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Q.How is it reasonable for any large firm to expect associates to generate business in order to become a partner? Who is going to hire a fifth-year lawyer and pay her $300-plus an hour to work on their case when they can hire better talent for less or even get a partner (if the matter is worth big bucks)? Seems to me that anyone without family connections or some other way “in” which has nothing to do with intellectual skill or legal skills is pretty much screwed. How is someone without such connections ever supposed to succeed? A.Watching colleagues who seem to have an unearned “in” make strides in the workplace while you don’t have the same automatic cachet can indeed be frustrating. This probably fits squarely in the “life isn’t fair” category. That said, there’s plenty you can do to make the playing field a little more even. First, you need to develop some confidence in your own worth. If you’re not sold on yourself it’s going to be hard to get anyone else interested. So buck up. Second, remember that many, many people have been in the same spot and triumphed. “Everyone except a small percentage of people with great family contacts is faced with that situation,” says Phyllis Weiss Haserot, president of Practice Development Counsel in Manhattan, which provides business development and organizational effectiveness consulting and coaching to law firms. “Most business generators today did not start with great family contacts. They went and made contacts through their own initiative. They keep up with school classmates, they join organizations, they develop trusting relationships with clients for referrals to others, they impress opposing counsel in a matter, they start a peer networking group, and they get to know and cultivate people met in all circumstances in their lives. Of course, this means having interests outside the office and being interested in getting to know people and their needs.” Haserot also points out that you can generate business by bringing in clients outside your area of expertise — have another lawyer work on the matter, and work out a blended rate. And don’t think to yourself that a matter is “too small,” she advises. If it’s profitable, it’s good, and in any event any kind of business generation helps get the associate into the swing of things and accustomed to rainmaking. Above all, she emphasizes, let the partnership see that you are trying hard. Some law firms actually do take that effort into account. Q.Today I got an e-mail from a partner I work with sort of critiquing my appearance earlier in the day at an important hearing in court. He said I wasn’t forceful enough and that we could have gotten a better outcome if I had pushed a little more. He didn’t exactly phrase it in the most tactful manner, either. What do you think of e-mail as a vehicle for criticism? A.Bottom line: I don’t like it. Writing anything down that is sensitive, whether in a letter or e-mail, usually is a coward’s way out. It’s certainly easier for the writer to say difficult things in a distant way, but it is more hurtful to the recipient and, in the long run, not helpful. Generally, the person who gets the message is so hurt or put off by how the message is sent that she or he doesn’t focus on its (possible) validity. (I’m referring here to situations involving colleagues, not with opposing counsel or other practice situations in which transmitting difficult messages involves an entirely different set of guidelines and approaches.) I’d tell the partner that you prefer having feedback sessions face to face so that you can have the benefit of finding out more. Emphasize that you want and welcome feedback — negative and positive — if the person can help you learn and be a better lawyer. But the other person has a responsibility to learn how to communicate it properly, so that the mode of delivery doesn’t overwhelm the message. The great thing about e-mail is that it streamlines informational communication so well, especially about perfunctory organizational matters. But it’s a pathetically poor mode of communication for sticky topics. It’s invasive, it seems imperious (like the writer can’t waste the time to actually track the person down), and it lacks context and humanity. And it doesn’t have any of the body language and informal cues that a face-to-face meeting, or even a telephone call, can include. Remember that a written communication that’s critical stays embedded in the brain far longer than an evanescent conversation. The best rule of thumb when you are considering sending a critical or emotional e-mail is to think about it carefully. Better yet, if it’s even remotely sensitive, seek the person out for a face-to-face communication or a phone call so that it’s personal, the person can react, and it doesn’t come out of the blue. An easy test is to look at the words you’ve written and imagine sayingthem to the person exactly as written. If you would express yourself differently in a personal conversation, you probably need to skip the e-mail and have a conversation. If you want the other individual to change his behavior, sending a critical e-mail probably will just put your colleague on the defensive rather than get him to examine how to improve. Q.I am a third-year associate, with my firm for one year. I have a good relationship with my colleagues, including my partner. Lately, I discovered that this person reads Harry Potter books. I viewed that as a revelation of a puerile state of mind. Should I be concerned about that? A.No. Harry Potter books are sensational. Many adults have gotten hooked on them while reading to their kids. And lawyers can use all the diverting outside influences they can get. Rather than being “concerned,” I’d be thrilled to be working with someone who has enough imagination to be swept away by the world of Harry, Hermione, and the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Pick up a copy yourself and enjoy a break from all those billable hours. Q.I am a recently married midlevel associate in my firm. For the past year, I have been having an affair with one of the firm’s partners, who is also recently married. We both work in the same department and are trying to keep our private lives a secret, particularly since we invited members of the firm to each of our respective weddings. We don’t know where our relationship will go, but I am wondering if I should start looking for another firm. There haven’t been any problems with work, but I don’t want to wait for any to happen. What do you think? A.My initial reaction is to feel very sorry for your respective spouses. That two newlyweds should be so rapidly cheated upon! But that’s not your question. First, you should assume that it would be impossible to keep this secret for a long time. The sad fact is that many lovers who are consumed with one another believe they are being discreet when in fact they can’t hide their hormonal high. (One woman realized her husband was having an affair when one of his female colleagues casually took a sip from the husband’s coffee cup without asking first.) Small things can trip you up. So you’ll need to face the problem, as indeed you sound prepared to do in your question. Your firm may have a policy on office romances, so consult it to see what the expectations are in the office environment. The fact that you are having a sexual relationship within the context of a reporting relationship (you’re an associate in the same department as your paramour, a partner) is the great red flag of office romances. Any employment lawyer will tell you that such relationships are strongly discouraged and require that adjustments be made, whether it’s one of you leaving the firm, changing departments, or what have you. Even if some change were made to avoid the “reporting relationship” problem, certainly a partner could potentially have an impact on your career at some stage, such as when you are up for partner, deciding salary or bonuses, weighing in on reviews, etc. Even if there is no reporting relationship, a partner has to be very careful about this kind of involvement. Again, employment lawyers will advise that it’s a risk for the firm because, if the relationship sours, an underling may see future negative actions against him or her as payback and bring charges of sexual harassment or retaliation. And there’s a flip side: In the future, it could be that you want to end the relationship and your paramour doesn’t, at which point you could find yourself in a potential sexual harassment situation. Your firm, again, undoubtedly has a policy covering this situation, but do you even want to get into that position? Which leads me to the most important point: You need to take a step back and coldly analyze what you’re doing. Both of you are playing with fire in your personal and professional lives. Most relationships of this sort don’t end happily but rather with devastated feelings all around and often with careers thrown into a tailspin, especially for the more junior person — that is, you. So take a hard look at what you’re doing and ask yourself whether it’s really worth it to carry on such a hazardous high-wire act. As a result, if you like your firm, I wouldn’t suggest you go charging off and get another job (having to start all over again in a new place) unless you think that this is a real relationship that will endure through the breakup of two marriages. I mean, how likely is it? Think about it and back out of your extra-marital fling if possible. Holly English, a former litigator, is principal consultant with Values At Work in Montclair, N.J., which helps organizations build high-performance workplaces. She also writes on law and management topics. She may be reached at [email protected].

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