Resources Articles Quit Griping: Instead, Understand and Develop Relationships with Problem People

Quit Griping: Instead, Understand and Develop Relationships with Problem People

New York Law Journal Magazine
Volume 7, Number 3
June 2008

I am a non-equity litigation partner in a large New York firm. Due to its attrition problems it is very difficult for me to find associates to do my work.  The majority of them are first or second years; all the mid-levels have left. 

No sooner do I train one associate than he or she is asked by a more senior partner to work on his matter and I need to train someone else. Even worse, these young lawyers don't seem to proof their work and they react to the expectation that they will work as long as it takes to finish an assignment as if it were slave labor. I am so tired of the poor work ethic and the turnover, it's easier to just do the work myself. But because I'm doing more of this I'm working later, sleeping less and becoming exhausted.

A colleague has told me that the "real" problem is that I am too hard on the associates. I gather that they complain to him when I tell them that their work is sub-par and that he sympathizes with them.  It's hard for me to believe that the problem is simply that my standards are too high.  If we don't give the client value we'll lose the work.

Providing poor client service of course isn't an option, but beware of your tendency to prevent this by working yourself to collapse. As you no doubt know, your firm is not alone in facing significant problems with associate retention. Whatever the reasons for attrition in your organization, it is probably not within your control to fix them by yourself, much less in time for the work you have now to get done. 

What do you make of the fact that the associates you train accept new assignments from other partners? I would imagine that as a non-equity partner you're not perceived to be as powerful, and therefore not as feared, as some of your senior male colleagues. However, I can't imagine that your partners have never heard associates decline or postpone assignments because their plates were already full.

You might have the greatest impact where you have the most control: Develop relationships with associates that will make them want to tell your colleagues that they're already busy working with you on an important litigation matter.

Complaints about the poor work ethic of Gen X and Millennial associates are rampant. But learning how to motivate younger workers will get you a lot further than judging their values. Although as a junior attorney you may have turned in high quality work because you believed that's what was expected or because it was a matter of pride, new lawyers are more inspired by opportunities for professional development and work that is meaningful because they see how their efforts contribute to the big picture.

The simplest way to think about effectively leading your team is to imagine that they are all volunteers participating in a project that you are coordinating. Ask yourself why a volunteer would follow your directions. Understanding the goals and self-interests of your "followers" positions you to align their goals with your own.  Inviting their ideas about how to accomplish project goals gives them ownership of the work, and we're all more likely to do our best when we feel like a venture is ours as opposed to someone else's.

Assuming that associates "ought to" do a better job is likely to make you resist spending precious time building relationships with them. But you've already seen where your resentment gets you.

Try getting to know who your associates are and understanding their professional aspirations. Help them see how their assignments contribute to the litigation matter and solicit their ideas for moving the case forward. Check to see that they fully understand the assignment and have realistic plans for completing it.

Clarify expectations on both sides: the associate's for guidance and support, and yours for the content and quality of the product and turn-around time. I'm betting that this kind of front-end investment will produce better quality work, generate more loyalty for you and your project, and enable you to get some much-needed sleep.

One additional thought: You may need to promote the importance of your work to your colleagues. Try explaining to someone who tries to grab your associate's time that this young lawyer is busy with your work. Sympathize with his need for assistance and try to collaborate on developing solutions, but remember to advocate for yourself as you would for your client.

I am an appellate specialist in a large New York firm and am having trouble with a very difficult client. He and I were colleagues at my prior firm. Several years ago I moved to the firm where I am now while he went in-house. My availability to do the appellate work on his matters seemed to be a significant factor in his giving my firm the work but things have gone downhill since then.

I pride myself in being a good writer but he is very critical of everything I write for him. His substitute for "Hello" is "This is the worst motion I've ever read!" I try not to be defensive and to understand what he wants but he persists in making extensive edits that leave me working all night to meet deadlines regardless of how good a head start I initially planned. I'm especially confused because my firm colleagues tell me that he sings my praises to them. I'd love to fire him but he's a big client of the firm and there's really no one else who can take over the appellate work.

Since you believe you have to continue to be his lawyer, the first thing you need to do is to shift from thinking of him as the problem to identifying the interaction between you as the focus for understanding and change.

As long as you're stuck blaming him and feeling victimized, you're likely to feel helpless and there's little potential for change. Instead, ask yourself what might he fear, what might he value and to what is he committed. Clients often have much to fear: the consequences of losing for their company and career, answering to management and ultimately the board and shareholders, losing respect from legal department employees. Do you have any sense of his feelings about having gone in-house while you've advanced in private practice?

In spite of his behavior toward you, there is evidence that he values and respects you. Does he perceive this as mutual between you? What are your fears? I imagine it's important to you to be seen as competent. You're used to having your writing mastery taken for granted; could having it challenged be shaking your confidence?

Once we shift our mindset from blaming to negotiating, we empower ourselves to present a shared problem to the other person. Resolving it will benefit both of you. Invite his thoughts about how you can work together more effectively. Ask him to explain what he's looking for and listen with the goal of understanding. It may be that giving him more opportunity for input will short circuit the editing process.

Look for ways of helping him feel like an equal partner. Sometimes, as much as a client wants you to be brilliant, the possibility of paling in comparison is threatening. This is probably not a client who wants you just to take over and "fix" things. Make sure he feels like he maintains control and gets credit. Don't depend on him to reassure you about your competence-pay attention to all of the evidence and enjoy your success.


Ellen Ostrow, a psychologist, consultant and certified coach, is the founder of Lawyers Life Coach, a firm providing executive coaching services to attorneys and consultation to legal employers. She can be reached through

Reprinted with permission from the June 2008 edition of the New York Law Journal Magazine © 2008 ALM Properties, Inc.  All rights reserved. Further duplication without permission is prohibited. For information, contact 877-257-3382 or This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it . ALM is now Incisive Media, # 070076-09-08-0007.


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