It is a well-known fact of human nature that few people like to blame themselves for their own failures, and individuals usually like to assign blame to someone else. It is really difficult for people to admit that they have fallen short, and it is much easier mentally to assign blame to another person. This manifests itself in many ways, and it can be seen in educational endeavors, sports, and in professional life. In my experience, very few partners blame themselves for their own shortcomings, and they far more often blame associates for failures at a law firm even though issues are the fault of partners.
I first realized this phenomenon when I was an associate in Biglaw earlier in my career. The firm at which I worked was having difficulty financially since we lost a huge portfolio of work, and afterward, many attorneys and staff in our office did not have enough work to do. The partners had not been able to find substitute business for people to work on, and this created a precarious situation for our office.
One day, the partners invited all of the associates in the office to a meeting that was advertised as a professional development training. At the meeting, it was conveyed that associates would be expected to work on business development and to start generating business. The partners conveyed that the burden of originating new clients could not fall on the partners alone, and the associates also needed to share in the responsibility of originating business. From the tone of the meeting, it seemed as if the partners were at least partially blaming associates for the financial position that the firm was in, and they were assigning the responsibility of originating business at least partially on the associates.
Expecting associates to originate business is completely ridiculous, and it was clear that this effort was partly because the partners did not want to own up to their own failures. Partners are usually older and have many more contacts who are seasoned lawyers or industry professionals who can refer work. At many law firms, partners also have a lower billable hour requirement so that they can focus more on originating business rather than billing hours. It was almost comical to believe that associates who were only a few years out of law school could originate the type of large corporate clients our firm usually served. Of course, originating business is routinely considered during promotion discussions, but this is rarely the job of associates, and the partners wanted to indirectly blame associates for the lack of work at the office rather than look inward at their own failures.
Another time, I was on a team of associates who were responsible for drafting papers connected with an important motion my firm was filing. The papers were solid, and the team did a really good job conveying the points that we wished to argue in connection with the motion. When it came time to argue the motion, we assumed that one of the associates who was most knowledgeable about the case would argue the matter. At the last minute, the partner decided that he wanted to argue it himself, which is not too uncommon at many law firms.
However, this partner participated in numerous activities beyond his law practice, and he was notorious for not spending enough time on matters at the firm to the detriment of clients. Rather than read the papers filed in connection with the motion, the partner just asked the associates to brief him on the facts and arguments he needed to convey, and I am pretty sure this was the only preparation he did for the argument. At the oral argument, the partner was flat-footed, hesitant, and was unable to recite some basics facts of the matter. Anyone could see that this was a substantial reason why we got a very unfavorable outcome from the motion.
Of course, the partner refused to admit that his lack of preparation torpedoed our efforts with respect to the motion. He blamed the associates for not drafting solid papers and for not sufficiently preparing him for the matter to be argued. However, if the partner would have just focused more on preparing for oral arguments, and read all of the submissions in connection with the motion, I am confident that we would have been able to obtain a different result.
All told, it is really tough to look inward at one’s own failures, and associates are an easy target of partner’s wishing to assign blame to someone other than themselves. However, this often does not achieve anything, and partners should try to be more self-reflective about their own failures.
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.
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