Navigating the Attorney-Client Relationship as a Junior Associate
The Bencher—January/February 2021
By Stefanie Scott Shah, Esquire
One of my proudest moments as a mid-level associate occurred during a conversation with a client. The partner on the case had asked that I defend the client’s Rule 30(b)(6) deposition, and I gratefully accepted the task. At that point in my career, I had defended countless depositions, but none seemed as important as this deposition of a party’s corporate representative.
The day before the deposition, the client told me he was thankful I would be defending his company’s representative. He said in the past he had had lengthy email conversations with another company attorney while that attorney was defending depositions of other clients. Although—at the time—this client had appreciated the quick email responses, he did not want his corporate representative to be defended by an attorney who was emailing other clients during the deposition. He said he knew from observing me that I would give the deposition my full attention.
My client’s explanation made me appreciate the role of young associates and the power we could have. It was after that conversation that I realized, as a young associate:
- Your clients are watching you. You are not the star of the show—far from it. As a first-year associate, you are one step up from an extra on set. In a few years, you might be cast in a supporting role. But regardless of your status, your clients are paying attention to your actions, demeanor, compassion, drive, work ethic, and distractions. It might not seem fair, but they are constantly comparing you to more experienced attorneys.
- Lean into that spotlight and use it in your favor. Work harder. Give clients your full attention. Know the law. Show empathy.
You might not be arguing hearings or taking depositions as a first-year associate. But you can be there to explain the law and the procedure to your client in layman’s terms—which is particularly important and impactful for unsophisticated clients. You can be there for emotional support, acting as a sounding board for clients who are frustrated with the process and for those who have suffered emotional harm. Although this role might not sound like an attorney’s obligation, it is humanizing, builds trust, and allows you to fully understand your clients and their needs. It is a building block for the foundation of your relationships with clients. And it’s something a partner (who is focused on the meat of the case) might overlook.
- You might not have a lot of client interaction as a young associate—so take advantage when you have the opportunity. Depending upon your firm and the number of lawyers on a case, you might have very limited client interaction. When you are given the opportunity, bring your “A” game and make sure the client and his or her case are the only things on your mind.
At a deposition? Listen attentively and take notes by hand. Be prepared to find documents for, write notes to, and answer questions posed by your supervising attorney. Leave your computer in its laptop sleeve. Do not pick up your cellphone unless you need to research something related to the case. Do not check email unless you are expecting correspondence related to the deposition. If helpful, leave an out-of-office response so that any emails you receive are met with a prompt explanation as to why your reply will be delayed.
At a hearing? In addition to the above, know when to stand and if/when you will need to address the court. Also, it is worth being prepared to make the actual argument. I was never thrown this particular curve ball, but I have heard stories of partners asking junior associates to argue the hearing—five minutes before the judge took the bench. Every curve ball is not just a challenge; it is an opportunity to learn, positively impact the case, and protect your client’s interests.
At a client meeting? Let the client talk. Of course, you have ground to cover. But the client—especially a client who has never been through this process—is probably confused and/or scared. At the very least, they have questions. Listen closely and provide both answers and compassion (if warranted). Additionally, know your audience. When a client asks how you think the deposition went, give a few pointers and try to provide reassurance. For most clients, it is not going to be helpful to explain that he botched the deposition because [insert complicated legal theory here]. However, if you are discussing the success of a deposition with the client’s in-house general counsel, be prepared to walk through the testimony, intricacies of the case, and relevant law.
- Being green (usually) means you work harder—because you must. You clock more hours, double- and triple-check your work, make more objections, and focus solely on the task at hand.
When attorneys gain experience, they create shortcuts. They do not need to work as many hours because they have done the task at hand countless time before. They might not need to edit as vigorously because they have honed their writing skills and are more comfortable with the process. They may check email during depositions because they think they can simultaneously listen to testimony and respond to client/colleague questions without issue.
These shortcuts often suffice because senior attorneys have so much experience. But not always. If you quit researching too soon, you might not find the golden-ticket case. If you only review your work once, you might miss grammatical errors or the opportunity to fine-tune your argument. If you are too busy drafting emails during a deposition, you might miss a legitimate chance to instruct your client not to answer a question.
It is worth noting that most of the greats (in all fields) do not take shortcuts. Certainly, if Michael Jordan started phoning it in during his final NBA season—if he missed practices, stopped training, and responded to emails during timeouts–-the docuseries “The Last Dance” would not have been such an entertaining and inspiring watch.
Luckily, you, as a novice associate, have passion, drive, “beginner’s mind,” and (above all) fear of failure. You are not yet comfortable enough in your abilities to take any of these shortcuts. Your clients—if they are watching, which they are—will notice your dedication to their cases. You might not have the experience today to argue a substantive motion to the court or to direct an important witness at trial, but cases and client relationships last longer than you might think. The proverb goes “good things come to those who wait.” But better things come to those who continuously work hard.
- Do not fear client questions. Associates are more accessible than partners. Although it is true that you might not be invited to as many client dinners as your superiors, you could become the attorney to whom your client directs day-to-day questions—particularly if you are more responsive than the senior attorneys on the matter. Use this opportunity to build (or strengthen) your relationships with your clients.
The most important thing to remember in fielding client questions is that you will not have the answer to every question. Initially, you might not even have the answer to any client questions. That is not something to be ashamed of. First off, no attorney has all the answers. Sure, if an attorney has been practicing in one area of the law for the past 20 years, he or she will likely be able to answer most questions without having to conduct research or review the relevant statute. But fact patterns in cases and matters are never exactly the same, and the law is constantly changing, so even experienced attorneys sometimes need to sign onto Westlaw before responding to a client question.
Second, although you do not have all the answers, you can get them. You know how to research. You also have senior attorneys (both associates and partners) at your disposal. Talk to them about the client questions. Once you have your answer, reach back out to the client, who will appreciate that you answered the question before your supervising attorney even had a chance to open the relevant email.
Client relationships can last beyond the attorney-client engagement. A decade after I billed my first hour on his company’s case, a client for whom I spent countless days preparing, responding to, and arguing motions agreed to be one of my references for an important application. You never know which relationships will help build the foundation of your career. No doubt, the relationships with your peers, your mentors, and your colleagues are all important and will shape the lawyer you become. But do not overlook the relationships you have with clients, for those too could have a positive and unexpected impact on your career.
The junior associate-client relationship looks very different from both the partner-client relationship and the senior associate-client relationship. But that does not mean it is nonexistent or insignificant. As a young associate, you are in a unique position to grow client relationships from the outset of your career. Just as you work hard to impress your supervising attorneys, you can—and should—work hard to impress clients, even if you think you are not on their radar. If you put in the effort, you can foster client relationships that can help win cases and positively influence your future.
Stefanie Scott Shah, Esquire, is the founding member of Scott Shah Law PLLC in Austin, Texas. Her practice includes complex commercial, patent, and employment litigation. Additionally, she acts as outside general counsel for growing businesses, handling all their legal needs. Shah is a Barrister member of the Lloyd Lochridge American Inn of Court.