Lost in Translation
California Lawyer

Lost in Translation

April 2012

It's OK, folks, you're not alone. That special, feathery little prickle of dread you've been feeling lately? That quiver of nausea? It happens to all of us, about once a year. Have no fear - it's not a stomach flu, it's not a tumor. It's just time for the annual associate reviews.

Yes, at law firms coast to coast, it's report card time for associates, that time of year when your supervisors weigh in on your progress - or lack thereof - on the path to partnership. As an associate going on 13 and a half years now, at four different firms, I've seen every kind of review there is. And trust me, if there's one thing you can count on with these so-called progress reports, it's that your supervisors are just as unlikely to say what they mean as they are to mean what they say.

So, what do these evaluations really mean? Well, I'm here to help. Consider it mentoring, consider it karma-baiting - or better yet, just consider the following translations to figure out whether you're on the way up - or out.

1. "We recognize your contributions to the firm throughout the past year but reiterate the significance of staying on pace with your class in terms of the volume and breadth of your billable matters going forward."

You will be fired within the next fiscal year. You probably realized this months ago - you know, right around the time you started wearing flip-flops on alternate Fridays and really started thinking about writing that screenplay - but the firm is just now starting to take notice.

Nevertheless, it's a safe bet that you won't be shown the door until the next review period. So just lay low and spend the next few months punching up your résumé banking those paychecks, and relocating as many office supplies as you can. Consider this time a protracted severance package. And get cracking on that screenplay.

2. "We strongly advise you to seek out increased business development opportunities for the firm in the coming year."

Ah, you're "The One." As everyone in the firm is well aware, you were hired because of (a) your father's last name, (b) your mother's last name, or (c) both. Maybe Dad is a senator or Mom is a Hearst or their names adorn a few buildings at USC. Who knows.

But whatever you've got going, the firm's partners will only wait so long for their little bet on you to pay off. If you don't put your glistening pedigree to work and chase up some business stat, you'll be ... well, you'll probably be just fine. Excellent, actually. But you'll still be out of a job sooner than you might think.

3. "We thank you for your impressive billable contributions to the firm, though we encourage you to seek out pro bono opportunities in the coming year in addition to new and ongoing billable client matters."

Do. Not. Change. A. Thing. And whatever you do, don't seek out pro bono work. Ever. Don't even visualize the words pro bono - it'll only waste precious billable time. Just keep yourself sequestered in your office as usual, remember to change your clothes once in a while, and continue billing until you pass out and/or have an extended schizoaffective episode. Well done - you're on the way up, kid!

4. "Your most valuable strengths are your consistently positive attitude and participation in firm citizenship."

You will never make partner. You might have a shot at making of counsel, but don't count on it. You should, however, expect to be appointed cochair of the firm's Associates' Committee or Smiling Initiative or whatever other collection of smoke and mirrors it has cobbled together to lure new associate recruits into thinking that working at a giant law firm is just like working at a panda-hugging franchise, but with shinier desks.

Don't worry too much, though - it'll be at least a few more years before you and your most valuable strengths are escorted out of the building. So just keep smiling. For now.

5. "We appreciate your significant billable and business development contributions to the firm, but strongly encourage you to hone your associate relations and supervisory skills as you continue to progress in your career."

You are an a**hole. That's just your thing. You scream at every associate you've ever met. You make a supervisee cry at least once a week. You once threw a coffee cup at a paralegal. Your insane billables and client-obsequy skills may have earned you a decent shot at partnership so far, but if you don't bring the rage spirals down a few notches, you're out. Because, although law firms do love billing fiends, they love harassment lawsuits from traumatized associates just a bit less. Try some psychotherapy or massage therapy or whatever kind of therapy floats your boat - just do it soon.

6. "Thank you for your work on the [XX] matter. It was competently executed and well received."

The person who wrote this review has absolutely no idea who you are. Your name popped up on the list of people who billed time to one of the 600 matters he supervised, and he wrote your review roughly three minutes before it was due. Hell, you may never have worked for this guy at all - you probably typed the wrong supervisor code on one of your time sheets and got kicked over to this poor slob's list by mistake.

But, hey, at least the review was positive - think of it as part of your annual bonus. Well done!

~~~~~~

I hope this helps. But even if it does, don't bother thanking me. Because if you're actually taking time away from your work to read this, then ... well, as my last review so aptly explained: "While we appreciate your dedication to your personal and professional development, we strongly encourage you to focus a more meaningful proportion of your time on billable client matters going forward."

I'm sure you can figure out what that means all by yourself.

D. E. Koder is a pseudonym for an associate at a large national law firm.

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