Tom Wallerstein

Associates in both Biglaw and small should give some thought as to who is their most important client. Some might think that their most important client is their biggest or most prestigious one, or the one whose matter has the most at stake. This week at Morrison & Foerster and Quinn Emanuel, yearning associates might name Apple and Samsung, respectively.

Other associates might take a longer view, and answer that their most important client is the one with the greatest potential to offer them future business.

Still others might select the client for whom the associate has the most responsibility. For example, if you are one of three or four associates on several matters, but the primary or sole associate on another, you may view that latter client as your most important.

All these associates would be making a mistake by not understanding who is truly their most important client….

If you are an associate, your most important client is the partner for whom you are working. Understanding this fundamental concept is the key to associate success in law firms big and small. Fortunately, putting this knowledge into action is simple enough to recall even in your sleep. Start with two basic rules: (1) Everything you do should make the partner’s life easier, never harder; and (2) Make the partner look good to his or her clients.

MAKING LIFE EASIER

Making the partner’s life easier doesn’t mean picking up their dry cleaning or babysitting their kids. It just means not making the partner do more work than necessary and, especially, not making the partner do work that you can do. Mark Herrmann has written about this extensively, and his advice about how not to “drive partners nuts” is simple yet critical. For just one example, don’t send “rough drafts” that require significant further editing.

Another way to make a partner’s life easier is to always answer a question directly, including a citation explaining the source of your answer. If a partner asks, “When is client Jones’s response to the complaint due?” You might answer, “August 15.” That answers the question, but a better answer would be, “August 15, which is 21 days after service. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(a)(1)(A)(i).”

Try to limit the number of emails that the partner has to read and, more importantly, send. Don’t make a partner send four emails to get an answer to a question. If a straightforward question results in a flurry of emails back and forth, you should consider whether there was a better way to answer. Anticipate and answer follow up questions without making the partner ask them.

The rule of thumb is simply that for every email you send, consider whether you are making the partner’s life easier, or harder. If you’re asking the partner to do more work, consider whether there is an alternative. “The answer to your question is in the Rutter Guide” requires the partner to look up information that you could have provided. For a more subtle example, it is better to say, “I’m happy to prepare a draft answer if you like,” than to say. “Would you like me to prepare a draft answer?,” because the latter email demands a response, coupling your offer with an imposition, however small.

LOOKING GOOD

Making a partner’s life easier necessarily helps them look good to their clients. But there are more direct ways to do that, too. I’ve written before how associates clamor for client contact, sometimes without fully appreciating all that entails. But when given the chance, many associates squander it by forgetting their most important client.

Whenever you are talking to a client of the firm, strive to make the partner look good. That means covering for her mistakes or oversights, reassuring the client of the partner’s infinite wisdom, and vouching for the partner’s utmost concern for the client’s well-being.

Imagine that your best friend introduces you to his girlfriend for the first time. If your friend leaves you alone with her, he expects you to have his back, not to hit on her! If you do come on to her, chances are your friend will find out. Conversely, if you tell her that your friend really likes her and is a great guy, you can be pretty sure you will score points with both of them. Essentially, assume that everything you say will get back to the partner.

Be cautious when offering your opinion, especially if it diverges from the partner’s. Yes, you are a lawyer, and you are brilliant, and your opinions are valuable. You might know more about the case than the partner in charge, and your opinions might have more merit. And, you might think, the client is paying for your opinions. That may all be true, but you’re not being paid by the client, you’re being paid by your firm. On any question of significance, you should qualify your opinions as tentative and generally check with the partner. Eventually you will learn to anticipate the partner’s thinking, and can make her life easier by conveying what you know her opinion will be.

WHAT’S IN IT FOR YOU?

You might think that my advice is self-serving for a partner or owner. But I offer it to associates, for their benefit. Identifying your most important client is one of the most important things you can do for yourself and for your career.

For example, you might think that using client contact as an opportunity to make the partner look good is contrary to your goal of developing your own book of business. You would be wrong. A partner needs to trust that you will not take every opportunity to promote yourself at her expense. If a partner believes you will make her look good, she will offer you more opportunities and your prospect for relationship-building increase accordingly.

Conversely, if the partner believes your agenda is promoting yourself, she will limit your further contact and insist that a client “can’t talk to you without talking to me.” By promoting the partner you actually will create more opportunity for yourself to develop your own relationships independent of the partner.

I’m not suggesting excessive doting on partners, or laughing at every dumb joke they make. I’m disgusted by sycophantism. I’m not advising you flatter your boss or suck up to her, or tolerate abusive behavior. I’m not suggesting that employees need act any particular way due to a subservient role to their employer.

No, the reason you should remember your most important client is not because the partners deserve it, or that you owe it to them, or any such thing. Your motivation can be purely selfish. The partners determine how much money you get paid. They determine the quality of assignments you get. They determine the degree of responsibility you get, and how much client contact you get. Ultimately, they assess whether you succeed or fail. You should help them not because they deserve it, but because it is the best way to help yourself.


Tom Wallerstein lives in San Francisco and is a partner with Colt Wallerstein LLP, a Silicon Valley litigation boutique. The firm’s practice focuses on high tech trade secret, employment, and general complex-commercial litigation. He can be reached at [email protected].


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