Associates at many law firms have a number of tasks they need to conduct in additional to completing legal assignments and billing hours. At many firms, associates need to contribute to business development efforts that help partners originate new business. This process has the benefit of teaching associates how business development works so that associates are better situated to sign clients when they step into more senior roles. As part of business development efforts, many attorneys write articles about legal subjects that are published in legal publications or on law firm websites. Many law firms give partners authorship attribution even though partners spend little or no time writing these articles. This is not fair, and partners should not take credit for articles that they had little role in writing.
When I was an associate in Biglaw, it was very common for associates to curry favor with partners by writing articles and listing the partner as a first-name author. Unsurprisingly, many partners have somewhat big egos, and it can be a big ego boost to have one’s name on an article that is being published in a local bar journal or a digital legal news outlet. Associates would routinely be on the lookout for opportunities to write articles that they could attribute to partners.
When I was an associate in Biglaw, I was preparing to have a paper I wrote in law school published in a law journal. This was a massive undertaking since the paper was extremely long, and I had spent literally years on the paper during law school and my first year or two of practice making sure that it was ready for publication. When a partner got wind of the fact that I was publishing a law journal article, he tried to see if he could get attribution! I politely told him that this had been a years-long effort and I was not going to split credit with a partner who would do almost nothing toward preparing the article for publication, but this was the phenomenon I faced at that law firm.
There are some good reasons why partners should have their names on articles written by associates. For one, partners often have much more business development potential than associates. This is because partners are much more experienced in their industries and have many more connections with legal professionals and in-house contacts because of the time they spent practicing law. If someone sees an associate’s name on an article, they might not reach out to that associate for a similar legal issue they face. However, if someone sees a familiar partner’s name on an article, they are far more likely to pick up the phone and call that partner to discuss work.
However, there is a relatively easy way to deal with this matter, and this is to place the partner’s name after the associate’s name. It is common in the medical industry and the nonprofit world to order authors by who made the biggest contribution. However, it is far more common for the partner to be listed first on an article as a matter of seniority no matter how much participation that partner had on writing an article. Law firms should take a lesson from the medical arena and other industries when it comes to article attribution if they strongly feel that a partner should be listed on an article.
Perhaps the main reason why it is not right to list a partner’s name exclusively on an article written by an associate or list the partner’s name first is because this may be misleading. Sure, some within the legal industry may know that it is common for a partner to be named first on an article no matter their contribution to the piece, but not everyone knows this. By attributing an article to a partner who may not have played a major role in writing a piece, lawyers can give people the false presumption that a partner knows their stuff when it comes to a given area of the law.
Moreover, this practice makes it more difficult for associates to make a name for themselves and develop a body of work that can help them in career advancement. Depending on the article, authorship can be important for jobs and other opportunities within the legal profession. When someone publishes an article, it shows that they have taken the time to learn much about a given area of the law and that they might have certain skills which can be helpful in a number of roles. Attributing articles to partners does not allow associates to make a name for themselves as much in the legal profession.
All told, partners should not be taking credit for articles that they did not write. Not only can this practice be dishonest and confusing, it can impact an associate’s ability to develop his or her career.
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.