Hey, Law Babe. Whether you’re a first year associate, a mid-level associate, or somewhere in between, there will be associates ahead of you in tenure at the firm and in years in practice (or both).
In my years as a junior associate in big law, I honestly was never totally sure where I stood in relation to the more senior associates in my group. Should they assign me work? Was I required to accept their assignments? What if I was too busy? Was it even acceptable to bill to a client if a partner hadn’t formally approved my doing so?
Of course, looking back, I should have taken the glaringly obvious approach, and simply asked the billing partner what the expectations were. And that’s precisely what I recommend you do. I know that’s easier said than done, however. There are bound to be times when, for whatever reason (either real or self-imposed), that’s not an option.
So what happens when a senior associate approaches you and says, “Hey Law Babe, I have an assignment for you.”? There are two potential responses here. The deferential response would be to say “Great! Never mind that I have a billion other assignments to tackle this weekend and I haven’t slept in 3 days. What’s the matter number?” The more savvy, albeit potentially more risky, response would be “Okay. I’d be happy to help. However, I am very busy with a number of other assignments that have been assigned to me by partners. Has the billing partner approved my working on this matter?”
There are a few reasons I suggest that you take the latter approach in a respectful and tactful manner.
First, there will be times when the billing partner has not approved your working on the matter for which the associate has requested your help. The senior associate might be either trying to flex his or her authority muscles, attempting to take work off his or her plate, simply lazy, or whatever…without actually having the authority to assign you matters. This poses a potential problem because a number of clients demand that they approve associates and their billing rates in advance of the associate performing any work. Heck, some clients don’t let first year associates perform work on their matters at all.
The associate who is attempting to assign you work might not be aware of these rules. If this is the case, it’s not going to be fun when the billing partner pulls you both aside and asks why the hell you were working on this matter and who assigned you to it. In the worst case scenario, your time might end up having to be written off the bill if the billing partner doesn’t feel comfortable going back to client and to get your rate approved. In case you can’t tell, this is a slightly cringeworthy true story from my days as an associate. Everyone got over it, but it was unnecessary and awkward. It would have been far more effective for me to simply ask the senior associate if my help on the matter had been approved prior to just diving in.
Second, when you blindly jump at the requests of a senior associate (who again, may or may not have been actually given this authority), you’re setting a precedent that can quickly devolve into a slippery slope. The unfortunate truth is that there are associates out there who will take advantage of you and your stellar work ethic. Next thing you know, you could be on the regular receiving end of those Friday afternoon work dumps we all love to hate. There are, of course, also those associates who just love the feeling of
thinking that they are being in charge of a junior associate. Hellloooo, power trip. Just remember that you’re a Law Babe and you don’t need this nonsense. You have way too many other fabulous things to be accomplishing with your time. Don’t buy into it.
So, if you’re approached by an associate who is senior relative to you, it might behoove you to confirm that your acceptance of an assignment has been approved by the billing partner. You might ruffle some feathers in the short run, but odds are you’ll also earn valuable respect from both the associate and the billing partner.
Junior associates (and law students) are oftentimes unnecessarily deferential to their senior counterparts. I’m going to go off on a slightly unrelated tangent here. I have been called “Miss Lastname” on more than one occasion by a summer associate candidate. This was a huge turnoff. Please, if you are in law school, you should not address anyone as “Sir,” “Mister,” or “Miss” in an interview or a post-interview follow up. I am going to write an entire post about this, now that I’m remembering it. Unsurprisingly, that candidate did not get the position. I also want to point out that the candidates who have called me “Miss” were consistently female. I have to say that I I have a difficult time envisioning a male candidate calling his interviewer “Mister.” Nope, men refer to their superiors in the workplace by their first names. And so should we, Law Babes.
I think the moral of the story is to absolutely be polite and respectful, but don’t disrespect yourself in the process. How can you expect to be taken seriously as a professional if you act like a meek subordinate?
Clients want attorneys who will take a stand for them. You can’t learn to be a solid advocate for your clients until you learn to advocate for yourself first. Unfortunately, you will most likely run into status-conscious associates who won’t like you if don’t blindly follow their orders, but do you really give a hoot about whether or not people like that like you? I think not.
The bottom line, Law Babe, is by all means, be respectful of your colleagues. But just because another associate has worked at your firm a bit longer (or god forbid, has had a license to practice law a few years longer than you), does not give them authority to blindly boss you around.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on this. How would you handle a situation like this?
Stay Smart and Sexy, Law Babe!