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Best Practices for Bringing on Associate Counsel

By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. on September 30, 2015 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

As a solo practitioner or attorney in a small firm, you're usually master of your practice area. Whether it's bird law, bud law, or simply business law, you've got it down. But you can't be a specialist in everything.

Sooner or later, you're going to come across an area of law that's unfamiliar to you. Sure, you could learn it all yourself, but often your time is better spent bringing on associate counsel who can handle those issues for you. Make sure that you do it right by following these best practices:

1. Rely on Your Network

You could go to Craigslist to find associate counsel, but you'd be better served by making a more focused search. Now is a great time to plumb your network for associate counsel recommendations. Ideally, you'll have a lawyer referred to you by a trusted colleague, someone who can attest to his or her competence and capabilities.

2. Test Their Knowledge and Experience

You're looking for someone who is an expert where you are not. But you'll still want to do some homework to make sure that associate counsel is knowledgeable about the issues you'll need them for.

One way to do this is to brief potential associate attorneys on the facts of the case, asking them for an initial analysis; their ability to walk through the legal and factual implications should help reveal how prepared they may be.

You will also want to pay attention to an attorney's persuasion skills and style during your initial interactions. The Association of Corporate Counsel recommends "taking an excessively strong position" to see how an attorney will guide you back to the right track or handle conflicting views.

3. Make Expectations Clear and Memorialize Them

Before teaming up with an outside lawyer, you'll need to set specific, clear performance expectations. Usually, these are memorialized in your engagement letter. Will the associate counsel be playing an essential role in the matter, taking the lead in, say, a client's bankruptcy? Or will she provide more general advice and support; conducting depositions, perhaps, but not developing a theory of the case?

4. Seek Out the Advice of Other Practitioners

This best practice isn't just for bringing on outside counsel. Solos and lawyers at small firms should often confer with established, successful colleagues for advice on managing a successful practice. If you don't have a mentor across the hall or down the street, however, there are plenty of other resources. 

Guides like Aspatore's "Effectively Managing a Solo Practice" provide a wealth of knowledge to help you run your firm. (Disclaimer: Aspatore is one of FindLaw's sister companies.) Part of the "Inside the Minds" series, it brings together the experiences of accomplished solo attorneys to provide best practices for establishing, maintaining and managing a small practice -- so if you don't have a mentor in-house, you can at least have some on your bookshelf.

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