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How To Survive As A Senior Associate In BigLaw

Senior associates at the biggest law firms often face difficulties as they take on increasingly important responsibilities to prove that they're ready to make the move to partner.

Here are four tips to help senior associates as they look to take the next step at BigLaw firms.

Know Partners' Expectations

Partners have lofty standards for senior associates aspiring to join their ranks. A sharp legal skill set, strong business development chops and valuable service to the firm will all be considered, especially in today's highly competitive environment, Reed Smith LLP senior associate Julie L. Hammerman said.

"Partnership used to be seven years and a fait accompli," Hammerman said. "Now partnership is more like 10 to 12 years and is far from a fait accompli."

Hammerman, who is in her second year with Reed Smith and ninth year of practice overall, says the firm provides a great deal of transparency in its partnership process, helping those looking to move up to grasp who they should reach out to and what steps they need to take to advance.

"They have very frank conversations with senior associates about what the pipeline looks like and where you stand," Hammerman said.

As senior associates develop, partners are looking for more management skills and a strong knowledge base, WilmerHale senior associate Jeremy Moorehouse said.

Moorehouse, who focuses on securities compliance and regulation out of WilmerHale's Washington, D.C., office, said that taking on a more senior role in his practice area demands an ability to explain complex rules to clients as well as well as provide leadership within the firm.

"A lot of matters I work on are highly technical, and you can't constantly have access to the partner as questions arise, so it's really the ability to manage the matter and manage the team," Moorehouse said.

Leaning on trustworthy individuals can help senior associates navigate the challenges, according to Hammerman.

"It's a marathon, especially as that track to partnership extends and extends," Hammerman said. "Having moments in time where you can talk to the people who are your rabbis and your mentors, who can remind you where you're going and why, is really important."

Show You've Got What It Takes

Firms want to make sure their senior associates have the opportunities to develop the skills they'll need at the next level, so associates shouldn't let those chances slide by, attorneys say.

"As a senior associate, all of what you're doing is learning the skills to be a partner," Kirkland & Ellis LLP senior associate Diana M. Watral said. "By the time you become partner, the hope is you have those skills to hit the ground running."

A senior associate who acts like a junior partner, with responsibilities ranging from devising case strategy to a high level of interaction with clients, is somebody ready to go to the next level, Hammerman said.

"I feel like I'm doing my best junior partner level work when I'm putting out near-perfect briefs, or doing the actual oral arguments," Hammerman said.

Working on a small number of cases for partners can provide opportunities to shine, Hammerman said, but asking for "stretch assignments" outside comfort zones is also important.

"You might be shaking in your boots because you're not sure if you can do it, but those are the types of experiences where you really know that you're growing," she said.

Raise Your Profile — In and Out of the Firm

A large firm offers chances to dip into its reservoir of knowledge and opportunities while becoming better known throughout the firm, attorneys say.

"In the past year, I've worked with lawyers in antitrust, IP, corporate and litigation, and a lot of times what will happen is I'll get a question that I recognize is outside my expertise, and I'll reach out to the network here," Moorehouse said.

Traveling to the firm's New York, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh offices has helped D.C.-based Hammerman establish herself with fellow senior associates, as well as junior and senior partners.

"It's so important for them to have a face to put with the name," Hammerman said.

Outside the firm, more experienced associates will be expected to cultivate clients, but that's a process that should happen naturally, Moorehouse said.

"The view is, once you've been here four or five years, you've probably developed some pretty significant client relationships, and it makes sense to develop and foster those relationships," Moorehouse said.

But a senior associate shouldn't neglect chances to become an available resource for others at the firm, attorneys say.

"Of course, you've got to have that outward-looking, business-development, land-the-client type thing, but some of the best-spent time for senior associates is making sure you're mining all of the internal connections, and that you're creating an echo chamber about who you are as an associate," Hammerman said.

Delegate to Those You Trust

Taking complete command over work is fundamental, said Watral, a Chicago-based litigation associate with Kirkland.

"As a master in a subject area, you're able to convince a partner or client that you're the go-to person for that particular area of the case," Watral said. "The most important thing is to really take ownership and become the person who knows everything about the area you’re responsible for."

Having midlevel or junior associates to entrust with important tasks, though, can make taking on a senior associate's higher responsibilities more manageable, Hammerman said.

"I have to be very mindful of how I spend my day, and make sure I do level-appropriate work, which means senior associate or junior partner level," she said. "I'm most successful when I'm not trying to tackle assignments that are appropriate for somebody below me."

And proper pacing is key to avoiding burnout, Watral said.

"When my cases are busy, I'm thinking about them at home at night and driving to work, but that also means when things slow down a bit, you slow down a bit," Watral said. "Take a vacation. Do those things when things aren't so busy, so when it does get busy at work, you're able to engage all the way."