Associates, Take Temporary Possession of Your Work

The members of the Editorial Board for Young Lawyer (Kristine L. Calalang, Mary Doherty, John Encarnacion, Eileen K. Keefe, Kassem Lucas, Michael O’Connor, Matthew Ryan, and Djung Tran) are morons.  The recently published an article titled “Associates, Take Ownership of Your Work,” which is basically just a cheery “work hard and do a good job” message, as if associates don’t know they’re supposed to perform well.  We often don’t, but it’s not like we’re unaware that Desktop Tower Defense (Pro!) is not in our job description.

Here’s some of the drivel they’re telling young attorneys:

Nearly all associates, if they really think about it, can cite to an example of their own sheer laziness. At the very least, associates can cite to times when they consciously delivered an acceptable, but not exceptional, work product. In a moment of true confession, too many of us would acknowledge having handed in a pile of highlighted cases in response to a research assignment, or submitting a motion to a partner with the tag “early draft.”

In this new year, we challenge young attorneys to take ownership of the final work product. That’s right — independent thought and analysis are back in 2010. We call on our colleagues to research, proofread and edit as if “the buck stops here.”

[...]Once again, we suggest that you use those great judgment skills you honed in law school in making that judgment call. Thinking is, after all, what you’re paid to do.

Associates are the whipping boys of the legal industry, especially in 2010, when they have extremely limited career options and firms can squeeze them for every dime with impunity.  While busting your ass and doing a damn good job is obviously more important than ever to protecting your career (but still not as good as doing a mediocre job and busting your ass padding your hours), associates should not pretend that there is anything noble in what they’re doing.

Sure, sometimes the only person to look at something you’ve written after you’re done might be a judge, but even judges think that the quality of work they’re seeing is often too high and just represents a wasteful use of intelligence.  Though, the more important your work is, the less likely you are to be where the buck stops.  And, sometimes work is actually so unimportant that it gets read by no one.  Maybe the case settles or the deal falls through, or your partner has gotten too busy, or has simply lost interest in the question.

What associates should do is recognize that partners are ultimately responsible for the cases they handle, and while associates shouldn’t be careless in how they perform their jobs, it is the duty of the partners to make sure that every p is dotted and q is crossed.  While you’re responsible for understanding your assignments, they partners are simultaneously responsible for making sure you understand it.  Laziness is clearly the fault of the lazy associate, but too often we overlook the fact that a diligent partner with even minimal management skills would have recognized laziness and either lit a fire under the associate’s ass or taken the work away.  Bad work is the fault of bad workers and bad managers.

But the real reasons so much work gets a half-assed treatment is that half-assed work is usually more than adequate and there’s very little reason to work harder.  Partners themselves often reveal how asinine and insignificant the work is.  Getting all excited and read to do the best-job-ever! is going to lead to burn out and a complete loss of touch with reality.  To borrow from Office Space, it’s not that they’re lazy, it’s that they just don’t care (and not caring is usually enough).

Like the Young Lawyer editorial board, I’ll ask you to use your good judgment skills, though a know you didn’t hone them in law school, and going to law school means you probably didn’t have them in the first place, but anyways, if you have them, use them, and recognize that your job isn’t to think, but to bill hours while not completely ruining anything.  Put forth only the effort necessary to accomplish those ends.

In closing, I just want to add one final reason why associates should be hesitant to take ownership of their work: they aren’t the owners.  The owners are the equity partners.  We know this because they’re also referred to as “the owners.”  But, somethings are so obvious a lawyer can’t help but miss it.  So remember, you’re the worker, not the owner.  The owner is the guy who makes ten times your salary and isn’t afraid to leave when he’s done for the day.

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