Complete Communicator: Help your new associates launch their careers with confidence

Complete Communicator: Help your new associates launch their careers with confidence

By Jay Sullivan

Law firms are organic entities. They grow, they evolve, they expand their capabilities, and they incorporate and absorb new people. All firms experience growing pains when someone new joins the practice. For many firms, every September sees not just one new face, but an entire class of new associates. Your struggle welcoming new attorneys into your organization is compounded by the individual struggles of each of those new associates. Some of those new associates are elated to start their career. Some are determined to prove themselves. Some are panicked that their lack of ability will be exposed. And some are all three at once. Here are some tips to ensure your firm evolves in a healthy way by helping your new associates launch their careers with confidence.

Avoid asking for “quick” answers

Your new associates are desperate to do a good job right from the start. They want to put into practice all they have learned in three years of law school. To help them get comfortable in their new roles, avoid phrases that are at odds with their frame of reference.

If your new hires are directly out of law school, they have spent the last three years being told they shouldn’t offer an opinion on a legal topic until they have examined every possible element and to the greatest extent possible. It’s been drummed into them that thoroughness and thoughtfulness are essential attributes of good lawyering. Then, on Day 1, a senior associate or partner instructs them, “Get me a quick answer on X.” Every fiber of their being contracts as they panic, believing they’ve been asked to perform a task that is anti-intellectual and borderline malpractice.

They already feel like they have no idea what they are doing and now they are expected to do it quickly. Instead of saying, “I need a quick answer,” take a few moments to explain why a surface answer is sufficient.  Give the associate context for the matter.  What is the client trying to achieve? What has your firm been asked to do? How will the associate’s work fit into the bigger picture? In many instances, you only need to provide a sentence or two, just enough to give the associate a frame of reference. Depending on the situation, it only takes a few moments to cover these elements, but doing so gives the new attorney comfort and context. Then explain why a deep dive into the issue isn’t necessary in this context. In some cases, you are likely only asking the associate to confirm what you are fairly certain is the answer.

Remind them, and yourself, that we’re all on a learning curve

Many new associates have “imposter syndrome,” the fear that at any moment someone will discover that they have no clue what they’re doing. The best way to ameliorate their concern is to tell them right up front that you know they don’t know what they’re doing, and that that’s OK. Asking, “Have you ever worked on X before?” using a completely neutral and non-judgmental tone of voice, helps you understand their level of experience. When they say, “Not yet,” respond with, “Great. I’m glad to walk you through the process. Feel free to ask me lots of questions as we go along. You’ll be doing a lot of these so it’s important to learn the process.” Acknowledging that a task or experience is new gives the associates permission to relax and makes it OK for them to feel like they are expected to learn, not expected to be proficient.

Create the right feedback environment

When giving a new associate feedback, establish the purpose of the conversation as one of growth and opportunity. Starting with, “My job is to help you grow your skill set,” conveys to a junior attorney that your feedback isn’t about you venting or scolding. It’s about grooming them to become more capable. It also reminds you of your role in the conversation and helps you manage your own emotions when you want to vent or scold.

When a junior person sees a markup of their draft of a document, there is often a “shock and awe” effect. The sheer volume of comments and changes is overwhelming and can be demoralizing. When you review a junior person’s work product, tell them that your edits fall into three categories: corrections, improvements, and stylistic changes. All three categories provide opportunities for growth, but from different angles. The corrections are essential. The junior person got something wrong and you’ll explain why. The improvements in terms of positioning or language choice may not be self-evident, so you need to explain why your new language is better than their original. The stylistic changes are more nuanced. They help the junior person know their work is going out under someone else’s name or as part of a larger document and has to have a particular voice. Helping them understand the nature of different edits you’ve made is part of their learning curve.

In all of these examples, you’re keeping in mind the new attorney’s frame of reference and reinforcing that you know they are on a learning journey.

I am writing this on the day my youngest child is being sworn into the bar in New York. She, like so many other new attorneys, is eager to learn and eager to contribute. It’s our job to help them accomplish both.

Jay Sullivan is a former practicing attorney and the former managing partner at Exec/Comm, LLC, a communications consulting firm. He is the author of “Simply Said: Communicating Better at Work & Beyond,” and “The New Nimble: Leading in the Age of Change.” He can be reached at [email protected].


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