What every law firm associate must know to thrive during the pandemic

Elliot, a bright, introverted, and skilled second-year litigation associate, and his fellow associates just finished a tough conference call with Jan, the managing partner of the Washington office of his firm.  It was bad enough to hear about his twenty percent pay reduction for an indefinite length of time.  But that was rumored and expected before the call.  

Even worse in Elliot’s mind, they were told that during this time they need to get outside their typical comfort zone and offer to assist partners and clients (where appropriate) that might need help, even if the issues fall outside their practice area.  Elliot doesn’t have a clue how to do what Jan is suggesting and prefers to keep focusing on what he is good at — drafting pleadings, handling discovery requests, and, from time to time, document review that is not outsourced.  His work is a little slower than typical, but cases still must be litigated which means briefs and discovery battles require plenty of his time and attention.

Elliot doesn’t understand why he can’t just do what he is good at and stay in his lane.  Also, even if he wanted to (which he doesn’t) he is not sure he has the time or the energy.

Elliot sought the advice of his mentor, Preston, a senior tax partner for whom he helped successfully handle a case in District court when he first joined the firm.  Below are key parts of the phone conversation that took place between Elliot and Preston 

Partner Preston:  How is everything going, El?

Associate Elliot:  Good.  I had been working a lot on the CDX trial which fortunately settled favorably for the client at the end of March.  I think I have already met half of my billable hour requirements for the year and it is only April!

Partner Preston:  Great.  Make sure you document your role in the CDX matter, including how your specific contributions helped result in the favorable settlement, because you will forget the details soon.  Your notes could turn into an article or even just an internal summary for firm partners so folks outside your group can know about your successes.

Associate Elliot:  That is a good idea.  Though I do not want to overstate my role.  It was really Jack that convinced the Government to settle.

Partner Preston:  Well, what did you do for Jack to help put him in a position where settlement was an option?

Associate Elliot:  I suppose I did secure a bunch of relevant and helpful information in a couple of the depositions I took.

Partner Preston:  There you go.  This is why you must document this stuff.  Now that the case is over, consider asking Jack for specific feedback on your role.

Associate Elliot:  Yeah, that makes sense.  And I work well with Jack so perhaps he would be willing to go over that with me.  

Unrelated, Jan told all the associates we need to reach out to different partners, even ones who we haven’t worked with, and offer to help with anything they need.  I talked to some of the other associates and they are similarly confused. Wouldn’t we be stepping on each other’s toes if we went outside our practice area?  And aren’t associates assigned to that practice area the best people to help those partners?  Also, what would be an example of something I could even do without the expertise in the area? Wouldn’t it be strange if I reached out to you and asked if I could pick up any tax work?

Partner Preston:  Let me see if I can do some translating.  I suspect what Jan was suggesting was that increased communication is key right now, especially when we are all physically separated.  And it is not so much what you say or even how you say it but rather that you are reaching out at all.  Think of it as part of good firm citizenship.  And, on the substance, there are probably many items you can help on outside the litigation group that you probably haven’t considered.

Associate Elliot:  Like what?  Is this where you tell me about the importance of pro bono work and giving back to the profession?  I’ve heard there are some M&A associates who are a bit slow now that are helping Social Security recipients and VA beneficiaries get their stimulus checks, but I think they have that covered and besides it doesn’t sound like much law is involved.

Partner Preston:  Pro bono is always good to get involved with, especially at this time with so many businesses and people needing legal assistance and it would be good for you to get courtroom experience.  

But I think what Jan was referring to is that the firm is putting out lots of client alerts, webinars, outlines, and surveys focused on coronavirus issues right now.

Associate Elliot:  Yeah, I’ve gotten the e-mail alerts.  Who actually puts those together?  I guess I assumed that was a marketing department deal but given the level of detail the lawyers are probably involved.

Partner Preston:  Right.  I supervised a team of mid-level and junior associates to write about the tax bills that have been enacted along with the Treasury guidance.

Associate Elliot:  The CARES Act, right?  

Partner Preston:  Correct. So, I think what Jan was saying is that there is a bunch of legal activity happening in different areas and, for associates that are tuned in and flexible, that can be an opportunity to become a subject matter expert in a particular area or, at a minimum, to lend their relevant expertise to a matter.  Still with me?

Associate Elliot:  Yes.  As you are talking, I’m trying to figure out what expertise I have that could be relevant.  I did handle that tax case for you but I’m no tax guy.

Partner Preston:  No, but you did handle that case well.  Didn’t you work on two big cases at the end of last year that gave you in one instance some experience in the health care field and in another exposure to pouring over contracts and M&A documents, both of which seem relevant now?  

