Since B&B’s inception, we’ve discussed, ad nauseam, just how busy Biglaw life can be.  We thought it would make sense, therefore, to touch briefly on one of the most important drivers of that insane workload: new matter staffing.  In particular, how associates can manage new matter/assignment staffing to avoid nervous breakdowns or the delivery of subpar work because they’re dangerously over capacity.

An Imperfect System

Different firms do better and worse jobs of effectively staffing their associates.  Most firms strive to account for associates’ availability in their staffing decisions, but (having been senior enough at a firm to see behind the staffing curtain) such decisions can often be made without regard to associate workloads—because, for example, a partner simply wants to work with a particular associate on a certain matter regardless of what else the associate has on.  Moreover, collecting accurate and actionable information about who has what capacity when has always been a particular challenge for big firms with large associate classes.  This is all by way of saying that you can’t always trust that any given staffing request is necessarily well informed or accounts fully for your competing obligations.  Which means that, from time to time, you’ll need to take action to push back on staffing requests—both to protect yourself and to ensure that you can meet your clients’ needs.

Always Say Yes?

When it comes to Biglaw staffing requests, the most common theory—or mantra, really—one hears is:  always say yes.  No matter what you’re asked to do, smile, say yes, grit your teeth, and then find a way to get it done. 

As difficult as this can be when you’re already loaded up with work, there are many times when that’s the right approach.  As a Biglaw associate, a “can do” attitude is one of your biggest assets and a boon for your reputation.  And I never ceased to be amazed by just how much work you can get done when throwing caution to the wind and tackling whatever comes at you.  (Looking back on my own life, I can think of no less than a handful of different times—in and outside of Biglaw—when I was absolutely certain I had reached the very outer limit of what I could handle, where it was simply impossible to believe that anyone could take on more work or responsibility in that situation.  And then something would cause me to challenge that assumption, I’d hurtle past the illusory threshold, and look back in amazement—having taken on far more work than before—wondering how I ever thought I’d previously reached full capacity.)  It seems trite, but you’ll be amazed at how far you can push your own limits if you simply throw your cap over the wall, stop wasting time, and start churning in increasingly efficient and action-oriented ways.  (Reread our “Just Get Started” post for some related additional thoughts.)  Additionally, it’s simply to your developmental benefit as an associate to see and do as much as you can.

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But that said, there are certainly times when taking on another new matter or assignment would be biting off more than you can responsibly chew.  There will be cases when a proposed staffing presents real, irreconcilable conflicts with your existing client (and other) obligations.  And while the firm pays your salary, never lose sight of the fact that your ultimate professional obligations are to your clients.  If you’re being put in a position where you truly believe you cannot properly and professionally discharge those obligations and serve your existing clients’ interests, you need to push back.

So how do you do that in a way that’s both effective and won’t tarnish your hard-earned reputation?  For me, it was by tweaking the “Always Say Yes” mantra to “Never Say No”.

Never Say No

In my experience, the key to effectively avoiding additional work you simply can’t handle while maintaining the right reputation is to follow something akin to the four-step approach sketched out below.

(1)  Step one, always stay positive.  Don’t act put out when someone asks you to take on a new assignment.  No one is trying to ruin your life.  In fact, if people keep asking you, over and over, to do work, dollars to donuts there’s a decent chance it’s because someone likes working with you or was impressed by something you did. 

(2)  Step two, express a genuine (or as close as you can get) willingness and desire to help and contribute.  Yes, it’s in the abstract, because you’re getting ready to tell the staffing party that you can’t actually help; but it matters.  If the staffing party feels like you’re truly happy to help, they’ll credit your push back in a way they wouldn’t otherwise, and they’ll also want to help you.  (It’s a similar phenomenon to what we discussed in our “Team Communication” post.)

(3)  Step three, give a clear explanation for why you’re not in the best position to help on this particular new assignment.  Maybe it’s because of an imminent deadline on another matter, or perhaps you’re anticipating a development on another matter that, when it occurs, will require 100% of your attention for an extended stretch.  The more tangible the reason the better.  And, where applicable, always stress any concerns about risks to the quality or timing of an important client deliverable.  Hopefully, you’re only at this step because there’s a compelling reason you can’t take on the assignment, so—whatever that reason is—communicate it effectively. 

If staffing options abound at the moment, these first three steps might do the trick.  But if not, step four is key.

(4)  Step four, ensure the responsible supervising lawyers own the conflict.  If push comes to shove, and you’re being pressed to take on an assignment that presents risks to other work obligations, escalate the issue (on all relevant sides) and get yourself out of the middle.  Tell the staffing party (and, as applicable, the partner on the existing assignment that presents the conflict), “I’m eager to help, and I’m happy to be wherever I’m most needed/to prioritize whichever assignment is most critical to the firm/most time-sensitive/etc.  Just let me know what that is, and I’ll turn to that first.”  That sort of escalation makes the partners (or senior associates or associate development folks) negotiate among themselves directly as what needs to be prioritized among conflicting projects.  It’s not your job to make a call as to what’s most important on behalf of the firm.  (Caveated, again, by any personal professional-obligation imperatives you’ve identified.)

…ensure the responsible supervising lawyers own the conflict.

(Pro tip:  Critically, step four also ensures that, if you’re ultimately forced to prioritize one workstream over another, the supervising lawyer of the latter knows what’s going on and why and that it’s not your fault.  One of the biggest threats to your reputation is being tagged with responsibility for an unpleasant surprise.  Make sure all parties to a conflict are abreast of it so that doesn’t happen.  HOWEVER, be mindful of the fact that many partners supervising workstreams on which you’re already working will be miffed to learn that a potential conflict has arisen.  So I’d recommend waiting until you truly need to before you loop those partners in to the dialogue.)

(A Final Thought: This process doesn’t always shake out cleanly.  Maybe, for example, the two partners on the conflicting matters doesn’t like each other and refuse to engage, forcing you to be the monkey in the middle.  Whatever the case may be, if you’re being forced to choose a ball to temporarily drop—and, again, if there’s no professional-obligation imperative driving your choice—be mindful of the persons and personalities involved.  Not all partners carry the same weight in promotion decisions, for example.  Or you may have an internal champion on whom you hope to rely when planning an exit.  If you’re put to a tough choice and something has to be thrown under the bus, as cold and calculating as it sounds, don’t be naive, be pragmatic.  Do the best you can with the hand you’re dealt.)

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