Keys to associate success — part one

This post is the first of a two-part series providing practical tips for becoming a rising star. Two important steps in this order are to: (i) understand what is expected; and (ii) provide a thoughtful recommendation (after performing the research and analysis required).  Both of these principles are discussed in further detail in Making Partner.

1. Understand what is expected

Understanding expectations is a big part of meeting them. In order to help make sure you understand what is expected, ask questions to confirm that you understand your task and, equally important, that you understand the preferences of the partner assigning the project. Consider taking the following steps when receiving the assignment, working on the assignment, and presenting conclusions:

  1. Receiving the assignment
    1. Learn the facts and strategy to understand the context driving the project/case.
    2. To confirm your understanding of the task at hand, restate, as precisely as possible, the partner’s request.
  2. Working on the assignment
    1. Ask how the partner wants the results of your work communicated and follow that approach (i.e., detailed memo, e-mail, short summary memo, all the above, etc.). If partner wants a formal memo, ask an associate who has worked with the partner to send you an example of a prior memo that was consistent with the partner’s preferences. Alternatively, ask the partner’s long time assistant for sample memos.
    2. ii) Understand the preferred method and time of contact. Does the partner prefer you stop by to ask a question, call, or send an e-mail message?
    3. iii) Ask how much billable time the partner expects the project to require. Consider whether to record your time getting up to speed on the facts or the law.
  3. Presenting conclusions
    1. Confirm how he or she wants you to finalize the project. The little details may seem trivial but it would be a shame to take away from your strong work product because of a delivery gaffe that easily could have been avoided.
    2. For example, should you provide a hard copy only? Send an e-mail and print out a hard copy for him or her? Who should be a recipient of your work? Other partners or associates? The client? If you are to send to other people, be sensitive to: leaving out people, who the partner wants listed in the “From” line in the memo as the author (you, the partner, the firm?), the order of e-mail recipients, titles (especially if part of firm management).
    3. Once you submit your assignment, how often can you check in to go over your work? It is probably not a good idea to hound the partner about whether he or she has had a chance to review your work.

2.) Provide a thoughtful recommendation

Partners complain about associates who provide several options without providing a specific recommendation on how to move forward. Associates tend not to commit to a solution for fear of being wrong or appearing too aggressive given their level of experience.

Generally, it is less important whether you turn out to be correct. Partners are looking for associates who have the courage to be wrong, take ownership of issues and projects, and provide solutions to problems. Accordingly, to demonstrate that you are someone that takes initiative, is prepared and confident, and thinks creatively and analytically, consider the following steps:

  1. Perform the rigorous research required up front to formulate a well-reasoned answer to a problem;
  2. Check in with the partner and ask questions to make sure you are going down the right path before you get too far down the wrong path;
  3. Write down the reasoning to support your conclusions (even if not required by the partner for the project), including why one or more of the other options are not correct in your view; and
  4. Present your conclusions orally to the partner such that he or she understands your rationale, including why you believe one or more of the other options are not correct but be careful not to disparage the arguments underlying the other possible solutions.

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