Biglaw, In-House Counsel, Partner Issues, Practice Pointers

Inside Straight: What Drives Partners Nuts?

I recently participated in a podcast for the ABA Journal on the subject of what drives partners nuts. (Here’s a link to where previous podcasts can be found. The session in which I participated won’t be posted until September 10.)

Because the podcast was supposed to analyze “what drives partners nuts,” I naturally prepared a list of things that drive partners nuts. But when we taped this session, the conversation veered away from its original focus and covered other subjects instead. That leaves me with a list of the things that drive law firm partners nuts — perfect material for a blog post! And, because this column often focuses on life as an in-house lawyer, I’ll throw in an added bonus: the in-house analogues to the things that drive partners nuts.

How can an associate drive a law firm partner nuts? Let me count my top three ways . . .

First: When assigned a project, don’t do it.

You would think that associates, having graduated from college and law school, would understand that, when they’re given assignments, they should do them.

You would be mistaken. Associates frequently simply don’t bother doing things they’re assigned, which leaves the partner (and the firm) in a bad spot.

Here’s a tip: If you’re an associate, and you’re asked to do something, do it.

If it’s not possible to do the project — because it’s beyond your ability, requires time that you don’t have, or you’ve become ill or there’s a death in the family — speak up! Tell the partner that you’re not doing the project. The partner may not be pleased, but he’ll at least have time to recover before a ball is dropped. If you simply announce at the deadline that you haven’t done a project, you will have driven a partner nuts.

What’s the in-house analogue to this? It’s not analogous; it’s identical. When asked to do a project, do it. If you cannot do it, let people know as soon as possible that the project isn’t being done.

I shouldn’t even have been forced to type those words, because that advice is so self-evident. But people mess this up all the time: If you’re asked to do something, do it!

What’s a second way to drive a partner nuts? After doing something, fail to advise the partner that you’ve done it.

The partner expects the worst from you. Previous associates have repeatedly proven themselves irresponsible and incompetent — or, at a minimum, the partner remembers only his bad experiences with associates and has forgotten all of the good ones. Either way, as I’ve written before, you’re haunted by ghosts of incompetents past. It takes effort to distinguish yourself from those old train wrecks. The key is to let the partner know that you’re not like those other guys; you’re the associate who can be trusted. When you’re answering the client’s question, copy the partner on the responsive e-mail. (Yeah, yeah: The partner will see your e-mail and pick some quibble with it, so you’d rather not let the partner see your work. Too bad: It’s better to deal with the partner’s quibble than to have the partner assume that you dropped the ball, just like the damn fool associate six years ago did.) When you’ve e-filed the brief, let the partner know that the thing has been filed.

The presumption is against you; prove that you’re responsible.

What’s the in-house analogue to this? Let your in-house supervisor see that you’ve done the things you’re supposed to be doing. After this morning’s hearing, did you send an e-mail reporting the results to the business unit? Prove to your supervisor that you’re responsible by copying her on the report. She’ll be relieved to see that you’ve done the right thing, and, if she’s not interested in the report, she can delete the e-mail in a heartbeat.

Third way to drive a partner nuts: When asked to do something, do as little as possible and see if that’s sufficient to get the partner off your back. After all, you’re really not trying to accomplish things at your job; you’re trying to do as little work as possible, as painlessly as possible, to make it to the next paycheck. If the partner asks for a draft brief, give him a crappy one. The old codger is just going to edit the thing anyway. And he says he’s a great lawyer, so he knows better than you what he wants the brief to say. Give him a half-hearted effort, and let him finalize the thing himself.

When the partner asks you to revise the brief, blow him off again. If he suggests that you add a new argument, don’t actually think through the issue and craft something persuasive. Just drop a footnote, or add a dependent clause, that makes the new argument, and return the brief to the partner. It’s his argument, anyway; he can do the research, figure out what he wanted to say, and make it look pretty.

What’s the in-house analogue? As I’ve written previously, be an order-taker. Wait to be asked to do things, and then do the minimum amount possible to put the task behind you. Never view yourself as being responsible for undertaking and completing projects; just do discrete tasks, and leave the big picture to your boss. He’ll be delighted with you, I’m sure.

I had actually prepared a list of the top ten things that drive partners nuts, but those three seem like a good place to start. Follow those rules; drive the partners nuts! It’s fun to watch the old coots rant and foam at the mouth, and you were never planning to stay at the firm for more than a couple of years anyway.

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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