Associate is not a lifelong position. A law firm’s partners groom young associates to one day be shareholders in the same firm. Certainly, this process includes rigorous training in the practice of law. It should, however, also include fostering an entrepreneurial spirit. After all, a firm’s shareholders are not just partners in the practice of law; they are partners in a business—and when the time comes for today’s associates to transition into partnership, the firm will depend on them to bring in additional clients and grow the firm. That’s why it’s so important to instill in associates a desire to innovate and identify and seize opportunities.
Associates in today’s legal practice have more opportunities than ever for exposure. They engage in traditional activities such as mixing with fellow lawyers at meetings of professional associations, publishing articles in legal publications and interacting with the firm’s clients. In addition, the Internet affords associates new types of opportunities, often in areas not yet explored by their firms. A new associate may, for instance, seek to publish articles in webzines, write a blog or micro-blog on Twitter. All of this exposure is a great way to advertise a firm’s associates, build the firm’s own brand recognition and provide an avenue for initiative. With greater exposure, though, comes greater risk.
Balancing Responsibility and Reputation
As one of my law school professors advised me, “In the practice of law, your reputation is all you have.” Yet, while most associates are bright, talented and well-meaning, some skills and lessons are only honed and obtained through years of legal practice and a lifetime of experience. The partners thus maintain a particular duty to supervise the associates to ensure the associates’ activities adequately align with the firm’s standards, thereby fulfilling the obligation to protect the firm’s reputation.
There must be a delicate balance between this supervision by the partners and responsibility by the associates. Common sense dictates that this balance begins with heavy supervision and light responsibility, building to the inverse proportion. Ultimately, the firm aims to have a new partner who works with full responsibility and little or no supervision. Throughout the entire process both the associates and the partners have a duty to one another.
What does this mean practically? Let’s start by considering the straightforward example of publishing articles. Let’s say an associate approaches both his mentor and the managing partner with an opportunity to publish an article in an ABA webzine. “It will be fantastic exposure!” he tells them. They applaud the associate’s initiative and immediately become actively involved. The associate identifies the opportunity and commits to writing the article. The partners discuss the topic with the associate and explicitly cover the appropriate level of disclosure regarding activities within the firm. After the associate writes the article, the partners review the content prior to submission to the publication.
Associate Development and Web 2.0
The Internet poses unique opportunities as well as unique problems for balancing supervision and responsibility. As the old saying goes, “The good thing about the Internet is that you can reach the entire world in a matter of seconds. The bad thing about the Internet is that you can reach the entire world in a matter of seconds.” Because of the speed with which the Web operates, constant supervision and pre-publication review is probably impossible—unless you have the most dedicated partners in the world, willing and able to drop everything whenever an associate wants to strike out online. Not likely. So let’s consider other ways to proceed instead.
Blogs for Professional Development
Blogs are a good way for an associate to build an online reputation for expertise in a specific area of the law. They are also a good way to gain better search engine recognition for the firm. All too often, however, blogs get started and die after only a few posts. Worse, there’s a possibility that the content will not live up to the firm’s standards. Perhaps the entries take provocative political stances, alienating clients; maybe the entries reveal too much information about a pending matter; or maybe the content is simply unprofessional. Whatever the reasons, the blog may tarnish the reputation of the firm.
Expecting partners to review and approve each blog entry before it hits the Web is probably asking too much. Partners can, however, suggest that the associate wade into the blogosphere instead of diving in head first. For example, they might disallow any references to the firm initially. I blogged for months as a “ Central PA attorney” before adding my firm’s name to my blog profile. In addition, the supervising partners should subscribe to the blog and keep an eye on the content. If the blog is regularly updated with professional content, then a merger between the firm and the blog can begin, allowing references to the firm and eventually mentioning and even linking to the blog from the associate’s profile on the firm’s Web site. Other steps in the process may include references to the blog on the associate’s e-mail signature or business cards.
Other Forms of Social Media
Some of the new social media outlets move even faster than blogs, and they are a growing online playground for personal as well as professional interaction. Many associates are eager to take advantage of new technologies such as Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook. Some partners, though, may not be as familiar with these technologies and may even question their value. For example, they may think Twitter is only good for finding out what Ashton Kutcher had for lunch on any given day. But remember, we’re building entrepreneurs here. That means encouraging associates to try new things, including staying current with new technology.
Partners should sit down with the associate and see what all of the buzz is about. They can then provide guidelines for what content is and is not appropriate for discussion on these sites. It is important to emphasize the importance of professionalism and the global reach of the associate’s words. On occasion, the partners should check in with the associate to see how things are going. And hey, maybe the firm will have a new outlet for reaching the legal community and prospective clients!
Success from Top to Bottom
These examples are only illustrative and not meant to be an exhaustive handbook for building entrepreneurial associates into business partners. Like any business, success requires hard work from top to bottom. The associate has an obligation to identify opportunities and to work to take advantage of them. The partners have a duty to foster this initiative while safeguarding the reputation of the firm. This includes balancing the level of supervision with the associate’s freedom to explore new opportunities. With the right balance, law firms can instill an entrepreneurial spirit in associates today to ensure successful business partners tomorrow.