Talent Development:  Beyond the Assignment

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By David Cruickshank | Nov 18, 2020

In BigLaw firms, or in any firm with multiple associates, an assignment of work by a partner or senior associate, is a signifier of many things.  To the management committee, it signifies leverage.  To the partner, it is project management and the choice of competent associate.  To the associate, it can signify repetitive drudgery or an opportunity to learn and impress.  In the worst circumstances, with a tight deadline and insufficient support, it can signify a set-up to fail.

I propose a definition of the typical assignment that all members of a firm might embrace.  An assignment is a career development opportunity.

Thinking of the assignment in this way, what can partners and associates do to ensure that there is a career development benefit for the associate in most assignments?  (I’ll concede that every partner is going to have to assign some drudgery work that is beneath the development level of the available associate.)

Let’s begin with the initial delegation.  As I teach in my management skill courses for partners and senior associates, a complete delegation must:

  • provide a “big picture” context for the work
  • review likely issues and resources known to the delegator
  • be specific as to product, time allocation and deadline
  • wrap up with a summary provided by the recipient.

While most of these steps are the delegator’s responsibility, associates can step up and offer a summary.  This gives the opportunity to clarify and provide tips for the recipient.

To signify career development, a partner can do more at this stage.  During the delegation, ask “Have you done one of these before?”.  A “no” answer means that you’ll need to do some check-ins and coaching along the way.  Each time, you’ll talk about how this work relates to more complex and challenging work that lies ahead for the associate.  When you make the assignment, you can also schedule a time for feedback, even for the more experienced associate.  This signifies that you care about both the work product and the associate’s development.

If you are going to be working with an associate for more than 40-50 hours in a year, you will be asked to evaluate their performance for the year.  For that group of associates, the partner should keep a file of ongoing development notes for each associate.  The assignment is core evidence of development, so you might organize your notes chronologically by assignment.  Given the annual evaluation criteria, what strengths and weaknesses did the associate exhibit on this assignment?  Share that feedback when the assignment is completed, not months later.  Your notes are for a year-end evaluation summary.

In many firms, the partner-associate duo is not the only influence on assignment choices.  Where a practice group has an assigning partner or committee, the partner cannot choose an overworked associate.  However, that assigning body is also supposed to ensure that new assignments help build the associate’s career and that the work can justify the rate being charged to a client.  While it is intimidating to do, associates who believe that neither of these goals is being regularly advanced, should raise their concerns with the assigning body.  In a firm that touts its talent development (as most do in their recruitment pitches), the assigning body should be there for the associate.

Another institutional check on assignments is the diversity promise of law firms.  Are diverse associates getting the same quality of assignments and career development as others?  As partners keep assignment notes and prepare for annual evaluation throughout the year, they need to be conscious of even-handed treatment of diverse associates who are available for work.  A diversity officer or committee can assist if you are unsure about how to handle this aspect of assignments.

Finally, when the assignment has been completed, the partner can “tie the bow” on an assignment by connecting it to career development, in a later conversation that covers four things:

  • tell them how the work product was used in the overall transaction or litigation
  • pass on any expressions of client satisfaction
  • ask the associate what they learned from that assignment
  • ask the associate what kind of future assignment would be a challenging addition to their career trajectory.

Assignments are not just about obtaining a work product.  They are about developing and retaining talent.

David Cruickshank is a Principal at Edge International.  He frequently trains partners and associates on management skills like delegation, feedback, managing up and career development.  His interactive courses are now online.