Numerous articles on this website have already discussed how law firm partners are not always the best business managers. It makes sense that just because you are good at practicing law does not mean you are good at running a business or managing people. For that reason, many law firms invest in trainings and use consultants in order to improve their administrative practices. However, one of the most important things partners should keep in mind when managing associates is that they should try to communicate with associates directly rather than passing a message through someone else.
When I was 19, I worked as a politics and government teacher for AmeriCorps. As part of our training, all of the AmeriCorps workers needed to attend conflict resolution courses and other classes. One of the things we learned in the training is that people should try not to “triangle” messages through other people. When you pass a message through someone else, you risk the possibility that some or all of the message will be miscommunicated. In addition, it is much harder to receive feedback about a plan if the message is being conveyed through someone else.
Although partners should know that they shouldn’t play a game of “telephone” when communicating with associates, I have seen partners many times throughout my career communicate to associates through other people. When I was working in Biglaw, there was a much more established chain of command than there was at any other point of my career. The senior partners would usually give large tasks to the junior partners, who would loop in senior associates, who would then provide assignments to junior associates. To be completely honest, that process is sometimes unavoidable in Biglaw. Oftentimes, some Biglaw assignments are so large, and the senior partners are so busy, that it is impractical for the senior partners to dole out all of the work and communicate with everyone about tasks.
However, this “waterfall of work” has negative consequences. By the time associates heard about the facts of a case and the specifics of an assignment, this information had already passed through a number of people and was not always accurate. Oftentimes, people did not want to seek clarification from individuals above them for fear of being accused of not paying attention the first time.
As an associate in Biglaw, a colleague of mine had to conduct an extensive amount of research for an issue in a brief. However, my colleague mistakenly thought that our client was a defendant, when in reality, our client was the plaintiff! Thus, the research my colleague had spent hours conducting needed to be extensively revised before it was submitted to the partner. From speaking with my colleague, it seemed that the information about the case had been so distorted, since several people had already relayed the details, that our client’s role in the case was unclear.
Another time in my career, I suffered consequences because a partner, for whatever reason, gave me a task through another person rather than communicate with me directly. As an associate at a midsize shop, I was once informed by our office manager that a senior partner told her to tell me that I needed to scan and upload deposition transcripts to our document management system. The office manager informed me that I could not work on any other tasks until the assignment was complete. I have absolutely no idea why that mundane and unnecessary job was so important that I had to spend all of my time for a week on it. In any case, since the order had come through the office manager, I could not directly seek clarification from the senior partner.
A lot of deposition transcripts needed to be uploaded, and literally anyone in the office, including a number of administrative professionals, could have completed this project. In addition, the project was substantial and took me a number of days to complete. However, since the partner had chosen to communicate this assignment through the office manager, I had no way of making suggestions or noting the size of the project to the partner without looking like I was going above the office manager’s head.
As a result, I spent five or six solid days scanning and uploading transcripts that people would likely never read to our document management system. Our firm probably missed out on thousands of dollars in revenue on the billable hours I did not log since I was conducting this administrative task. Maybe the partner was just being punitive when he tasked me with performing the assignment. However, if the partner had just communicated this assignment to me directly, I could have quickly responded with suggestions or feedback about the size of the project and saved our firm from losing substantial revenue.
I am not sure why partners feel the need to communicate with associates through other people. Some partners are definitely afraid of confrontation, and they feel that communicating through someone else helps avoid directly confronting people. In addition, some partners are just really busy, and there are definitely issues with micromanaging associates as well. However, partners should strive to communicate directly with associates whenever possible. This helps ensure that associates can provide feedback and that associates understand all of the information related to a project.
Jordan Rothman is a partner of The Rothman Law Firm, a full-service New York and New Jersey law firm. He is also the founder of Student Debt Diaries, a website discussing how he paid off his student loans. You can reach Jordan through email at email@example.com.
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