Being a great associate is overrated
And why most advice about how to succeed at a law firm is incomplete
One of my goals with this newsletter is to share unspoken truths about the legal profession that I wish I knew when I was a young lawyer. An opportunity came up last week when I came across a Reddit thread about how to be a great associate. I shared on Twitter my skepticism about most of the content of this type of advice, and received some (respectful) pushback from many law firm lawyers. Today I’ll be sharing their counterpoints and my responses.
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Earlier this week I posted a tweet suggesting that most advice given to juniors about how to “be a great associate” is incomplete.
The tweet generated more buzz that I expected, probably because there was a lot of pushback, mostly from the law firm partners. The counterpoints fell into four general categories. They’re highlighted below, along with my responses to these counterpoints:
Counterpoint 1: “This is good advice because that’s what I did, and I was promoted to partner”
The most important factor to making partner is having a strong sponsor who provides valuable work assignments, advice, and support. Not excelling at the basics. However, the true impact of the sponsor is often not obvious to partners and rising stars, who may attribute their promotion to other factors such as paying close attention to detail or doing grunt work.
Unfortunately, not all associates have the opportunity to find a sponsor who can help them develop valuable skills and make important connections. Associates who are "different" in some way may struggle to find sponsorship and be left behind in terms of skill development and networking opportunities. Over time, these shortcomings can start to look like skill gaps or flaws, even though the associate never had a chance to play on a level playing field.
This unspoken truth highlights the importance of overwhelming value of sponsorship as a junior at a firm. When I was in Biglaw, I was never able to find that kind of mentor. So instead of being assigned high value work, I was relegated to giant litigation teams where I did shitworkday in and day out. Lots of other associates did too, and I noticed that they were almost always women and minorities.
At the end of the day, it’s really not enough to just do “good” work.
Counterpoint 2: “This is what us partners value in associates, and like it or not, that’s who we promote
Partners may value associates who make their work easier, but those aren’t necessarily the ones who end up promoted. Keeping workhorse associates in a “service” role is actually more valuable because it doesn't require sharing profits with them. And while it’s generally true that partners tend to help associates they like, it is unlikely that they will do so at the expense of their own interests.
To be sure, it is important to earn the trust of partners and become known for reliability. But obsessing over whether the partners like you or comparing yourself to other associates is counterproductive. Aspiring partners should focus on developing substantive skills, building their own book of business, and finding a sponsor who can help them advance.
If you are going to obsess about your reputation, or how you’re viewed—better to consider what the clients themselves think instead. Which brings me to the next counterpoint.
Counterpoint 3: “If you treat your seniors as if they were clients, it will prepare you keep clients happy which will help you become a rainmaker”
The relationship between partners and juniors is very different from that between clients and outside counsel. While being responsive and providing quality answers is important in both cases, clients require more substantive legal judgment and a deep understanding of their business objectives. This often goes beyond the narrow scope of answering legal questions promptly; it involves providing strategic guidance that helps clients achieve their business goals.
These skills cannot be developed by being good at “servicing” partners—they require a different kind of expertise.
Another problem is that partners may also prevent juniors from developing relationships with clients, as they may view these relationships as a risk to their own portable book of business. This is why many firms have odd origination credit policies, and why some partners are territorial about associates interacting with "their" clients. All this suggests that what’s *really* valuable is the ability to find new matters from existing clients or finding completely new clients to serve.
Counterpoint 4: “This is simply necessary for you to make it to the next level”
This was the most compelling counterpoint. The ability to excel at basic tasks, or what I call “shitwork,” is a necessary skill for junior associates to develop in order to advance to the next level. While it may not be a distinguishing factor on its own, failing to master these tasks can negatively impact one's reputation and hinder future opportunities for advancement.
Being good at the basics is indeed necessary to progress at a law firm. My main issue is that the senior lawyers sharing this advice rarely acknowledge that this shitwork mastery won't be enough to stand out in the long term. And why would they? Do most partners have any incentive to speak candidly about this process?
I know I might not appear to be the most credible source on the topic of making partner. I washed out of Biglaw as a fourth year associate. However, in my very unique position within the profession, I’ve had the privilege of having countless off the record conversations with senior associates, counsel, and partners. I’ve also seen a lot of similarities in the general business world. That’s what gives me confidence in everything I’ve written in this article.
And at the end of the day, the key takeaway is this: Promotions *do not* happen because you deserve it. They are not rewards for being a good employee. They happen when the overall business would suffer without the promotion.
That’s why you have to truly understand the game you are playing. If you’re a struggling associate, I would provide two recommendations for you to consider as you figure things out. First, build direct relationships with potential clients. Whether it’s through attending conferences, building a personal brand, or whatever. Don’t rely on a “broker,” like a senior lawyer at your firm, to foster those introductions.
Second, and perhaps more importantly, consider platforms other than a traditional law firm. If you have client relationships, you can find ways to work directly with them. Whether it’s a smaller firm, or an alternative legal services provider,or legal tech—there are many ways to capture the value you bring to the table. Mature, established firms are not always the best places for that. Especially if you’re different in gender, race, or background of the partners who are in power.
This is especially true as we are seeing technology advance more quickly than ever. A lot of the work within a law firm is being automated—whether by AI or by much simpler software. The landscape is changing, so what you need to do to prevail in this new world will be different than what’s worked in the past.
Best of luck, my friends.
Goldman Sachs published this reportthat stated that AI would replace 44% of legal tasks. No word yet on whether this is just a clever way to negotiate for reduced legal fees from outside counsel.
New milestone unlocked! Last week’s edition of Off The Record was mentioned in Australian legal publication Lawyers Weekly! They wrote about my hypothesis of legal departments embracing AI faster than their Biglaw counterparts, which was supported by statements from General Counsels they interviewed.
What do you think?
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I truly believe this is why women and minorities are so underrepresented at the partner level. There’s an apparent “skills gap” that comes from many years of people like us missing out on the valuable advice and mentorship more mainstream associates receive.
For a deep dive on shitwork, check out my article from last year Profitable Misery
I didn’t want to call it out on Twitter, but I noticed that most of the lawyers who raised this counterpoint were white men. When your race, gender, or background makes you relatable or likable to powerful sponsors at the firm, the only thing holding you back is likely the basic stuff. Which is why many of them feel strongly about the conventional advice about being a great associate. For the rest of us, no amount of shitwork mastery will get us promoted.
I believe ALSPs might be an underrated landing spot for future rainmakers. As firms continue to raise rates, clients will start considering new providers for their more routine legal matters. Some of this work will go to AI/technology and small firms, but a significant portion of it will go to ALSPs.
The original email had a broken link, it’s been fixed—thanks!
This is why associates should learn as much as they can as quickly as they can while building a book so they can start their own firm.
I wonder how many of the repsonses are from people who have genuinely convinced themselves they got where they got through sheer hardwork and being good and not because they fit the culture and were promoted because they were already one of them.