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Question: I am a staff attorney at a large Missouri firm. That means I am a nonpartnership-track attorney, and beneath an associate. I have always wanted to be an associate, but this was the best I could get out of law school. How can staff attorneys take your advice? It is clear that staff attorneys get “grunt” work, more so than even the most junior associate. I have the lowest billing rate in my entire multinational firm. How can I get the respect I deserve even though I am typecast as “less than an associate?” Answer: Start with the clear recognition that everyone in a law firm deserves respect. The converse is also true — no one in a law firm deserves to be abused, belittled, humiliated, or otherwise made to feel inadequate. Those who adopt such tactics quickly reveal themselves to be inadequate in their own ways — lacking in confidence, lacking in social graces and lacking in the ability to manage and motivate the people with whom they work. Yet merely recognizing that you may be working with some immature people will not solve your problem. You need to do your utmost to make it difficult for others to treat you as a second-class citizen. Consider: Act like a professional at all times. Dress like a professional. Show up on time like a professional. Organize your office (small as it may be) like a professional. Express yourself in writing and in your oral communications (and even on your voice-mail message) like a professional. Circulate widely. Avoid the temptation to confine yourself to a “bullpen” of staff attorneys and paralegals. Visit other parts of the firm regularly. When you have something to report to a senior lawyer, for example, go to his/her office, if possible. Participate in team functions. Most large projects have teams of lawyers and paraprofessionals. Team meetings, conference calls and circulation of updates on developments are a normal part of the team process. Ask to be included in any/all of these team functions, as a way to help you do your job more effectively. When possible, report on your progress, and your contributions, in the context of these team functions. Participate in social affairs. Most large law firms offer an array of social functions: cocktail parties, dinners, sports events, entertainment events and more. Often these functions are intended for specific purposes (recruiting, for example). And yet, in a larger sense, these are opportunities to socialize with other lawyers in the firm, to get to know them and to give them an opportunity to get to know you, as a complete person, rather than a mere functionary. And there may be small versions of these opportunities, on a daily basis. Many firms have cafeterias, for example, where casual conversation with other lawyers may easily occur, so long as you are bold enough to sit somewhere in their vicinity. Do more than is expected. Most staff attorneys are hired to do one main task (document production, for example), because of the volume of the work, and out of a desire to improve efficiency of operations, through lower billing rates. Often, however, the job can expand, as you begin to learn to do the main task efficiently, and have more time for other things. Offer to do more, and if you get the chance, do your very best on the new project. For all this advice, however, there is one clear limit that is often difficult to overcome. Law firms do have a rigid sense of hierarchy among partners, associates, staff attorneys and paraprofessionals. At most big law firms, it is almost impossible to “graduate” from being a staff attorney to becoming an associate. If that is your goal, you may need to think seriously about a lateral move to another law firm. You may also consider a move to a government agency or in-house law department. Any chance you get to change your job title may make it easier, in the long term, to establish a more complete career experience, freed from the often short-sighted attitudes of those who judge people by their titles, and not their capabilities. Submit your question to Steven C. Bennett at the National Law Journal.

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