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Did I ever tell you about the time I almost died? It was a frigid Michigan winter in 1981 and I was six-years-old. My dad and I were driving over an S-shaped bridge when we hit a patch of black ice and our car veered out of control. Dad recovered just in time to hit a second patch of ice, sending us through the guard rails and into the gelid river below. We hit the water and the car began to sink. Dad grabbed my hand and opened his door. But as the river rushed into the passenger compartment, I panicked and squirted out of his grasp. I went to my own door and desperately struggled to get it open. In a moment, the car was completely submerged and I was gasping in a quickly thinning slot of air just under the roof. Somehow my dad escaped from the car, swam around to the passenger side and broke out the door window. He reached through to grab my legs and tried to pull me to safety. But in my panic I still kicked against him, unwilling to leave behind the last slit of air I had remaining. Dad finally got a hold of me. Next thing I knew, I was laying in a bank of snow on the river’s edge. A few hours later, the two of us were huddled up back home watching cartoons and eating a plate of hot chocolate-chip cookies. Life as a mid-level associate at a law firm sometimes resembles what my father must have felt as he struggled to keep me alive. Inevitably, mid-level associates are faced with situations where circumstances have them alone, afraid, unsure and yet, in-charge. They are often solely responsible for a client matter, or a large part of one, that is filled with people and circumstances entirely out of their control. They struggle to keep that matter on the road towards the client’s goals and, when a problem arises that they somehow manage with great effort to address, they will often find themselves on the path to another, even larger problem. The client – their charge – travels the road as well, with the mid-level associate as a guide, and yet at crucial moments may add additional challenges for the associate to overcome. The situation of a mid-level associate at a law firm is unique in the legal profession – no other position is vested with both so much responsibility and so little authority. Unlike new associates, who are usually tasked with completing discrete projects or providing answers to specific legal questions with very little accountability for actual outcomes, mid-levels are responsible for developing facts, legal theories and case themes, standing the front-lines in negotiations, discovery and court hearings, and meeting directly with clients. Yet, despite being accountable for results on all these fronts, unlike a law firm’s senior associates and partners, mid-levels typically lack the authority to make significant decisions or to command significant firm resources. Although a mid-level associate usually has some assistance from more junior attorneys in the firm, they often lack the influence to set priorities for those attorneys or to make large demands of their time. Nevertheless, attorneys both senior and junior may seek the mid-level associate’s guidance on what should be done and how best to do it. In essence, mid-levels are the middle children of the law firm family. I’ve learned that succeeding as a mid-level associate is about managing limited time, people, and resources while keeping focus, and keeping your client focused, on the end goals. When a wayward traveler asked Aristotle how to get to Mount Olympus, the philosopher responded, “By ensuring that each step you take is in that direction.” Like that traveler, a mid-level associate’s most important task is to stay the path in the face of ever multiplying distractions. If any potential course of action will not carry the project further along the road towards the client’s goals, it’s likely not a worthwhile effort. Mid-level associates must understand their role in a case and rely on others to support them within that role. Because mid-levels are often heavily involved in discovery and are otherwise at the forefront of most issues in their matters, they tend to know about every developing problem in a case. The greatest mistake many mid-level associates make is to assume that, because they know about each of these problems, it is their sole responsibility to resolve every one of them. In many instances, the appropriate course is to review the problems, determine some potential solutions, and then bring them to more senior members of the team so that appropriate resources can be marshaled to handle them. A mid-level’s uniquely broad-ranging knowledge of the matter also presents the opportunity for heroics. Often the mid-level associate is the most keenly aware of how new circumstances will impact all aspects of the matter and who is the first to recognize the import of otherwise overlooked documents or find obscure cases that establish key legal points. Many a mid-level associate has saved a drowning case by breaking through barriers that others on the team do not have the time or knowledge to address. With each day as a mid-level associate, I learn more about how to keep matters on track. Certainly, things beyond my control will continue to cross my path, and like all attorneys who came before me, I’ll handle some of them right and some of the wrong, hopefully more of the former than the latter. Either way, just like Dad, I won’t quit until its time for the cookies. Ellisen Turner is an associate at the Century City office of Irell & Manella LLP where his practice includes intellectual property litigation and patent prosecution. He may be reached at [email protected].

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