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Think Big, Act Small: The Cure for What Ails a Struggling Associate

By Jay Harrington

When I was practicing law at a large firm, the associate annual review period was always an interesting time around the office. This may not be true at all firms, and perhaps there’s more frequent communication happening these days, but in my experience, things were always so busy it was rare that candid, comprehensive feedback was provided outside of annual reviews.

I remember quite a few times when I saw fellow associates walk dazed and dejected back to their offices following an unfavorable review. They weren’t performing up to expectations, they were told, and they felt blindsided by the news.

The thing is, it was often news only to them. The rest of us could see it coming from a mile away.

You Didn’t See This Coming?

It always surprised me that an associate who ducked responsibility and did subpar work for two years could be shocked to learn he wasn’t operating under the radar screen at all. His superiors did, in fact, take note of his lackluster performance, lack of productivity and low billable hours.

In fairness, I’m painting a picture at an extreme edge of the spectrum. Many situations are far more nuanced, involving associates who have the capacity, willingness and desire to perform at a high level but need a bit of coaching and encouragement along the way. It may just be a situation where the associate is mistaken or misguided as to what the expectations are. And let’s be honest, many lawyers who assign work to associates are pretty bad at communicating expectations.

Let’s move past the unproductive blame game, however, and focus not on how we wish things could be, but rather on the way things are. Regardless of circumstances, it’s up to each associate to learn how to navigate the quirky personalities, cultural traditions and performance expectations that exist at every firm.

The Symptoms of a Struggling Associate

The first step in that journey is recognition — how do you know if you’re on the right track or the wrong track? Well, it’s pretty easy to deduce what partners don’t like about some associates based on what they like about others.

Thriving Associates:Struggling Associates:
Step up.Hide.
Go the extra mile.Do only what’s asked.
Sweat the details. Are sloppy.
Anticipate needs.React to problems.
Own mistakes and fix them.Try to sweep mistakes under the rug.
Know when to say no, and how to say no. Take on too much, or too little.
Observe and learn from others.Know it all.
Show enthusiasm and interest in achieving a client’s goals.Are indifferent.
Are self-motivated.Act when pushed.
Stretch themselves outside their comfort zones.Avoid what they don’t know.
Are busy and productiveAre busy but unproductive.
Communicate.Don’t communicate for fear of what will be communicated back.
Are slowly but surely given increased responsibility.Get pigeonholed into a static role.

You get the idea.

There’s too much at stake and partners are too busy to tolerate associates who aren’t getting the job done. If a partner doesn’t sleep well because they’re stressed that an associate isn’t cutting it, they won’t be working with that associate for long. Soon, the associate will find herself without senior allies who request that she be staffed on their matters. Instead, she’ll be viewed as more of a commodity, lumped into a pool of mediocre worker bees who can fill in gaps rather than add value.

There are no easy answers for an associate who is struggling and has lost confidence. The best I can offer is: Think big. Act small.

Think Big

The biggest danger struggling associates face is getting caught in a spiral of despair. They dig a hole and keep on digging.

Things move fast in a law firm. There’s hardly time to breathe when things are going well — it’s almost impossible to do so when things are going poorly. Faced with difficult circumstances, the easiest thing to do is shift to survival mode and just get through each day. The problem with operating in survival mode is that it feels like there’s no way out of it. If you find yourself in this situation as a law firm associate, try not to shrink into obsessing about the day-to-day struggles.

This is a time to think big, not small. In this context, thinking big means being introspective and proactive, and not defensive, about criticism and feedback. Instead of retreating into a shell, try to see the big picture. The only way out is by having a plan, and then working to execute the plan.

Act Small

At the same time, while it’s important to think big and envision and move toward a more positive future, it’s equally important to act small.

Recently I spoke with the managing partner of a domestic office of an international firm about this very issue. He told me about an associate who was having a hard time and had lost confidence in herself. Instead of throwing her back into the storm of a big transaction, they carved out a specific role for her that involved more logistics and organization than legal work. Some may have seen this as being demoted to “paralegal work.” She saw it as an opportunity for a breather and a chance to get her feet back underneath her.

It worked. She did a great job on her narrow task and regained confidence. Just as importantly, others gained confidence in her. That “paralegal work” she was doing was highly valued and appreciated by others — without it, the deal would not have closed on time.

When you’re struggling you need to find ways to rack up a few small wins. You may view certain traits such as your strong communication, organization or creative skills as being nice to have but non-essential. But under the right circumstances, they can serve as the lead domino in helping to get you out of a rut and back on track.

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Categories: Daily Dispatch, Law Firm Associates, New Lawyers, Professional Development
Originally published September 20, 2017
Last updated April 13, 2018
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Jay Harrington Jay Harrington

Jay Harrington is the owner of Harrington Communications, a leading thought-leadership PR and marketing agency that specializes in helping law firms and lawyers build awareness, influence and new business. Jay is the author of three books for lawyers on issues related to business and professional development, including “The Productivity Pivot,” “The Essential Associate” and “One of a Kind: A Proven Path to a Profitable Practice.” He podcasts at The Thought Leadership Project and writes a weekly email newsletter. Previously, he practiced law at Skadden Arps and Foley & Lardner. Follow him @JayHarrington75.

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