Advice From Your Godfather Partner

Sheila Markin Nielsen, M.S.W., J.D.

Jake, a senior associate who hadn‘t done anything to deserve being fired was going to be eliminated. I received the call to set aside outplacement counseling time for Jake from a precise young woman who handled human resource matters for this well-respected mid-sized commercial litigation firm. “What a shame,“ she said. “We liked him so much. He is a very nice person, and he‘s smart and hard-working too.“

“If he‘s so terrific, why is he being fired?“ I ask.

“Oh well, he lost the partner that gave him most of his work and he wasn‘t able to find another one in time to support him for partnership. He‘s a seventh year, you understand.“

“What happened to his partner?“ I query.

“Oh, you know, the partner left for another firm and took all his business with him.“

Meeting Jake confirmed the glowing report I had received from the HR lady. He was smart, energetic, nice, and savvy too. I could even have added a few more positive adjectives to the list describing Jake. What could have happened to set the wheels in motion for Jake‘s demise at this firm?

“I feel like I was the target of a mob hit,“ he told me during our first session. “I guess I saw it coming, but too late. I didn‘t do enough to reposition myself quickly.“

Jake had committed the sin of losing his Don Corlione, the partner who protected him and promoted him at the firm. For that he would be killed off by the brothers who ran this outfit.

“These days,“ I thought, “every new associate needs a straight-talking fairy godmother, or godfather (more like it) to educate him or her in the unspoken ways of the brotherhood.“ There can be hidden dangers on the road to partnership. The culture of a particular firm, the strength or weakness of the economy, your practice area, the personalities in your practice group, and a number of other factors are part of a sometimes surprising equation leading to success for certain lawyers and difficulties for others on the road to partnership.

As a general rule firms are not intentionally vindictive, vicious, or cruel to their associates. These days much of the trouble experienced by associates stems from a simple desire for self-preservation on the part of partners under a lot of stress in a heated up, competitive, uncertain work world. It is also true, however, that partners who are used to six figures are not about to metamorphose into Mother Teresas and give away their hard earned bucks to needy associates. Partners are just human beings who are usually trying to do the best they can for the firm and for themselves.

They may not always be able to have the best interests of their associates at heart. Therefore a young lawyer might benefit from the advice of a “fairy godfather partner“ to tell him or her how to make it to partnership and avoid the career equivalent of a long walk off a short pier.

What cold, hard, unlovely truths would your straight-talking godfather tell you, the new associate, about the ways of the “family“ you have joined?

Here are five scenarios you ought to hear about and you will never hear about from your real partner.

1. The Partner Who Brings in Business and Only Pretends He Wants You to do the Same.

“Hey, buddy, as your partner I might not want you to spend your precious time scurrying around doing unbillable things around town soze you can become a big mucka muck like me. Let‘s just say I might be ambivalent, okay? Oh yeah yeah sure I tell you I want you to get clients, we all say that to you, but the truth is you gotta be my right-hand man. I got the clients. Now you get me the billables. You‘re my key to success in this dog-eat-dog world. See, I need your billable hours to be a player here.

Yeah I know your career may be a lot less secure if you don‘t learn to bring in business and have time to develop clients. Cry me a river. You‘re clocking billables for me now, short stuff.

Of course if you wanna be a player someday you‘ll figure out that clients are power and you‘ll do whatever it takes to get them. You‘ll write articles, get active in the Bar Association, speak about some special area you got covered better than the next guy. Look, it‘s not that I don‘t want you to succeed, it‘s that I gotta look out for number one. Capiche?“

2. You Just Joined the Law Firm That is Being Managed Like Enron.

“Hey, Kid, I shouldn‘t be telling you this but you‘re at a firm that‘s being run by a bunch of greedy guys who are out to get big bucks for themselves. They don‘t care if they suck the lifeblood outta this joint in the process. Those in the know here have figured out that we‘re going down.

This ship is sinking. Don‘t tell anyone, but a bunch of us are on the street right now looking for a new family, if you get the drift.

If you ask me you shoulda asked around before you came here. Sometimes you can find out a lot about the reputation of an outfit before you go there. As a matter-of-fact you should make it your business to talk to people who used to work at the place you‘ll be joining to get the dirt.

Look, no place is perfect, but some places stink. Some people got a lot to tell ya, kid...only, ya gotta ask.“

3. You Work for a Partner Who is Not Making Rain

“Let‘s face it, I‘m a lousy rainmaker these days. The economy is a roller coaster, my clients are all breathing down my neck and threatening to find a better deal, and my divorce is unhinging me. I can‘t take the pressure. I gotta hoard as many billable hours for myself as I can.

Remember all those good reviews you used to get? Fagetaboutit! That was when I could afford to keep you. Things have changed. So lately I have been giving you bad reviews. I say you‘re not working out so well and that you need to improve. Hey, listen, I need a fall guy, but you didn‘t hear that from me. I gotta keep up appearances or I‘ll be the next target. So pack your bags, kiddo. Better you than me on the street. You‘re young.

Next time find yourself a partner with a strong practice area with a lot of work, who will bring you along to meet his clients so you can see how it‘s done. You say you can‘t help it? You got assigned to me? That‘s right, but you might have finessed a move. You might need to change law firms to get what you need. That‘s okay so long as you make that move understandable to your potential employer and keep the next job for a long time. Look around and see how the survivors do it. Next time hitch your wagon to a star. Yeah, and look for practice areas that not only have potential for the future but that really float your boat as well.“

4. Everyone‘s Too Chicken to Tell You the Truth and then You‘re Sleeping with the Fish.

“Listen up, kid, you need to improve your game. Your turn-around time is too slow. You‘re not playing politics well enough. Remember the day Ed asked you to do his memo over the weekend and you said you were too busy?

That was not a good move. You‘re gonna be on the hit list if you don‘t get with it.

Yeah, I know your reviews are good. Everyone is saying nice stuff about you. The truth is no one wants to point out your faults or tell you how this place really works. Don‘t ask me why it‘s such a big secret around here how the associates are really doing. All I know is that most guys don‘t like to give people bad news. They‘d rather tell ‘em everything is great, give ‘em good news, and then put out the hit. Let someone else do the dirty work.

You wanna know what to do? You gotta go to the partners you trust and tell ‘em you want the truth about your work and how you‘re doing and what you could improve. And take the secretaries you trust to lunch. Find out the buzz. Even find out the buzz about you. It‘s not always easy to figure out the truth about how the boys see you. Be thankful if someone tells it to you straight. Maybe you can get your game going better and end up at the top of the heap instead of at the bottom. Good luck, kid.“

5. You and Your Partner are in a Dying Practice Area.

“Practice area rise and fall and guess what, we‘re in one that is going down for the count. It might rise again some day, but I‘m not sure how soon. You know I‘d try to help you make partner here, but I haven‘t got the clout because I haven‘t got the receivables. If you‘re not a player in the outfit, you‘re out of luck.

Hey, but at least you got a chance to make a clean break. You can re-invent yourself in some other practice area. Maybe you‘ll have to change firms or go back to school, but a least you can make it out alive. Me, I‘m a goner. It‘s just a matter of time before the big boys show up to fit me for those concrete shoes. So long, kid, and don‘t say I didn‘t warn you.“

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