My very first summer at a law firm, I repeatedly heard the advice: “treat the partner like a client.” Since I never had a client, the advice didn’t  resonate at first. Fast-forward a few years, however, and I am a convert. Treating a partner like a client ensures that I am producing top-quality work, offering solutions, and thinking about next steps—helpful for the partner (fingers crossed) and good practice for me.

Produce top-quality work

Perhaps you don’t need to trick yourself into producing your very best work. I, however, play all sorts of mind games with myself to ensure that I am working my hardest. How so? If I have to undertake a repetitive task (like document review), I pretend that I have a doppelganger at my opposing firm. I must to do a better job than this individual (who is driven and conscientious) otherwise I will miss a document, and she will find it. Oh, and she’s also evil and a terrible person, but with really nice clothes. I really want to beat her.

When I am producing a draft for a partner, I pretend that the court or client could call and want the draft at any moment. For this reason, I try and get all my ideas on paper as quickly as possible and then enjoy the wonderful luxury of editing and thinking about my draft until it is time to pass it on to the partner. By that time, I aim to have something that I would feel comfortable submitting to court. My citations are filled in and the brief is cite checked and bluebooked—the draft is as final as I can make it. Of course, the partner will have insights and ideas and additions; that’s the fun of collaboration. But getting it to the best place that I can situates our team well for the baton hand off.

When I think of something as a “draft” it is much easier to let things go and think “oh, I’ll just dust this part up later.” If I am thinking of the partner as a client, however, I want to make sure that my draft is the very best that I can do. The client gets a final product.

Offer solutions

If I think of the partner as a client, I am more likely to send research emails or memos offering solutions and recommendations. A client would not just want my legal research; she would want my attempt to synthesize the case law and explain the court’s likely actions. So, if a partner asks me to research a particular procedural move, but during the course of my research I realize that another move may make more sense, I will add another paragraph suggesting the alternative. If additional fact development would clarify things, I suggest that we uncover x, y, and z facts. Of course, I never disregard the partner’s initial request to take my detour. There may be facts that I don’t know that would render my alternative silly. Perhaps my idea has already been considered and rejected.

I hope this approach presents benefit to the partner, but I know the approach benefits me. With any luck, someday I will be the one making these calls and getting practice now seems like the best way to get started developing that skill.

I have heard from some friends that their law firms actively discourage this step. At a recent wedding, I was chatting with a brilliant young woman working at a large Chicago firm. When she offered a recommendation at the end of an email, the senior partner asked her to resend the email without the recommendation. She has since learned that recommendations from associates are not welcome at her firm. Although this story made my head want to explode (how can they train people to move up the ranks if they aren’t encouraging people to think about the case or strategize?!?), she found a solution. She still thinks about the recommendation, she just doesn’t include it in the email to the partner. Rock on sister. I used to do something similar in law school. Even if I wasn’t on call, I would practice answering the professor’s question in my head to make sure I was paying attention and tracking. I am nothing if not earnest.

Suggest next steps

Finally, I try to end emails or memos by suggesting next steps: “We may want to begin drafting a brief on this subject. If you agree, I can get started.” If the partner was my client, they would presumably be asking for my thoughts regarding next steps. And again, this step is good practice. If I was alone running this case, what would I do next? If the partner disagrees, I’ve learned something about another approach and if the partner agrees, I’ve streamlined the process. It’s a way to get a little bit of feedback without having a review or big conversation.

Much like paying off my lowest balanced credit card first (psychologically, people are more likely to stick with something when they feel tangible signs of progress), thinking of the partner like a client gives me the right frame of mind to be the most helpful associate that I can be. Until I come up with a better mind game, this is one I’m playing.

(image: Smiling HR Woman from Shutterstock)



  1. Avatar Lukasz Gos says:

    Yeah, that’s an excellent tool for practicing the practicing. On the other hand, I tend to hate it when professional outsourcers, middlemen and such like act like they are consumers with all the pampering rights. A senior partner gets all the rights due a boss but is still a professional party, not entitled to be ignorant or oblivious or self-destructive or even one-sided. Then again, being an associate wasn’t something I was particularly strong at.

  2. Avatar Alex says:

    Great suggestions. This approach differentiates a so-so associate, who merely does his/her job, from an associates who cares and goes the extra mile. When it comes to clients hiring lawyers, they think similar to partners selecting associates. There’s an ABA book, The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Practicing Law, which goes into this in more detail.

    • Avatar sybil says:

      Thanks Alex and Lukasz – I agree Lukasz, it is much more rewarding to work hard when someone appreciates it. Being the first-born, type-A person that I am, I do crave the positive feedback. Alex – I will look up the book. Thanks for the rec.

  3. Avatar Lukasz Gos says:

    Sybil, I was about to ask, “if you like positive feedback, why did you go to law school?” but then the obvious realisation hit me. You know which one. Yup, that one. I swear the first person who asks me, “why did you go to law school?” in a professional context, including an interview, is going to hear, “I ask myself every day.”

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