How Associates Can Cope Better with Stress

Partners will admit that the level of lawyers below them has, in many ways, got the tougher role.

After all, Associates are not yet the masters of their own destiny.

Studies done (see Barry Oshry’s work at http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/3243038-in-the-middle) suggest that those working at the middle level in organisations are squeezed with pressure from above and below.

The pressures from above in law firms are potentially substantial and include:

  • Partners dishing out work but not briefing properly and setting client-pleasing but unreasonable deadlines (I’ve witnessed a delegation which involved a fat file left on an Associate’s desk with a post-it saying ‘please fix’!)
  • Sometimes too much work given out from multiple sources leaving the Associate with an unclear understanding of competing priorities
  • A lack of clarity as to who is managing which aspects of the matter (eg checking on timesheets to ensure the matter is on budget, providing updates to various stakeholders involved, briefing any specialists in good time, roles in meetings etc)

The challenges from below include:

  • Questions about the matter that can’t be answered (maybe because the partner hasn’t briefed the Associate thoroughly)
  • Juniors preferring to work for more senior people (eg partners) than mid-levels, so saying they are not available to help
  • Poor quality work handed upwards which needs re-doing – possibly caused by poor delegation or there being insufficient clarity as to who is responsible for the output

Any of this happen to you?

Strategies for Being Squeezed

So, what if anything can you do about this? Associates need to push back on these pressures (tactfully!) to relieve the pressures. Associates should request more details from partners about exactly what is required from them, in terms of work product and role.

After a vague and perfunctory briefing in the corridor on an important matter, an Associate might try something like this:

  • ‘When would be a good time to go through this? Have you got a couple of minutes now or would later suit you?’
  • ‘What role would you like me to play in the meeting/call? Would it help if I presented the latest arrangements on the financing of the deal?’

Questions such as these could provide answers which produce less stress on the Associate and should help produce a better quality output for the client.

In terms of managing downwards and relieving stress, here are thoughts which might help:

  • Mid-levels will find more willing support if they are seen as good managers who will help juniors grow. Most lawyers are motivated by a sense of advancement. So it helps if you’re seen as a good mentor. This approach might work particularly well for the Millennials coming up through the organisation.
  • Associates will benefit from more clearly passing on responsibility for the work product to the juniors – they need to feel responsible for getting it right and not hand in a casual draft!

The role of a Mid-level Associate is always going to be challenging, but these approaches should relieve some of the stress and help Associates feel more empowered.

For further articles on career development for Associates, see also:

https://tonyreiss.com/2017/05/14/dealing-with-the-four-leadership-contractions-facing-mid-levels/

https://tonyreiss.com/2015/03/02/advice-from-partners-about-career-progression-for-associates/

 

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