As mentioned in a previous column, law firms are not always efficient when it comes to dolling out work. Instead of having a centralized system through which partners give work to associates, most law firms simply encourage partners to give work to associates they like the most or associates that have a workplace near them in an office. As a result, some attorneys in an office might have too much work while others do not have enough to keep them busy. Of course, some people might argue that this means good attorneys will excel while bad lawyers will fall to the wayside, but this can lead to inefficiencies in how people bill hours. In any event, an associate attorney with little work is a sad sight, and partners should make sure everyone is sufficiently occupied whenever they can.
Being slow is absolutely miserable as an associate. Whenever I was slow at a law firm, my days would drag on since time moves much slower when you have little to do. Law firm life is already tedious as it is, and trying to fill time around an office without completing assignments for clients can be grueling. There is also a sense of shame associated with being slow at an office. People pull a salary regardless of how much work they are completing day to day, and it does not feel good not to be contributing to a firm by completing assignments.
Furthermore, associates who do not have much work to do might rightly feel paranoid about their situation. Associates are evaluated on the amount of billable hours they record more than any other metric. This makes a lot of sense, since associates are only valuable to law firms if they can generate revenue, and billable hours are directly connected to the amount of hours that an associate bills. If an associate does not have enough work, they might be scared that they will not meet billable hour expectations, which might mean that they are on the chopping block at a shop. In addition, attorneys might be fearful that they are slow because partners do not like their work rather than benign reasons like just being generally slow with certain types of cases.
Slow associates at law firms exhibit a variety of really sad behaviors. One of which is that slow associates need to go around an office looking for work. This is not a pleasant sight. An associate looking for more work is kind of reminiscent of Oliver Twist asking for more food, and it definitely feels like the associate is begging for something from superiors. Many times associates asked for more work in my experience, you could almost hear the desperation in their voices or a look in their eyes that they were hopeful that they could finally get some work so that they no longer needed to go around and ask for more assignments.
There are some things that associates with little work can do in order to improve their situation. Perhaps most importantly, slow associates can pitch their own assignments to partners. This not only shows initiative, which can improve the associate’s image around an office, but this can help keep the associate busy. At the beginning of my career, I worked at a law firm that was going through some tough times financially. I would regularly review the dockets of cases we were involved in so that I could be the first person to know of case developments.
If I saw a filing that could lead to a potential research project or for which a response was required, I would immediately reach out to partners in order to see if I could work on such tasks. By doing this, I was able to fill some of the time I might have otherwise spent without work. However, this can only get you so far and in many instances, budgets and other constraints limit partners from greenlighting all assignments proposed by associates.
In any case, having slow associates can be horrendous to the morale of a firm. Not only can it make people feel bad, it can also make associates mad if they have too much work to do and are not meeting expectations of partners. Accordingly, law firms should be more cognizant of how much work everyone has to do around an office and ensure that it is less likely that an associate will have too little work to complete.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.