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Associates Today, Clients Tomorrow

Handshaking ImageI’ve conducted quite a few interviews recently where the client contact was previously an associate at the firm. It creates an interesting dynamic and is something very important to consider as the marketplace and industry evolve. Years ago, lawyers “grew up” in firms. They entered as associates, climbed the corporate ladder and then became partners. The natural transition allowed them to evolve smoothly from subordinate to equal with partners. Today, the model is often very different. Fewer and fewer associates are staying at firms for decades, and many are leaving before they even make partner, often to go in house.

While associates in firms are typically treated differently than partners, the distinctions are not as defined in corporate America. A fairly junior person may have extensive responsibilities and manage a significant amount of work. This is attractive to many young lawyers, and I see this trend of younger lawyers having more responsibility in house continuing.

The conundrum is how this dynamic impacts the law firm/client relationship when the associate moves from taking direction and work to giving direction and work. Many lawyers can easily switch gears and respect the change, treating the former associate as any other client. Unfortunately, we also observe some lawyers that find that transition difficult. You can imagine the discomfort as well as the potential hazard to the client relationship.

While it shouldn’t have to be said, this is all the more reason to value associates as fellow colleagues whom you respect from the minute they become part of the firm. We hear wonderful stories about associates giving out large pieces of work, moving work or getting their previous firms on short lists because they left with such a good feeling about the firm or particular individuals. However, the inverse is true. There are plenty of stories about former associates feeling as though they were treated poorly while at their firm or feeling a lack of respect in their new role, and this drastically impacts the direction of current and future work.

You never know what career choice someone is going to make and where he or she will be next. Treating your associates well may be far more important than you realize. As Maya Angelou famously said, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” Make your associates feel valued and respected from the moment they arrive.

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