Seven questions every associate should ask – part one

The biggest reason associates fail at law firms is generally not due to poor work ethic, lack of technical legal understanding, weak writing skills, or personality mismatch. Instead, it is that associates do not know what is expected of them both in terms of the substance of particular projects as well as the overall stylistic preferences of partners.

To ensure you do not fall in that bucket, consider asking the following seven questions presented in two posts. This first post covers three questions – two in the day-to-day category and one in the receiving work assignments category.

The questions and the responses below are based on feedback from ten big firm partners.

Note that your answers to these questions don’t have to come from the partner herself. Other associates who have worked for the partner or even the partner's long-time assistant can be valuable sources of information.


1.) Is face-time important to you?  And related, do you expect associates to arrive before you get in, and to be at the firm until you leave?

For many partners face-time is primarily a question of effort and dedication.  They generally don’t expect an associate to keep particular hours, and certainly not to arbitrarily be in the office awaiting their whim, but they do want to see enough of the associate to know that he or she is properly focused on his or her career and what they have asked to be done.  Put another way:  an associate might be able to do an excellent technical job entirely through electronic means and contact, but the partner may never be entirely comfortable that they want to work with him or her or understand their perspective without significant personal contact.

2.) Would you prefer regular meetings with the associate to update you on status of work assignments?

The answer is yes for all partners. They want the associate to treat them as a client in this respect. Thus, how often they should check depends on the time-sensitivity and complexity of the assignment. Generally, the associate should ask how often the partner wants them to check in when they assign the project.

Receiving work assignments

3.) How do you prefer to handle the assignment process?

Many of the partners interviewed appreciate an associate approaching them for work, although they have no problem approaching associates. They find proactivity suggests great interest in the firm and a career at the firm.  The consensus is that superstar associates will regularly keep them informed of the status of his/her “plate.” They advise that associates should keep them informed of other assignments if they think it is germane or if they need help sorting out priorities. A handful of partners noted that they want to know what else the associates are doing especially in the case of junior associates because they find the junior associates are not particularly good at evaluating how much time something will take.

When receiving as assignment, the majority of partners asked prefer the associate ask how much time they have to discuss the assignment right then, and tailor his/her inquiries accordingly. A handful of partners said that it was important the associate not be afraid to ask questions, including ones to make sure they understand the assignment, timing and amount of effort required. The same group said that associates should always ask when the partner needs the answer by and in what form they need it.

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at