Associate Salaries, Biglaw, Bonuses, In-House Counsel, Money, Partner Issues, Practice Pointers

Inside Straight: How To Drive Associates Nuts!

Fair is fair: I wrote last week about “what drives partners nuts.” Having armed associates with the ammunition needed to drive partners crazy, it’s only right that I arm partners with ways to drive associates nuts. (I realize that many partners are quite good at this even without my help, but I figure a stray few could use some guidance.)

Come on, partners, how can you drive associates nuts?

First: Give associates disembodied projects!

If you wanted someone actually to be interested in a project, you’d tell that person what the project was about. You’d explain what the transaction entails, what the client needs, and the critical issues likely to arise. In litigation matters, you’d explain who’s suing whom for what, the path the case is taking, the client’s main concerns, and the likely endgame. That would put a person’s brain in gear, and the person might actually care about his or her work.

So don’t do it!

If you want to drive associates nuts, assign discrete research projects without explaining why the research is necessary. This will kill the associate’s desire to do the work, disable the associate from thinking broadly about the assignment, and ensure that the project is useless as a training vehicle.

Perfect! It’ll drive those young whippersnappers nuts.

How else can you torture those poor kids?

Aha! Second: Never give associates any decent experience!

It would be wrong to think that bright, diligent folks right out of law school actually have the capacity to do anything. So don’t let ’em! Have new associates review documents for a couple of years. When associates ask to take depositions, say no: “How can I trust you to take a deposition in my case when you’ve never taken one before?”

A few partners mess this up by trying to develop associates briskly over time: “I want you to attend a deposition that I’m taking, so you see the process. We’ll write off your time, so we’re not charging the client for the firm’s investment in you. After you watch me take a deposition, I’ll find a deposition of a third-party witness that can’t really be butchered too badly, and you’ll take that deposition. I’ll then read the transcript of your deposition, and we’ll discuss what you did right and wrong. Once you’ve worked out the kinks, we can let you play a serious role in our cases.”

If you find yourself speaking those words, stick a sock in it! That would just encourage the tykes, and we’re trying to drive ’em nuts. When they ask to do something that feels like real lawyering, just say no! You’ll love it (and they’ll hate it)!

What else?

Yes!! Third: Wait until Friday afternoons to assign projects!

I know that the client sent you an e-mail on Tuesday morning posing a question. Sit on that puppy. Wait . . . wait . . . wait . . . . Is it 4:30 Friday afternoon? Start dialing for associates! Any idiot stupid enough to answer a phone call from a partner on Friday afternoon deserves what you’re about to do to your victim. Give him the project on Friday! Tell him that the project is urgent, and that you absolutely must have an answer first thing Monday.

Just for good measure, forward to the associate the e-mail that you received from the client on Tuesday! The associate will not simply ruin his weekend, but he’ll know that he ruined his weekend unnecessarily, because you could have assigned this project days earlier! The associate will be both depressed and outraged: That’s a two-fer!

When you get the project back, wait five days. Wait . . . wait . . . wait . . . . On the next Friday afternoon, summon the associate into your office and demand that he revise his work! And tell him that this is urgent: You need the revised draft on Monday morning!

Do that for a few weeks running, and the kid will be suicidal. Nice work!

What else will drive associates nuts?

I bet you just had two other ideas, and I think you’re wrong.

First, setting artificial deadlines. I have more sympathy than the average associate for partners setting artificial deadlines. Like many partners at many firms, I’ve been left in the lurch by irresponsible associates: I asked for the draft brief on Monday. On Monday, the associate said it wouldn’t be ready until Tuesday. On Tuesday, it wouldn’t be ready until Wednesday. On Wednesday, I was told to wait until Thursday. On Thursday, I insisted on seeing the draft, because the thing was due to be filed on Friday. And the draft was unusable — not just bad, but incomprehensible. So I worked deep into Thursday night and Friday morning fixing the thing, and then I suffered the client’s wrath for not having given the client enough time to review the draft.

Never again. If you partners choose to set (slightly) artificial deadlines to hedge against irresponsibility, I’m on your side. But once an associate proves that she’s responsible, then you must change your ways. Once you know you’re working with someone who’s good, you should give that person real deadlines, confident that she’ll meet them.

Second, I’m also not going to suggest torturing associates on issues of compensation. I know that associates complain when your firm doesn’t match the bonuses being handed out down the street. But if you were actually treating associates like human beings — giving them decent training and responsibility, and caring about their careers — those associates might not be so focused on money. (Call me crazy — and I’m sure many of you will — but I would have given cash back to the firms where I worked as an associate in exchange for more experience. I would have gladly given up, say, $5,000 of salary in exchange for being first chair at a jury trial as an associate, and a Supreme Court argument might have been worth 10 grand to me. I don’t know how well that attitude carries across either generations or individual people, but I suspect there are still plenty of eager associates who would trade money for experience. And the overwhelming number of people who apply to work as assistant U.S. attorneys actually provides some evidence for my speculation.)

But enough of those tangents.

Stick to the basics: Give associates disembodied projects! Never give them decent experience! And give them rush projects late on Friday afternoons!

If we all work together at this, we can drive the next generation of lawyers insane in no time at all. Let’s get to it!

Mark Herrmann is the Chief Counsel – Litigation and Global Chief Compliance Officer at Aon, the world’s leading provider of risk management services, insurance and reinsurance brokerage, and human capital and management consulting. He is the author of The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Practicing Law and Inside Straight: Advice About Lawyering, In-House And Out, That Only The Internet Could Provide (affiliate links). You can reach him by email at

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