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Associate attorneys occupy a strange area in the law firm hierarchy. As far as clients are concerned, one lawyer is the same as the next: they charge too much. But there's much more to the whole associate makeup than just that overly abridged characterization.
Part of the problem is that associates are considered by most within the legal industry as exchangeable commodities that will soon leave the firm anyway. This is an attitude that we hope to change. Ideally, the associate will be the next lawyer to take the reigns of the firm in the next decade or so. But in order to do that, it's up to you to develop a sense of loyalty.
Attorneys, like most people, start to begin looking for greener grass when the initial honeymoon period within the firm has worn off. The kinds of associates you don't want to have around are those who are simply there for the paycheck and who will leave as soon as the next best opportunity comes.
In order to foster the image that your firm is not a firm to be tossed away, you must develop a sense of loyalty. One easy way of doing this is to really develop an aura of the origins of the firm. Every firm had to start somewhere and some of the most famous law firms had their start in the back of a restaurant. The whole point is to drive home the point that the firm has roots and that the associate should want to be part of that tradition for the long haul.
The larger the firm, the easier it is to pigeonhole an associate. But it's usually very easy for firms to ask the attorney to apply her time to a wide variety of different cases and issues.
It's true: when a lawyer gets his training in a smaller firm, she gets knocked around harder a little sooner. But this is good, because it gets a young associate attorney's knees skinned early on in the game. This is experience, and nothing breeds comfort like experience. And besides, this experience is good to get early on in order to combat the notion that solos and small-firm lawyers are less competent.
Small firms should be getting their associates in front of clients sooner rather than later. Rather than keep the new associate in the corner working on briefs, more responsibility should be allocated to him or her in making client contact.
The effect, of course, is to boost the associate's confidence in talking to clients about issues -- even just making small talk. In years to come, there is the possibility that the associate will take his or her new-found confidence and go off to start his or her firm. That's certainly a risk, but we prefer to think that the firm will benefit in the interim while the associate remembers the time and investment senior attorneys put into her when she first started out.
Law has a bad reputation for bringing out the worst in people's behaviors, and lawyers have bad labels like "ambulance chasers" pinned on them. Even though there has been recent media buzz about the migration of attorneys from firm to firm, we still strongly believe in small firm experience. But that cannot continue without a strong base of associate attorneys helping row the ship. And that takes commitment and loyalty.
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