I received a call from a good friend who has his own law firm. His firm has several partners and a couple of associates. He let me know that he just let one of his associates go, and in the course of telling the story, I quickly realized what was wrong with their employment relationship (spoiler: everything was wrong).

The associate apparently wasn’t happy. When he was approached and told that he was being let go, the associate quipped that the appellate brief he was “working on” hadn’t been touched because he expected to be fired. Further, he complained that there wasn’t a mentoring system in place and that was why the relationship hadn’t worked. (An important piece of information is that this associate had NEVER asked a single question during his tenure at the firm). Next, the attorney said that he had billed significant time to some of his files and therefore he knew he was being underpaid by the firm. He concluded by stating that if he were replaced, no new associate would be able to last at the firm. With that, he packed up his desk and walked out the door.

When I asked my friend about the associate’s billings, he said the associate was a very heavy biller to flat-fee criminal files, billing incredible time to files where most of the time needed to be written off.

While there are always two sides to every story, it appears that there are a few lessons we can glean from the associate’s behavior.

  1. If things aren’t going well, DO SOMETHING.

Apparently this associate knew things weren’t going well. The important brief that is due next week has languished on his desk and remained undone because he assumed he would be fired before it was due. Besides showing an incredible lack of initiative, this associate really needed to do something to improve the employment relationship. In my experience, if you think you are going to get fired, you probably are going to get fired. Before things get that bad, do something to improve the relationship. Ask the partners how to improve. Ask for help if you need it (more on that below). Get started on big projects before they become an overwhelming time crunch.

  1. If you don’t know how to do something, SAY SOMETHING.

Mentoring programs are great, but are rarely available at any firm besides the largest firms in town. While an associate is expected to work to figure out issues before asking questions, there are times that asking questions is your best course. Rather than spinning wheels on a procedural matter, asking how to do something is the best course. If you need help, ask for it.

  1. Think like an owner – try to understand your value to the firm.

The associate had a fundamentally different view about what his value was (and what his hours spent on files were worth) to the firm – he failed to think like a partner/owner. To me, this is the most egregious error the associate made. He never thought about how he “earned” his salary. He never took a step back and thought about whether his billings actually brought money in the door. He never thought about how, at the end of the month, this attorney had brought so little into the firm coffers.

In the end, this associate probably is better off not being at the firm, but he will have an incredibly hard time finding a new job. Most legal communities are small, so his reputation might precede him when he seeks another position. This attorney should have been focusing on doing good work AND been looking for a job. It is far easier to find a job when you are employed and can get a good reference than when you are unemployed and will not be able to use your past employer as a reference (a serious red flag for all future employers).