How to ask for work as an associate

I’ve decided to do a series of posts based on the most popular search phrases that take people to my blog.  It’s an experiment, and I’d be curious if anyone has any comments or requests for specific topics.

Some version of “how to ask for work as an associate” is a common search, and that’s quite logical since it’s impossible to hit the critical billable hours without sufficient work.  The short answer to how to ask for work is easy: go to a partner or senior associate who does work that interests you, let them know you have some time, and ask if there’s anything with which they’d like help.  There’s no real formula, no do’s or don’ts, and not a lot of risk.

The bigger question, of course, is why someone might need to ask for work.  There are 3 primary reasons, and each calls for a different response from the associate, and potentially the firm as well:

1.  Business is slow.  If this is the case, in your practice area or in your firm, explore opportunities to network or to write/speak.  Either will be a good use of your time for your own personal promotion and, one would hope, to help generate business for your firm.  Of course, neither of these activities is a short-term strategy and are best done on a regular basis.  Slow times, though, free up time to focus on these activities.

2.  Your workload has been declining and business overall is not slow.  This situation generally isn’t good news.  Although it’s possible that a benign explanation exists, a logical conclusion is that those who assign work are unhappy with the associate.  The problem is generally professional, though on occasion a personal conflict may exist.  Unfortunately, the nature of the professional problem (or even that a problem exists) may never have been communicated to the associate, who may be left feeling a general anxiety and discomfort without knowing quite what’s happened.

If this is your situation, go to the most senior person with whom you’ve developed a strong relationship, tell them you notice your workload has slowed to a trickle (and, if true, that you’ve been asking for work without success), and ask if there’s a problem.  Having that conversation will be difficult, but it may also create an opportunity for a turn-around.  Having performed a realistic self-evaluation of your skill and experience beforehand will be helpful, as will retracing the timing of the slowdown to search for any precipitating event.  And perhaps you’ll learn that there’s another explanation for the slowdown.

If your conversation reveals an insurmountable problem, or if it’s met with stonewalling, your next step should perhaps be polishing your resume, although recovery may be possible with great effort.   If you’re facing this situation, you might consider working with a coach who can help with a realistic look at what’s going on, what your ultimate goals are, and how you can work within the current situation to read your goals.  This is one of the most difficult career issues that a lawyer may face, and having someone in your corner to help you navigate can be invaluable.

3.  You’re experiencing a brief lull.  Find out by asking for work and by checking to be sure that your light load is an anomaly, and then enjoy.  While the business development activities suggested in scenario #1 will always be useful (and you should be doing them even when you’re busy), taking advantage of a short-term lull in your workload is a good work/life balance tactic.  One of the immutable laws of legal practice is that for every lull, there’s an equal and opposite busy period — so you may as well enjoy the lulls when you can.

I hope this is helpful.

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