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How many times has this happened to you? You are just about to pick up your things, put on your coat and leave the office for the evening/the weekend/a vacation/forever. Then, all of a sudden, a partner either calls you on the phone or appears at your door with an assignment that absolutely, positively, has to be done right away. If you are an associate or a paralegal at The Firm, this sort of thing probably happens on a regular basis. Sometimes the partner will make a less-than-sincere apology for ruining any plans you may have had outside the office. The partner might also say something like: “You don’t have any plans tonight, do you?” While these words are technically stated in the form of a question, they are really a statement that, if not true at the moment they are spoken, immediately become so. The partner might also feel the need to say something to make up for the fact that the urgent project you are about to take on is urgent because it sat on his or her desk for two weeks. You might hear something along the lines of: “You’re the one associate I can count on” or “You’re the only attorney in the office qualified to tackle an assignment like this one.” Translated from Partnerese, these statements mean that the partner couldn’t find anyone else at this late hour to take the assignment, so you’ll have to do. Although the partners are your opponents in these law firm games we play, it is important that they at least think you are on the same team. Given this, whenever I find myself in the aforementioned position, I always cheerfully accept whatever work assignment is dropped on me from above. For effect, I’ll also add: “Thank you sir/madam, may I have another?” Partners love hearing this sort of thing and they’ll leave your office thinking you have the “right attitude.” After accepting an assignment given to me at the last minute, the first thing I do is promise myself that, when I become a partner, I’ll never take advantage of my rank and pull this kind of thing on an associate. But, since I’m not yet a partner, the next thing I do is go around the office looking for someone whose name is lower than mine on The Firm’s letterhead and upon whose desk I can dump the assignment. (Urgent legal assignments, like other unwanted and unpleasant things in life, flow downhill.) Even if you’re an associate who can’t say no, you’ll nonetheless need to learn how to turn some work away. And you’ll need to learn how to do this in just the right way — otherwise you will be turned away by The Firm. The trick is therefore to avoid interaction with such senior lawyers before they have you in their grasp. Knowing how to ditch partners and work assignments is as important to your career at The Firm as are learning how to try cases or draft agreements. Partner avoidance techniques must be prepared and practiced well in advance of the moment it they are needed. After all, you never know when a partner is going to show up at your door with an emergency assignment (although late Friday afternoon is a pretty good guess). Between the choices of fight and flight, it is best to take flight — even if that flight is in the form of a dive under your desk when you hear the “partner approaching” alarm sound. (Legal secretaries can be persuaded to provide warning of when a partner is in the vicinity.) The under-your-desk dive may not be the complete answer to your problems, however, if there isn’t enough time, or if you’ve tried this before and a partner found you huddled on the floor under your desk. If you are not sufficiently warned and a partner suddenly appears before you with a project and an impossible deadline, you can try certain verbal defenses to fight off the undesirable work assignment. Such responses must be prepared and practiced well in advance so you don’t falter under the pressure. One thing you can do is pick up the telephone and pretend to be on a call that can’t be interrupted. When the partner appears at your door, cover the receiver with your hand and whisper “London” or “Hong Kong.” You can also try this same approach with the names of people. Simply say, “Bill Rehnquist” or “Madonna” to the partner while pointing to the phone. If you don’t have time to pick up the phone or if the partner decides to wait in your office until you finish your conversation with the Chief Justice, you’ll have to try using an excuse as to why you can’t take the unwanted assignment. Some of the better ones used in and around The Firm are “I’d like to help you out, but … “I have too much work to do already”; “I’m due in pre-op”; “I never went to law school”; “My bar card is invalid”; “My water just broke”; and “I have choir practice.” If these approaches and all else fail (and they probably will), do the assignment, rack up the billable hours and try to become a partner yourself eventually. This will earn you the privilege to drop in on scared associates late some fine Friday afternoon. The Rodent is a syndicated columnist and author of “Explaining the Inexplicable: The Rodent’s Guide to Lawyers.” His e-mail address is [email protected].

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