to be viewed as more valuable than associates who do not. I will admit that, as an associate, I jealously guarded my time away from work. As I started developing my own clients, however, I came to realize that, in doing this, I was just putting off the inevitable, since clients really do expect their trusted advisors to be available 24/7. It’s just part of the job which, as we know, is not for everybody.

10.Be accurate, thorough and timely–but not perfect.

It’s okay to make mistakes. But own mistakes when you make them. Resist the temptation to conceal mistakes or shift blame to others. Clients see right through this and so do partners.

11.Treat each co-worker like he or she is your best client.

Being graded on citizenship doesn’t stop when you leave grade school. Whether it’s made explicit or not, one thing partners consider when making advancement decisions is how well you fit in. Whether the office has 3 or 130 people, the ability to work well with others is important. If you’re rude to other lawyers, disrespectful or downright mean to staff, it can hinder your advancement. Many firms, including my own, pride themselves on having “very few sharp elbows.” Regardless how talented you may be, if you have “sharp elbows,” or an outsized sense of your own importance, or you’re just a jerk, it can make it hard for you to gain traction.

12.Have fun.

If you’re not having fun as an associate, it’s unlikely the practice of law is going to become fun if/when you become a partner, and your responsibilities extend far beyond doing great work and billing lots of hours, to include marketing and management responsibilities. If you’re not having any fun, maybe it’s time to think about doing something else.

So, if partnership is what you’re after, try applying Dan Hull’s “annoying and infuriatingly correct” Rules  to the service you provide.

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Keeping Sane When It’s Crunch Time

Big revelation: I was never a model associate. Despite my present willingness to freely dispense advice on how to make your career all that it can be, I was pretty consumed as a young lawyer with setting and adhering to strict boundaries and trying to maintain a work-life balance. While I was relatively efficient with my time and regularly achieved solid results, I never set any records for billing massive hours or being the earliest to arrive or the last to leave the office. My stats were underwhelming, at best.

I recognize now that, in my preoccupation with boundaries and balance, I was just delaying the inevitable realization that ours is just not a profession that conforms well to individual desires for boundaries and balance. We’re in a service industry, and we’re forever beholden to both clients and courts. Both are demanding. Without either, we’re sunk.

Although it’s technically possible to “skate by” as a young lawyer like I often did, there comes a time when reality catches up to you. Once you develop your own clients and cases, you suddenly realize there is no longer a safety net–the buck stops with you. You’re no longer worried about disappointing a partner with the quality of your research or writing in a memo or a brief. Instead, you’re worried about losing the case or the client, or both.

I’ve spent the past decade or so learning to adjust to this new reality. It was harsh at first, a little bit like my experience as a Southern Californian visiting Alaska in January for depositions. But I’ve evolved and actually developed some strategies to cope with the sturm und drang that is inevitable in an active litigation practice.

Recognize It’s Cyclic

The first step I’ve found useful is to be objective and recognize that, for most of us, episodes or periods of extreme stress tend to be cyclic. There will be demanding times and slow times. When I find I’m in a particularly demanding period, I remind myself that this will at some point pass and life will return to normal. At least my practice is cyclic and I know there will come a time when I’m slow again and hungry for excitement. If you are reading this and shaking your head, “no, there’s never a break,” then I think you might need to take a look at changing how you manage your professional life. Seriously.

Communicate With Those Close To You

I’ve only had the experience of being married to another lawyer. But if your spouse or significant other is not a lawyer (or even if they, too, practice) it can be challenging for them to comprehend the extreme stress we experience when we are preparing for trial, or are in trial, or are just too friggin’ busy. Communication can be key to making it through these periods. Even if you bore your family to death describing what you’re working on, they will appreciate being included and better understand the challenges you’re facing and the stress you’re under.

Get Outside And Get Some Exercise

Speaking for myself, the first thing that seems to happen when I go into “lockdown” mode is that I forget all about exercise or diet. I tend to be chained to my desk and I give in and eat a lot of crap I generally avoid when I’m more in balance. If I don’t actively force myself to get outside, I’ll pass several days sitting at my desk, only venturing outdoors long enough to get to and from my office or pick up lunch or dinner. Really unhealthy! I’ve learned, however, if I set my iPhone alarm to go off at 3 in the afternoon, I can force myself to leave the office and walk for at least a half hour. This not only provides a break with some mild exercise, it reminds me there is a world outside  that hasn’t stopped spinning just because I got busy. This small slice of exercise, daylight and reality can be refreshing and helps me not to be so irritable about being so busy.

Look On The Bright Side

Although I’m stressed and missing my family and chained to a desk getting fat, I actually find that our profession is most exciting and rewarding to me when I’m either in trial or getting ready for a trial. There’s something about this time, when a case is (hopefully) starting to really come together and make sense and we are nearing the point of no return that I find stimulating. I try to appreciate these times and, again, remind myself it’s all cyclic and before too long things will slow down and return to “normal.”