Associate Elliot:  Right, we represented a major health care company that was sued by its shareholder.  I learned a bit about the health care industry and board members’ fiduciary duties.  The other case never made it to court, but we helped our corporate colleagues that negotiated a transaction on behalf of the seller when it looked like the buyer would not go through with the deal.  There were a lot of contracts to review in addition to learning the tedious details of the transaction.  The parties ultimately agreed to close before we had to file any papers in court.

But I’m still not sure what you or Jan are saying.  Are you saying I should reach out to Tom, the health care partner I worked with on that case, and Jared, the senior associate I worked with on the other case, and see if they need litigation help due to the coronavirus? That seems funny to do.  Isn’t it the job of the relationship partner to those clients to determine the clients’ needs and how we can help?  Seems pretty bold and out of turn for a junior associate to be taking on that role. 

Partner Preston:  You are thinking like an employee El and not like a partner.   

Associate Elliot:  But I am an employee.  And isn’t my role to serve the partners and not substitute my judgment for theirs?  I’m sure they are providing plenty of advice to their clients now.  And they are probably busy enough that I feel like my e-mail to them could be considered spam.  

Partner Preston:  You don’t want to overstep.  That’s true.  But this isn’t overstepping.  You are being proactive and taking initiative.  And you are showing your level of commitment to the firm and its clients.  You are demonstrating to the firm’s partners and its leadership that if anything is needed at any time, you are here to help.  

And, in your case, it’s not just reaching out to get credit or because Jan suggested you do so, but you may have some insight into dealing with some of the novel legal challenges the pandemic brings.  I know from your previous work that you certainly bring a high level of creativity to the job so that skill combined with your background knowledge in these relevant areas could prove useful to our clients.

Associate Elliot:  Thanks Preston.  But it still seems strange that I would have more to add then say a health care associate or a corporate associate.  Or am I still missing something?

Partner Preston:  Well, I guess you don’t know until you ask right?  I’m sure there are litigation or potential litigation questions where you may have the chance to be useful.  But to slow you down a bit, here is how I would approach.  

First, give more than a cursory look to the coronavirus corner on our website and pay particular attention to the health care and contract pieces.  See how much you can glean from reading the alerts and listening in on a webinar or two.  

Then, contact Tom and Jared and let them know you are reaching out because you enjoyed working with them in the past, assuming that’s true, and you wanted to let them know you are available to assist in any way they think you can be helpful.  Or, if you are more comfortable, you can limit your offer to litigation matters.  

Perhaps when you digest the materials, you will think of something substantive to add or approach differently.  Or better yet, how you can be helpful, so they aren’t given a homework assignment on how to fit you in.  At a minimum, feel free to compliment the work if you think it was well done with clear client takeaways.  Make it clear to them, again assuming it’s true, that you gave the information more than a cursory look.  You know how to do this, El. You could start with something like the following: You understand that the firm is helping companies navigate the legal issues arising from their health care delivery efforts using technology and from telehealth.  Or you understand that the firm is helping companies with contentious contractual disputes relating to force majeure or material adverse event clauses.  

As you know the partners and the senior associates, like our clients, have lots on their mind.  It could be that Tom or Jared have not thought about the issues you raise or the different ways a litigation associate could be helpful.  And even if they have, it’s doesn’t hurt to reach out.  

You are not just a cog here, El.  And there are multiple ways you can add value to the team.  Shoot, even if you end up serving as a listening ear that has value.  Any of this resonate?

Associate Elliot:  Yes, it does. I honestly never thought to do this.  Since I have been here, I haven’t had any trouble staying busy, so I’ve never really had to ask for work.  When you first started talking, I was thinking that this sounds like I’m desperate and begging for work which is not the case.  But as you kept explaining, I see that this is more to be helpful and show I’m a good firm citizen, than to necessarily help me, my practice, and my hours.  And I like your thought that there are multiple ways to be useful to clients and partners who are really my only clients at this point, including just listening to what is going on in their world, making suggestions where appropriate, and offering general assistance in any way I can ease their load and help their client and the firm.  

Now that you have explained all of this it makes sense, but it was not intuitive and I’m not sure other associates think along these lines.  Is there a short-hand way to convey what you just did to my colleagues?

Partner Preston:  That’s a leader type question.  Good looking out for your fellow brothers and sisters.  You know, there is.  The broad topic is thinking like an owner versus an employee.  Perhaps all of you can ask yourselves this question.

Do I approach my day-to-day efforts from the perspective of firm management and its partners and not only from that of an associate?  El, this topic can span from how to recalibrate in a pandemic to just about every issue you may have — write-offs, compensation issues, expense reimbursement matters, potential new client conflicts, internal staffing needs, etc.

It’s the difference between an “us” versus “them” mentality.  There is no you against the man.  You are the man.  Everyone has a key role on the team when you are in the client service profession.

Associate Elliot:  I like that.  Thanks.  So said another way, the key takeaway for associates is to learn to be firm centric.

Partner Preston:  Nice way to put it El.

Image courtesy of Ambro at Freedigitalphotos.net.