We’ve collected hundreds of data points on law firm junior associates in our workshops and post-workshop reinforcement nudges. 

When asked: “what is the most important quality you hope to demonstrate in your first year at the firm?” there is one adjective that is far and away most commonly selected by summer associates and first-year associates.

“Reliable.”

Junior associates see reliability as the most important quality to exhibit as they launch their legal careers. And they’re right – it is an essential skill of top-performing associates. Reliable associates consistently deliver excellent quality work in a timely manner and effectively manage their workload.

So, why is it that one of the most common frustrations we hear from law firm partners is that associates are “unresponsive?” Reliability and responsiveness go hand-and-hand, afterall. 

There’s a clear breakdown in communication. Let’s examine how this plays out in the most common form of communication: email.

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When we look at firm hierarchy in the broad lense of generations, firm leadership positions are typically held by Boomers and Gen X. As a generalization, Boomers and Gen X feel confident their email was received, and the recipient is taking action on their directive, when they receive a prompt reply acknowledging receipt and confirming next steps.

Something as simple as, “Thanks for your note. I’ll get to work right away and will have this to you by 3 pm today” does the trick.

Millennials and Gen Z do not, typically, believe an email reply confirming receipt is needed. They assume that all emails are received and understood.

Partners are left thinking, “Did they get my email? Are they jumping on this assignment? Where are we at on that brief?” These questions are a distraction and annoyance for partners.

This is the ultimate communication breakdown.

With a simple change in behavior, this common workplace frustration can be eliminated. Associates must flex their communication preferences to adapt to firm leadership. Great associates never leave their supervising attorneys to wonder.

We advise the junior associates in our workshops to do the following:

  • Confirm receipt of emails within two hours during business hours
  • Provide an estimated timeframe for when work will be completed
  • Commit to providing proactive status updates if it’s an in-depth or long-term assignment
  • Make every effort to complete an assignment before it is due 

While these best practices seem obvious, associates need explicit direction to do this.

We’ve found that when framed in the context of “Do these simple things to exhibit reliability and make yourself irreplaceable,” associates gladly heed this direction.