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Brand New Associates, Read This!

My college roommate and Venture Capital Badass Mark Suster maintains a well-respected VC blog, Both Sides of The Table. He recently quoted some advice his wife, Tania (brilliant, beautiful, Wharton MBA, ex-consultant, serious media chops), gave to a friend who was starting his first real job. I have no idea what kind of job. As I read it, however, I couldn’t help thinking it was the kind of sound advice we all wish we’d received (and, more importantly, followed) when we were brand new lawyers. I can’t resist sharing it. With kind thanks to Tania and Mark, here’s what she said:

Secrets of the real world – stuff I learned the hard way

General Advice

  1. Don’t expect constructive feedback without asking directly for it. Most businesses have formal programs in place to give you feedback. Most bosses are too busy to put in the real effort to help you. Many just ask you to fill out the forms for them. It becomes more administrative than constructive. If you ask for feedback in a pleasant, non-defensive way you will likely get it.
  2. You won’t really have a mentor unless lightning strikes. But if you seek one out, most talented employees would gladly become your informal mentor. This can be your most valuable career management tool so use it. It can be a great way to build advocates that will move mountains for you in the future.
  3. People won’t communicate expectations clearly (you must ask, clarify, ask again). Knowing the expectations of your senior employees (and peers) is invaluable to your success and asking people’s expectations is the clearest way to get them to think about it in the first place. The easiest way to beat expectations is for you and your boss to agree them two-ways and check on progress periodically.
  4. Constructive criticism stings, but we all need it. So seek it out, push for real feedback and be open to hearing it whether you agree or not. If you’re defensive you’ll never get real criticism. It’s much easier for your boss to avoid the confrontation or putting the time into thinking through what you could do better.
  5. Don’t overly rely on HR. Make your boss and her boss your primary allies. Your career is best navigated though line managers. HR should be able to manage the sensitive information you give them separate from your line managers but in my experience they do not so be careful. They are not your free psychoanalysts.
  6. Show up early. You may be a morning person – you may not. But nothing gets noticed more than which employees constantly turn up late. Even if bosses say they don’t care – they do. Nothing tarnishes your reputation more quick than being THAT person. The one always slipping in late.
  7. Be humble. Nobody cares where you went to school or how great of a student you were. Get over yourself. Don’t be arrogant. Don’t try to act like a managing partner from day 1. It’s OK to be junior. Nobody expects you to be managing the whole division. In fact, they’ll resent you if you try to act like you are.
Working with Your Boss
Sit down with your boss asap and tell her you want to do an amazing job. Ask her:
  • What could I do to exceed your expectations? What have past employees done that made your life much easier? What tips would you pass along from the most successful employees who have had this job?
  • What is the worst thing I could do in this job that you want me to avoid?
  • Whom should I emulate? Who is great in this role that I should learn from?
  • How can I best help you?
What to do in Your First Weeks
  • Interview your peers, people in your role/team: set up a meeting and ask them same questions as above, plus:
  • How can I best work with my boss, what does she love/hate?
  • What mistakes did you make that I can avoid?
What is Your Job, Really?
  • Your job is to make your boss’s job easier – to help your boss succeed.  Always have that in mind even if it’s not in your immediate job description
  • NEVER bring your boss a problem without bringing him a few potential solutions. Be associated with problem solving, not problems, it creates a positive halo around you
  • Say “yes” to work even when don’t want to. Everybody loves employees who take on projects with enthusiasm. The world is filled with people who sigh when assigned work.
  • BUT if you do become overwhelmed with work it’s ok to say “I need your help prioritizing my tasks because I have too much on my plate.”  Make it a positive thing. The worst thing is to take on too much work and under-deliver.
Other Notes
  • Schedule in your calendar and in your bosses calendar a few check in meetings and ask for feedback and make it a formal conversation. Prepare them in advance by providing a list of the things you’re working on developing and tell them you’d love feedback on how to improve at those things.  You might want to preface with ”I want to learn how I’m doing so I can improve, please give me constructive criticism!” Mostly you don’t want them to feel like these meetings are obligations, reasons for hours of preparations or ways for you to be defensive about your job.
  • So take the feedback on and don’t get defensive. The more you get positive measurement on your work the more likely your boss will be aware of it at the annual review time. Make sure to thank you for his time (he is likely busier than you are, after all!)
  • After you feel stable in your role and with your relationship with your boss – make sure to get to know your boss’s boss. Don’t let your boss love you but his boss not know who you are! This WILL come in handy in your career but you have to manage this cautiously.
There. Invaluable advice. Read it. Memorize it. Duct tape it to the sun visor in your car.
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