Keys to effective associate communication with partners

Making Partner today is likely to depend on various factors for which you have no control  -- how the firm is doing, how your practice group is doing, who else is being considered at the same time, etc.   There are, however, at least two items you can control --- becoming technically proficient in your particular practice area and mastering certain behaviors called soft skills that will help you work effectively with all types of partners and clients.  Soft skills are personal attributes that enable someone to interact effectively and harmoniously with other people.  These skills are covered extensively in Making Partner.

This post focuses on one soft skill, effective communication.  Note, however, that demonstrating substantive proficiency is a must and a focus on developing and refining soft skills is not a substitute.  Young lawyers should strive to learn as much as possible from partners, seek mentors, regularly keep up with recent developments, write and speak on relevant and timely topics, attend seminars to stay current with the latest happenings in the area, etc.  The ABA has various books in its survival guide series to help you navigate through various practice areas.

Now, back to the soft skills.  The key to communicating effectively is to determine and satisfy partner preferences as much as possible.  As summarized below, each stage of a project from the partner  -- receiving the assignment, performing the work, and presenting the conclusions -- provides the associate an opportunity to demonstrate understanding of partner preferences and to satisfy those preferences.

► Receiving the assignment

  • Make sure you understand the question you are you being asked to answer.
    • To confirm your understanding, restate, as precisely as possible, the partner’s request.
  • Confirm 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.
    • The partner’s assistant may also be a strong resource.
  • Ask how much billable time the partner expects the project to require.
    • Consider whether or not to record your time getting up to speed on the facts or the law.
  • Understand the partner’s timing and, if possible to determine, the firm’s client’s timing.
    • Perhaps partner wants to hear from you five days before he or she meets with the client just in case the project requires a second round and more digging, which is generally the case.

► Working on an assignment

  • 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.
    • Popping by to discuss a project is generally not a good idea because partners are busy and appreciate advance notice.
    • Does the partner have a particular time they prefer to be contacted (i.e., are they there early, do they stay late, are they around during lunch hour)?
  • How often does the partner prefer you follow up?
    • Every couple of days?  Every week?
    • Probably a good idea to send e-mail with a status report even if only “I am still working and I expect to have something for you tomorrow or next week.”

► Presenting conclusions

  • Once you submit your assignment, how often can you check in to go over your work?
    • Not a good idea to hound the partner about whether he or she has had a chance to review your work.
  • How does he or she want you to finalize project?
    • Hard copy and an e-mail attachment or just one or the other.
    • What do you do if multiple people are involved in the project?
      • Send to partner and he or she will forward.
      • If you are to send to other people, be sensitive to:
        • Adding too many people or leaving out people.
        • Who the partner wants listed in the “From” line in the memo as the author (you, the partner, the firm).  This issue takes on more significance if the memo is going to the client.
        • The order of e-mail recipients (alphabetical, by seniority, some other method).
        • Titles for the partner, for other partners (especially if part of firm management).

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