Monday, June 7, 2010

Unsolicited Advice to Lawyers with Associates

Since I joined the LCL staff in 1998, I have personally seen 2 or 3 lawyers a year who come in distressed, and often depressed, with regard to their role as associate in a law firm. In some cases, they function as sole underling to a seasoned veteran who has taken them into an otherwise solo or small practice. In other cases, they are making a big income with a giant and prestigious firm. In either situation, the associates that I see (who are, of course, self-selecting to come to LCL) are struggling to keep their heads above water.

They complain that they feel swamped with work demands, but ill-equipped to do a good job. The more senior attorneys to whom they answer are quick to point out the associates’ errors, but mostly unavailable to provide guidance. (In some cases, their “door is always open,” but on most given occasions they are too busy.) In a small practice, the associate is sometimes in the predicament of having to try to juggle many different kinds of cases at once, all of them with little previous experience, further reducing their chances of attaining mastery. They have little or no say about how they are to spend their time or how a case is to be addressed (i.e., the senior attorney expects that it will be handled just as s/he would have done). Many of these individuals were highly successful in law school and now feel much less competent, humbled if not humiliated.

Some of these associates blame the seemingly uncaring boss to whom they answer. Others blame themselves. Either way, as their mood declines, so does their productivity. They respond by working more hours. As their home lives or social lives deteriorate, their lives become less balanced and they are less able to function in a healthy way. Eventually, they either make it through this “rite of passage,” gradually master the needed skills, and re-achieve personal equilibrium, or they leave the firm. In some firms, large and small, the turnover rate is high.

From a psychologist’s point of view (and these thoughts are influenced by the writings of Dr. Martin Seligman, father of “positive psychology,” who has addressed himself to depression-promoting aspects of the lives of lawyers), if someone running a law firm wanted to keep the firm’s associate(s) happier and more productive, and to retain more of these newer lawyers for a longer period once they have learned the ropes, one might do some of the following:

• Provide actual mentoring, not just oversight. Take some time, even one uninterrupted hour a week, focused entirely on the associate’s questions, concerns, and ideas. The time you invest will likely pay for itself in the associate’s increased productivity, flowing not only from the concrete information and advice that you can provide, but also from his or her increased effort in response to sensing your support and interest.

• People are generally more productive (and happier) according to Seligman and others, not to mention common sense, when empowered to have a say in what they do (what he calls “decision latitude). That suggests that your associate will do better if there is some discussion about what s/he will do and how, and if the associate has a voice and choice in determining how their time will be spent. That is likely to include a chance to master certain kinds of tasks before plunging into others.

• Different associates are likely to have different strengths, based not only on past experience/learning but even more on personality and native talents. You can utilize a win-win strategy by noticing and capitalizing on their particular strengths, increasing their sense of efficacy and optimizing their contribution to the firm.

My sense is that such efforts will pay off in productivity, retention, interpersonal atmosphere, decreased conflict, etc. Meantime, LCL remains a consultative resource for those (at any level of the hierarchy) who find their work environments a source of stress and dysfunction.