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BigLaw: Partnership Is Thicker Than Water

By Liz Kurtz | Wednesday, March 11, 2009


Originally published on March 2, 2009 in our free BigLaw newsletter.

In our inaugural BigLaw column, we discussed the practice, once common at large law firms, of gently nudging associates toward the door as they approached their expiration date.

Back in the good old days (think way, way back, perhaps all the way to 2008), the "stealth layoff" could be handled so delicately that associates might actually believe that they had decided it was time to "explore other options."

Welcome to 2009, where mass layoffs seem to be the new black, and subtle, kid-gloved terminations look positively old-timey. Given the thin ice upon which associates now tread, one tipster's story about the many perils of the performance review process seems particularly topical.

Every Large Firm Has at Least One Mr. Flint …

As a mid-level associate at a large New York law firm, "Julie" (not her real name) was universally popular with, and respected by, the partners with whom she worked. After working on a long project out of state, Julie returned to her home office and was assigned to work with a partner who had joined the firm during her absence.

In his short tenure, "Mr. Flint" had burned through several associates, and developed a reputation for being difficult, demanding, and verbally abusive. Needless to say, Julie's experience was no different. Flint was often critical, insulting, and prone to heaping invective on the very associates (including Julie) who toiled on his projects until 3:00 AM, sacrificed weekends, and skipped social engagements to fulfill his exacting demands.

On the other hand, Flint was routinely satisfied with her performance, and when her initial assignment for him ended, he continued to solicit her to work on projects.

Don't Open That Door (Cue Suspenseful Music) …

As review season approached, Julie was uncertain which Flint would undertake her performance evaluation — the derisive screamer, or the partner been pleased with her work product. Fortunately (or so she thought) her firm's review process required the completion of self-evaluations, in which associates were encouraged to discuss the partners with whom they had worked.

Julie explains that, implausible as it now seems, the associates believed that their honest input about their own — and the partners' — performance was welcomed. Julie also believed that writing honestly about her experience with Flint would provide context for, and perhaps preemptively defend against, any negative comments Flint might be inclined to make about her.

Since (she figured) her evaluation would only be viewed by the small committee of partners who managed associate reviews, the self-review would provide her with a perfect forum in which to discuss her experience working with Flint. And, because Flint's ill temper and penchant for bad behavior was so well-known, she thought, no one would be surprised by her side of the story.

For those of you who have the same sense, reading Julie's story, that descends when one watches the heroine of a slasher movie unknowingly open the door to greet the guy in a hockey mask, rest assured: Julie was circumspect in her evaluation, and limited herself to a tactful (and lawyerly) explanation of Flint's tendency to verbally abuse the help.

So imagine her surprise when, during her review, she was treated to Flint's scathing written response to her own self-evaluation. Notwithstanding his satisfaction with her work (as evidenced by repeated requests for more of her time), Flint called for Julie's termination, or at least a period of disciplinary probation. Fortunately, Julie's stellar track record and solid relationships saved her job at the firm, but she was forced to endure several months of "probation" and the tarnishing of her "permanent record."

Lesson Learned: Your Career Can't Handle the Truth …

Although it may seem obvious in hindsight that you should not criticize a partner, Julie points out that the circumstances often make such situations more difficult to read.

First, she believed that she was telling her side of the story to a receptive — if not downright sympathetic — audience: Flint was known for abusing associates, while Julie had an excellent reputation at the firm and had been successful and well-liked in her years there.

"I may have been too cocky," Julie now admits, "but I assumed, because everyone liked me and told me that I did great work, that I would be given the benefit of the doubt."

Second, Julie notes, Flint was relatively new at the firm, and was, by all accounts, quite unpopular with the other partners. As Julie learned, however, the bonds of partnership are much thicker than the (figurative) blood, sweat, and/or tears of even the most beloved associate.

Although Julie continues to work at the firm, she came frighteningly close to losing her job. "At the end of the day," Julie says, "they're partners. No matter how right you — the associate — are, they have connections, relationships, and loyalties that you can't fathom."

Her advice? "Don't put pen to paper," she warns. "Even if you feel like you're setting the record straight, you're better off pulling someone aside to discuss it discreetly. As the associate, assume that you're wrong even when you're right."

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Topics: BiglawWorld | Law Office Management
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