Associate Advice, Small Law Firms

Size Matters: Tips for Becoming A Small-Firm Superstar

I have become obsessed with LinkedIn lately (and not just because of their recent IPO). I am trying to become one of those people with the 500+ connections. So I troll the website for potential contacts on an hourly basis.

Yesterday, I found a few guys with whom I had gone to law school. These guys bypassed Biglaw and went straight to IP boutiques. Five years after graduating law school, these guys were all partners. Seeing this, I confirmed a theory I have long held: the road to success in a small firm is vastly different than that in Biglaw.

I do not mean to say that the path to success is easier in a small firm, despite the shorter path to partner for my classmates (which is not true for all small firms). In fact, in some ways becoming a successful small-firm associate may be more difficult than in Biglaw. So, how do you excel at a small firm? I asked some small-firm superstars to share their tips….

The theme of my conversations with the superstars was this: some people will tell you that all you need to succeed as an associate is to “do good work.” Those people are wrong. Yes, you must do good work, but that is not enough. And the other stuff, according to my superstars, may be more important.

Let me introduce the “other stuff.”

First, small firms either are or pretend to be like a family. Consequently, family bonding is very important. Attend the social outings sponsored by your firm. Many small firms have a designated day during which all attorneys have lunch together. You should go to that lunch. Or, perhaps when working late, the attorneys order dinner and eat together in the lunchroom. Join them. In other words, resist the urge (if you have it) to stay in your office and, instead, socialize with your fellow attorneys.

Second, many small firms have a few key partners. These are the guys (and hopefully women) with the biggest books of business. Their names are probably on the door. The other partners may even work for these guys (and gals). Surprisingly, these folks may have giant egos. So, you must feed their egos. How? Make them think that you prioritize their work over all others (even the other big wigs).

Here is an example:

I have to get a draft brief to Partner A. I am working on the draft brief when Partner B calls and I have to go meet with him. I leave all of the brief materials for Partner A on my desk and go see Partner B. From the Partner B meeting, I find out I have to do interrogatory answers by the next day. I sit down to start working on the interrogatories when Partner C calls.

I leave the Partner A work and the Partner B work on my desk and go see Partner C. He tells me he wants me to make some revisions to a motion to dismiss. I go back to my office and pull up the motion to dismiss. I do the revisions for Partner C quickly because they are easy. I can turn it around and get him out of my hair (don’t do this if you think giving it back will just bring on another round of edits. If that is the case, wait until tomorrow to give it to him).

Partner A pops in and asks how the draft brief is going, because I have it on my desk, it looks like I’m working on it. I tell her that I hit a little research snag, so it’s taking a little longer, but I think I’m close to figuring it out (in reality, I have not touched it since Partner B called me in to meet with him). She leaves and I work on the interrogatory answers a bit. I finish them and set them aside for a final read the next day (DO NOT GIVE THEM EARLY, take all the time you’re allotted). I turn back to the Partner A brief. I work on it that day and the next and give it to her early afternoon. I give Partner B the interrogatories at 5:00.

It’s important to have all the work within easy reach so if one of them pops in you can make it look like you were doing their work even if you were not. It is also important not to tell any of them that you are working for the other one.

Third, be great with clients. Many small firms represent individuals, so the client is a person with real problems, not a general counsel of a company representing the interests of the company. Even when the client is a company, associates have a great deal of client contact, so it is important to make a good impression on the general counsel. As one superstar in a Manhattan litigation boutique said, “Partners love it when the clients love us.”

Fourth, keep partners informed about your whereabouts (e.g., if you are out of the office) and the progress of your assignments. Even though small-firm associates are usually doing the bulk of their work without any hand-holding, it is important that the partners know what you are doing and that you are on top of everything. Also, joining a small firm means losing the anonymity that comes with Biglaw, so when you are out of the office people will know. Consequently, make sure people know where you are.

Fifth, learn all of the partners’ styles. In a small firm, an associate will often work with all of the partners. To do that well, it is important to understand what each partner likes and expects, and then do your best to deliver that with each project.

Sixth, work both above and below your class year. It is often said that small-firm associates are thrown in from the beginning and will be asked to do work that is technically above their class year. It is equally true that you will need to do work that is below your class year. Indeed, on a given matter, only one associate may be staffed on the matter, so you will also be required to do work that may be considered “beneath you.” This could include work that is often performed by staff (because many small firms lack the resources of a big firm — e.g. docket department, document services, etc.), so roll up and your sleeves and make copies if that is what is required.

If after doing these six things you think you have the emotional capacity to take on a few more superstar habits, check out this list from the Harvard Business Review of Six Keys To Being Excellent at Anything by Tony Schwartz:

1. Pursue what you love. Passion is an incredible motivator. It fuels focus, resilience, and perseverance.

2. Do the hardest work first. We all move instinctively toward pleasure and away from pain. Most great performers, Ericsson and others have found, delay gratification and take on the difficult work of practice in the mornings, before they do anything else. That’s when most of us have the most energy and the fewest distractions.

3. Practice intensely, without interruption for short periods of no longer than 90 minutes and then take a break. Ninety minutes appears to be the maximum amount of time that we can bring the highest level of focus to any given activity. The evidence is equally strong that great performers practice no more than 4 ½ hours a day.

4. Seek expert feedback, in intermittent doses. The simpler and more precise the feedback, the more equipped you are to make adjustments. Too much feedback, too continuously can create cognitive overload, increase anxiety, and interfere with learning.

5. Take regular renewal breaks. Relaxing after intense effort not only provides an opportunity to rejuvenate, but also to metabolize and embed learning. It’s also during rest that the right hemisphere becomes more dominant, which can lead to creative breakthroughs.

6. Ritualize practice. Will and discipline are wildly overrated. As the researcher Roy Baumeister has found, none of us have very much of it. The best way to insure you’ll take on difficult tasks is to build rituals — specific, inviolable times at which you do them, so that over time you do them without having to squander energy thinking about them.

To recap, if you want to be a small-firm superstar you need to: do “good work,” learn to play office politics, socialize with your co-workers, engage your clients, get your hands dirty, and work hard. Unfortunately, there appears to be no trick to becoming a superstar. Sigh. And here I thought that all you needed to do to succeed in a small firm was to use the following words: edification, incentivize, my wife, circle back, out of pocket, and depo.

Now, if you will excuse me, I am going to take a renewal break. Reading that list was really quite intense. You too should take a renewal break, by which I mean you should take the salary survey.

When not writing about small law firms for Above the Law, Valerie Katz (not her real name) works at a small firm in Chicago. You can reach her by email at and follow her on Twitter at @ValerieLKatz.

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