Associate Advice, Litigators, Partner Issues, Small Law Firms

Small Firms, Big Lawyers: Supervising Partners and Teaching Partners

Recently I talked to a fourth-year-associate friend of mine who’d been working at a new small firm for several months. When I asked him how it was going, he said “great” in a way that suggested anything but. So I pressed him for more. The work was fine, he insisted. The clients were fine. His associates were cool. Great, I said. So what was the problem?

Well, he finally let on, there was this partner.

OK, I said. What about this partner?

Well, he said, he’s making my life a living hell. In fact, my friend said, it was so bad, he was thinking of leaving the firm.

What made this partner so horrible?

It wasn’t so much that the partner was horrible. It was that he was merely a “supervising partner.”

Look at the seven things my friend complained about:

1. Not being consistent

First of all was the capriciousness. My friend the associate never really knew where he stood with the supervising partner. It seemed to vary from day to day, even hour to hour. On some days, my buddy thought that he was doing fine, occasionally getting praise from the partner. But on other days, he was pretty sure that the partner thought my friend was the worst excuse for a lawyer ever. Not knowing where he stood with the partner was driving my friend crazy.

2. Not telling what it was all about

When the supervising partner gave my friend assignments, they tended to be narrowly defined and compartmentalized. “Research the collateral-estoppel effect of so and so.” But my friend wanted to understand why he was researching the collateral-estoppel effect of so and so. What was the big picture? How was his work helping the client’s goals? These were questions that partner didn’t seem to want to answer, or even discuss.

3. Not letting him deal with clients

And speaking of clients, that was another thing the supervising partner wouldn’t let him do: deal directly with the clients to any great extent. One time, when he and the partner were scheduled to interview a company witness, the partner got called away for a courtroom conference. He told the associate to reschedule the investigation meeting. My friend suggested that he go ahead and do the investigation without the partner, since he was the one who knew all the details and who had written all the questions anyway. The partner wouldn’t hear of it, and told him again to reschedule. Wouldn’t give him a good reason either.

4. Not getting a chance on his feet

My friend was now a fourth-year lawyer, having spent three years at another small firm before this one. But he had yet to argue a motion in court; not even a minor one. He had never appeared before an administrative agency. And he had never conducted or even defended a deposition. He had attended many, watching and learning as the supervising partner did all the talking. But he had never done it on his own.

5. Not teaching about writing

The supervising partner was very particular about how documents that came from their firm looked. He was a decent writer, and he was very picky and exacting. More times than my friend could count, the partner would mark up his document drafts with bright red ink, rewriting whole sections without much explanation about why. Sometimes, when a brief’s deadline was imminent, he would take my friend’s draft and rewrite it himself. It would just take less time, the partner would mutter.

6. Not letting contribute to strategy

My friend is a sharp guy, and he has good instincts. He enjoyed learning about the strategic reasons for taking actions during litigation. He also had many ideas of his own, and he wanted to share them and feel like he was contributing. But the supervising partner made it clear that strategic considerations were not the domain of associates, and he discouraged my friend from offering his own suggestions.

7. Not teaching him how to market

Lastly, my friend complained that he was learning nothing from the supervising partner about marketing his practice. The partner was an excellent marketer. He could go to a bar conference or a cocktail party, and inevitably return with a new client or a new piece of business. My friend wanted to learn how to develop those skills, but the partner had no apparent desire to teach.

My advice to my friend: get out. This was not a place where my friend was going to develop into an experienced and skilled professional because the supervising partner was keeping him down, whether on purpose or by default didn’t matter. The partner obviously didn’t understand that the partner-associate relationship was not one of supervisor and subordinate, or master and clerk. If anything, the partner’s responsibility is to be a (don’t say “mentor,” don’t say “mentor”) teacher to the associate — a far more valuable teacher than any law-school professor could be. (And even worse than saying “mentor” is when people try to turn it into other words, like “mentee.” Or a verb: “ment.” Do that near me and I’ll ment you in the nose.)

This partner evidently thinks that my friend is there to research cases and write drafts and otherwise do his bidding. But that’s not the primary job of an associate.

The primary job of an associate is to learn how to someday be a partner.

Maybe not a partner at that same firm, but a partner in the sense of a fully formed, experienced lawyer, ready to teach new associates. See how a teaching partner contrasts with a supervising partner:

1. The teaching partner is consistent with associates so that they know where they stand and how they’re doing.

2. The teaching partner shows the associates the whole picture, to demonstrate to them where their work fits in and why it’s meaningful.

3. The teaching partner emphasizes client contact for the associates, early and often. This partner shows the clients that they should have confidence in the associates, and feel comfortable calling them (so that the partner can move on to other work).

4. The teaching partner gives associates a chance to perform on their feet, early and often. Associates can watch and learn to some degree, but they’ll never really get it until they actually do it.

5. The teaching partner shows associates how to write, because writing is the most important part of a lawyer’s craft.

6. The teaching partner brings associates into the strategy discussions, because even the most junior lawyer might come up with something unexpected and helpful.

7. And the teaching partner shows associates how to go out and get business, giving them a valuable skill and taking some of that burden away from the partner.

My friend wasn’t working for a teaching partner, so he was wasting his time. Sure, it might not be a great job market out there, but he should start looking around right away. Otherwise, he’ll never grow into partnership material himself.

For more advice on this problem — for both the associate and the partner — read the excellent post “The Apprentice Who Can’t Take Over the Practice” at the Golden Practices Blog.

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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