Associate Advice, Small Law Firms

Small Firms, Big Lawyers: How to Handle Senior Associates

My first job out of law school was at a five-lawyer employment-law boutique: two partners, two other associates, and me. (OK, it was my only job out of law school; I started my firm after four years at this boutique.) The other two associates were third-years when I started. To be sure, they were both excellent lawyers and had already gained much experience working in a small firm with top-quality partners.

(I’ve often said that I’d take a third-year small-firm associate over a Biglaw third-year any day. The Biglaw associates have spent two years reading cases and writing memos; the small-firm lawyers have actually been doing, you know, lawyer work.)

I got along well with both associates, but one of them had more of a hierarchical view of the firm. One day, after I’d been there a couple months, that associate said to me, “I have an assignment for you.”

Being the new kid at the firm, the proper and deferential response might have been “Great. Thanks. Happy to help.” But my answer was less proper and by no means deferential.

And even though it ruffled some feathers, I’d recommend it to any new associate at a small firm. What I said was …

“I’m sorry,” I said, smiling politely. “But you don’t give me assignments. The partners give me assignments. If you want my help, ask for it, and I’ll be happy to give it to you.”

That response didn’t get a great reaction, although the associate showed more surprise than pique. But the combination of my taking a stand and my willingness to help, which I promptly did, set an important precedent. Never again did that associate try to give me an assignment, but I was always willing to assist. In time, we grew to be friends.

The point of the story is not to show what a whippersnapper I was (what the hell does that word even mean, by the way, and has anyone actually used it in the last 50 years?). The point is that I’m always surprised at how unnecessarily deferential junior lawyers can be. In fact, it seems to start in law school, with obsequious students seeking jobs calling lawyers “Mister” and “sir” and the like. Many first-year lawyers get to their firms and walk around with a deer-in-the-headlights look, ready to jump as soon as someone tells them to jump.

How are you ever going to be taken seriously as a professional when you start out by acting so meekly?

There’s a difference between showing respect and showing deference, at least in my book. As I see it, a lawyer who has more experience and knowledge has at least that reason to deserve some respect from you (assuming they don’t have other reasons that cause you to lose respect, like abusive or sexist behavior, or status as a Yankees fan). But by respect, I mean recognizing that the more-experienced lawyer knows things that you don’t know, and that you can learn things from him or her. But it doesn’t mean blithely accepting what he or she tells you as Holy Writ. And it doesn’t mean that you should feel uncomfortable stating your opinion, particularly when you disagree. I can respect you and still disagree with your dumb idea; I’m not going to defer to you because you’ve been around longer.

And since when did seniority mean anything anyway? As far as I know, there are no unionized law firms in the United States. The fact that a lawyer has logged more years (and hours) and is thus more senior shouldn’t mean that he or she “outranks” you. Frankly, this is all part of the anachronistic business model that started in large law firms and trickled down to smaller shops. There are only two “ranks”: partners and associates. Partners deserve at least some deference because they employ you (at least partners in a true partnership situation, as opposed to partners in name only at large firms). But “senior” associates are just associates like you who have survived the natural attrition.

Clients expect their lawyers to be professionals who will take a stand for them. How are you supposed to learn how to do that if you don’t first stand up for yourself? To be sure, there are many lawyers who are status and rank conscious and who will make your life hell if you follow this advice. But do you really want to work with bozos like that?

In my law firm, I made it clear to my brand-new associates that I wanted to hear their opinions and suggestions, and I wanted them to argue with me if they disagreed. Not because I was a super-touchy-feely boss (wait, that doesn’t sound right), but because I knew my own limitations (that statement should generate some witty anonymous comments), and I wanted to make sure that there weren’t ideas or conclusions or solutions that I hadn’t thought of.

For example, a couple of years ago, several of us were struggling with an issue of how to bring a counterclaim against our client’s former executive without running afoul of the Massachusetts anti-SLAPP statute, which prohibits retaliatory lawsuits. After much discussion, we were about to conclude that we had to drop the idea of bringing the counterclaim. But then our first-year associate blurted out, “The Erie Doctrine!” Naturally, we assumed that she had suddenly developed a late-onset tic that had something to do with civil-procedure concepts. But before we could call the paramedics, she explained that the anti-SLAPP law was a procedural state law, and wouldn’t apply in federal court, where our case was. Turns out, she was absolutely right, and we were able to file our counterclaim. (Since then, the First Circuit reversed itself in another case and closed that loophole.)

If our junior associate had been more deferential like so many of her peers at other firms, she might never have offered her (correct) opinion, and instead would have deferred to the (incorrect) conclusions of the lawyers more senior to her (including me). Her willingness to speak up directly helped our client.

Junior associates: By all means, be respectful of your colleagues. But just because other lawyers have toiled there longer doesn’t mean that they outrank you and can order you around, and it doesn’t mean that your ideas are any less valid than theirs. Speak up for yourself, or you’ll never learn how to speak up for your clients.

Jay runs Prefix, LLC, a firm that helps lawyers learn how to value and price legal services. Jay Shepherd also spent 13 years running the Boston management-side employment-law boutique Shepherd Law Group. He writes the ABA Blawg 100 honoree The Client Revolution, which focuses on reinventing the business of law, and Gruntled Employees, a workplace blog. Follow Jay on Twitter at @jayshep, or email him at

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