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Navigating the turbulent waters of Associate Idol

|Written By C. Barrista Sasse

The economy sucks, the weather sucks, and (gasp) no Canadian Idol to warm the cockles of your heart as you deal with a long winter. Nevertheless, at Death Star law firms all across the country, an idol of a different variety is heating up: Associate Idol. You may perhaps know this creature by it’s pseudonym: “the associate review.”

This year, the swell of associate angst in the run up to Associate Idol finals is palpable. Whispers of potential layoffs, salary cuts, and zero bonusing have been echoing through the unusually quiet corporate halls of Death Star law firms everywhere. The whispers are a bit quieter in the litigation halls where it’s business as usual (in some cases, litigation associates are completely unaware of the disquiet among their corporate brethren, as they continue to slog away, having long since hit “targets”).

Nevertheless, in an era of economic uncertainty and plummeting billable hours, associate morale has hit new lows. Even if you went to law school because you couldn’t do the math needed to do anything else, you can understand the basic concept that fewer hours billed = less revenue in the pot to be split. Partners still wanting to keep their splits are ever-conscious that (absent some sort of creative accounting à la Livent, perhaps?) associate salaries and bonuses shrink the partner pie.

No wonder the crop of Associate Idol contenders is wondering whether they will have to sing for their life this time around, and whether there will be any prize/bonus at the end of the game.

Associates who haven’t hit billable targets undoubtedly are feeling a special kind of angst. If your plummeting billable hours are purely a function of the equally plummeting economy, you likely needn’t worry that much. Most Death Star law firms, having learned from the last go ’round with the dot-com bubble burst, will endeavour not to be too terribly short sighted. Even in a tightening economy, firms recognize they need associate talent to survive. And, associate retention remains an ever-vexing problem.

Nevertheless, there are a few things you need to know to successfully navigate Associate Idol waters (disclaimer: associates should not expect thundering applause and a shower of streamers at the end, no matter how well they navigate).

Although this may seem counterintuitive, your self-evaluation is not an opportunity for personal reflection. Treat it as a piece of personal marketing; your chance to sell yourself to your firm. But don’t go overboard. Partners are quite adept at sniffing out associate BS and squashing it like a bug.

Act like you love it, or at least don’t hate it. Although many (if not most) associates don’t aspire to partnership, partners still don’t want to believe this, and even if they have started to awaken to it, they still want associates who are good firm citizens. So, keep your partnership aspersions to yourself. When asked what the firm might do better to assist you in achieving your goals (see more re: goals below), venting about the neurotic partner with unrealistic expectations who never explains anything and whose fault it is that you got a bad review should be avoided. Likewise, bottle up the suggestion that the firm should pay for your taxi home every night because it’s just so cold outside.

While your New Year’s resolution may have been to bill the majority of your hours from home in your pjs or perhaps from the beach in a self-rationalizing attempt to seek out work-life balance, it is not an acceptable practice goal for 2009. As much as you may hear it’s not about the face time but the quality of the work, you still need to be in the office once in a while to get the work.

Finally, recognize that even the superstar workhorse associate, who still managed to bill 21,000 hours in a tanking economy, will get a bad review. You see, partners often are not clear about what they want when assigning work — frankly, most of the time even they don’t know what they want. As the brightest legal mind in your class (or maybe second brightest if the No. 1 candidate went to another firm), Death Star partners just expect you to figure that out. Chances are you haven’t figured quite right on at least one occasion over the past year. This does not mean that the firm thinks you’re incompetent. Take the criticism with dignity and respect. One, two, or even a few negative comments are to be expected and, unless your mistake was in the nature of funnelling off trust funds or making up legal citations in your facta, it will not mean the end of your career. Please note, however, crying during your review should be avoided at all costs.

Times may be tough, but associate reviews should not be. Armed with this advice and a good dose of common sense, associates across Canada will make out just fine.

C. Barrista Sasse is an associate in a big Death Star law firm in Toronto. She will be your mentor, young associates. She can be reached at