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Swimming Lessons for Baby Sharks: Practical Advice for New Lawyers

Q: I feel as if another (more senior) associate is trying to sabotage me. The associate tries to get me to do all his non-billable work. And if something goes wrong, he tells people it’s my fault. It’s stressful to work together, and I am concerned that it is going to harm my career. Any suggestions?

A: Yes, and I can empathize. Even if your colleagues are supportive, practicing law can be challenging and stressful. Working with people who may not have your back makes things that much harder.

In the most recent Swimming Lessons for Baby Sharks/Above the Law survey, “the people I work with” was the most important factor contributing to job satisfaction for young lawyers. Conversely, difficult colleagues are undoubtedly a top contributor to job dissatisfaction.

Developing mentoring relationships is one of the most certain ways to succeed at a firm. Over time, you also need one or more senior lawyers to become your “sponsor.” You need someone who will advocate for you during the evaluation process and at other key times.

If you are conscientious about helping lawyers solve their client’s problems – and show an eagerness to learn – most lawyers will try to mentor you. And as you build trust, those lawyers are more likely to advocate for you.

But as in life, there are varying personalities at firms. And there is some competition among lawyers at all levels. The same associates, for example, may vie for the “plum” work from a particular partner.

You need to determine which lawyers are most likely to help you succeed – and work to strengthen those relationships. Here are some tips to help navigate the thicket:

  1. Do a reality check. If you are a new associate, you are not likely to have much perspective about firm personalities or operations. Without context, you may reach conclusions that are not warranted. Consider whether there may be another reasonable explanation for the actions that concern you. Asking questions like the ones below may change your perspective – or give you ideas about ways you could improve the relationship:
  • Are you really getting all of the other associate’s non-billable work?
  • Are you doing more non-billable work than your firm’s standard?
  • Is the non-billable work an opportunity to learn – or is it mostly administrative?
  • Has the other lawyer shown an interest in helping you learn from the non-billable work – or otherwise?
  • Did you make a mistake on a project that may have caused the other associate to look bad?
  • Does the associate talk to you about concerns and show a willingness to help you address them?
  1. Have a discussion. Another way to gain perspective is to have a discussion about work styles. Propose a check-in conversation about working together. Approach the conversation as a way to learn about the other person and ways that you can be more helpful. Meeting over coffee or a cocktail may diffuse some tension. If you decide you must raise thorny issues, avoid being accusatory or defensive. Work to understand the other associate’s perspective. At the same time, try to bond on other levels: It’s (usually) harder for people to sabotage friends. If the associate will not meet, that is important information to consider. 
  2. Ask others for advice. If there are people who have succeeded in working with the “difficult” associate, ask for their insights. Keep things positive, because whatever you say may get back to the person you are discussing.
  3. Trust but verify. Certain actions can provide important clues about people’s motives. The questions below should give you insights about whether you are working with a potential champion – or not:
  • Does the person help you get substantive billable work?
  • Does the person provide constructive suggestions about how to improve your work and advance your career?
  • Does the person take responsibility for their own mistakes?
  • Is the person respectful?
  • Does the person work to protect you (or help you find a solution) if something goes wrong?
  • Does the person work well with other associates?
  • Does the person avoid you?

With some issues, there may be little ambiguity about a lawyer's concern for your interests. Examples include lawyers who ask you not to bill your time on billable matters. Other requests that would violate firm policy or any ethics rule are also red flags. “Clarifying” such requests may cause them to be dropped. If that does not happen, consider the other approaches below.

Just remember: It’s your career. Declining a request from someone who is not an ally could harm your career. But violating an ethics rule – or even a firm policy – could harm your career even more.

  1. Keep detailed records. Keeping an accurate record of who promised to do what when is always good practice. It’s critical if you work with a saboteur. Use e-mail to create a chronological record of your communications. And confirm verbal communications with a follow up e-mail. This is time consuming and may seem awkward. But the documentation alone may help prevent problems.
  2. Correct the record if necessary. It may be okay to let some things slide. But silence is the voice of consent. If someone maligns you, you need to gently correct the record. Frame your response to give yourself an out if you are wrong about the person’s assertion or motives. Here are two potential approaches: “I may be missing something but . . .” or “I just want to make sure there is not a misunderstanding . . . . ”
  3. Be cautious about complaining. Going over the associate’s head to complain to a partner or senior administrator should be a last resort. Reserve that approach for very serious issues like violations of firm policies or professional rules of ethics rules. Elevating issues can lead to a resolution, but adds complexity and can erode relationships.
  4. Consider swimming away. Working with someone who may be sabotaging you is stressful. The stress and the distraction may also impact your work. You are not likely to be able to change a lawyer’s personality. Thus, the best approach may be to seek work from lawyers who are more supportive. Perform miracles, and you are likely to get more work. As you expand your sources of work, try to deftly decline work from the person with the problem persona.

Good luck!

The Second Edition of Swimming Lessons for Baby Sharks is now available.

Grover E. Cleveland is a Seattle lawyer, speaker and author of Swimming Lessons for Baby Sharks: The Essential Guide to Thriving as a New Lawyer (West 2d. 2016). Grover specializes in programs to help new lawyers successfully transition from law school to practice, helping them provide more value and avoid common mistakes. He is a former partner at Foster Pepper PLLC, one of the Northwest’s larger firms. His clients included the Seattle Seahawks and other entities owned by Microsoft co-founder, Paul Allen. Grover is a frequent presenter on lawyer career success and generational issues at leading law firms and schools nationwide. Many questions in this column come from those programs. Readers may submit questions here or follow him on Twitter @Babysharklaw. He is not related to the 22nd and 24th President of the United States.

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