Shave, get dressed, grab your gadgets (firm-issued Blackberry, personal phone, tablet, etc.,) and head out the door. Car, train, ferry, subway — whatever it takes to get you to the office. Log into your computer, connect your phone for a charge, and head down the hall for a cup of coffee from the pantry. Throw out “good morning” as you pass people along the way. Grab your coffee, sneak a look at the vending machine, decide against starting your day with an 800-calorie cinnamon-glazed “bun,” and head back to your office. Dive into your morning inbox triage, and hope no one bothers you until your first conference call in 30 minutes. Congratulations on making it in for your next day in Biglaw’s Class A splendor.
Eight to fourteen hours later (depending on your seniority, amount of work, and level of domestic tranquility), it is time to pack up. To do it again the next day. You may not be happy with how things are going for you career-wise, and you may get jealous when your tech-sector friends brag about their 5:30 p.m. “after-work” pedicure and pastis-tasting session, but at least you were present at work for the day.
Face time is a concept that has gotten more media attention than it probably deserves. But let’s give it a little more….
When Marissa Mayer, Yahoo’s then-neophyte CEO, decided to mandate that employees actually show up for work, that simple directive sparked a national discussion on the pros and cons of telecommuting and its impact on work/life balance. Much of the outcry over Mayer’s “old-fashioned” view on the need to actually see your colleagues on a daily basis came from working mothers. For many in Biglaw, including the rare breed comprised of Biglaw’s working mothers, such “public conversations” on work/life balance are more curiosities than relevant discussions.
That said, the vast majority of Biglaw firms are in the same boat as Yahoo — in a fierce battle for market share with well-equipped competitors, facing a discount-driven customer base, and navigating a challenging market for top talent. So it should not be a surprise that Biglaw firms place a similar emphasis on face time. In fact, in today’s Biglaw, it is more important than ever.
Like most things in Biglaw, the practice and purpose of face time varies greatly depending on your status. For junior to mid-level associates, the best way to think about face time is from a defensive posture. Simply put, you need to be realistic about your place in the Biglaw firmament, and especially the view that Biglaw’s clients have adopted over the immediate past years: namely, that your time is an extravagance that it is your firm’s responsibility to pay for, and not theirs. Remember that your clients are the partners who give you work, and you want to be within view of your clients as much as possible so you continue getting that work.
Of course, certain partners can’t look at an associate without seeing their big salary and benefits packages, and imagine (rightly, since it is service partners who are most susceptible to this petty way of thinking) that the money for those is coming directly out of their wallets. Making things worse nowadays is the realization for those same partners that you as an associate represent profits “lost” — as they imagine how much richer they could be if clients would just pay for your time. So there is a beneficial psychic effect to face time, even with such difficult partners — at least they know you are stuck in the office with them.
So for that slice of Biglaw’s partnership, you want to be physically present, at least for most of the time that they are around the office themselves. You do not want to be on the receiving end of a reprimand by a service partner (or worse, if they are petty enough to “escalate” the issue to the office managing partner) for “not being around when needed,” or some variation thereof. Of course, this should not be a problem today, but a sizable percentage of partners are so entitled that they feel disrespected if they pop into an associate’s office and that associate is not there.
(Unrelated practice tip: it is generally a bad sign if the partner giving you an assignment does not (1) ask for your cell phone and other contact info (Skype handle, Google Talk name, whatever) and (2) does not at least inquire as to your general physical location during the expected pendency of the assignment. If the partner doesn’t ask, you should volunteer that information. Consider it a form of insurance premium, preventing said partner from calling you to the mat for “being unreachable.” That same partner is probably carrying a smartphone that can put them in a video chat with a Mongolian yak herder within seconds — the idea that an associate can’t be located in short order, especially with some basic communication beforehand, is silly.)
While face time is primarily a defensive mechanism for associates to employ, there are some practical benefits to “being around.” All things being equal, many partners will default to giving assignments to those who are easiest to find. So be that guy or gal. Hiding is for those associates who are hoping to get fired so they can pursue their dreams of stringing harps for a living. Or for those associates who are so busy that avoiding additional assignments is the only way to ensure that their (slacker, non-Biglaw) boyfriend will not decide that a six-month apprenticeship brewing beer with Trappist monks is preferable to another night spent in an empty apartment with only a PS3 and some microwave popcorn for company. (Of course, one of the benefits of Biglaw is the ability to disappear at random points during the work day. I assume you are taking full advantage of that perk — but doing so responsibly.)
Associates who are not trying to get fired or so busy that the milk in their fridge expired two weeks ago? Get in five minutes before the partners that give you the bulk of the assignments you do get in, and try not to leave until thirty to forty-five minutes after the partners leave (because partners frequently think of other things they want checked on as they commute and will likely call from the train or road to share those thoughts with the associate helping them on a matter). The smart associate will know the commuting times and habits that their partners have and plan their own availability and activities accordingly. If possible, it is a good idea to ask about your partner’s evening plans, especially if you have plans of your own that you want to stick to for once. Maybe your partner has an anniversary date with their spouse. It is usually a safe bet then that there will be a window that evening when the odds that you will get a demanding email or phone call will be very low. Take advantage, and make your own dinner plans that night, after accounting for your partner’s commute time.
Or maybe your partner is divorced, and won’t have the kids on a particular weekend. Your odds of being called in for weekend work, or at least having to respond to some “check-in” emails on some tangential aspect of your deal, are high. So don’t promise your girlfriend that you will join her at the flower show that Sunday. Or tell your buddies that this is the weekend for your fantasy draft. Be strategic and you just may find that Biglaw’s face time obligations (especially considering the lack of 9-5 shackles rubbing the wrists of most corporate drones) are not that much worse than what you would face at a regular corporate job. See you at the office.
Do you think that Biglaw’s face time requirements are too onerous, or are they changing for the worse? Let me know what you think by email or in the comments. I’ll be discussing some nuances about face time that are applicable to partners in a future column.
Anonymous Partner is a partner at a major law firm. You can reach him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.