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Tuesday, January 21, 2003


Yes, It Could Happen–and When it Does, You Had Better Know the Ropes


Many associates at The Firm 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 turned. Unless he or she is someday appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court, this may be the pinnacle of the associate’s legal career.

A fifth-year associate at a major San Francisco firm recalls being in such a position. "When the litigation department learned that my client had a major suit on its hands, I suddenly became every partner’s favorite associate," she recalls. "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 power of the partner."

Associates in this situation must be prepared to 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 her or him for any grammatical or typographical errors.

• When assigning the project, give the partner complex and convoluted instructions. If he asks a question or indicates any lack of understanding, roll your eyes, sigh and ask derisively, "Where did you go to law school?"

• While the partner is working on the assignment, have your secretary call every hour to ask if it’s finished yet.

• When the partner comes to your office to talk about the assignment, take (and make) personal phone calls, finish reading documents on your desk and dictate a letter to your travel agent. Every five or 10 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. Then 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 work.

Although associates should enjoy the role reversal to the fullest, it is crucial to remember that reality can quickly come crashing back.

The San Francisco associate says her fantasy came to a sudden end when "the partner who heads my department called me to 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 completed right away and reminded me my billable hours were low during the previous month.

"I immediately reverted back to my obsequious associate ways," she 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."

Ah, the power. The power of the partner.

©2003 ABA Journal

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