A few years ago I had some dealings with a fast-rising associate—let’s call him “Jeffrey”–at a very large law firm.  I have to admit that I did not much care for Jeffrey.  He exhibited a pronounced tendency to agree to something during verbal negotiations and then, later, while back at his desk drafting, move the agreement goal posts dramatically.  To put it mildly, this produced a degree of mistrust between my client and his client that ultimately did not serve anyone well.  Except, maybe for the extra billable hours that it generated for Jeffrey’s timesheet.

However, Jeffrey seemed to be very well regarded at this firm.  He was clearly very smart and very, very hard-working.  He had been given a high degree of autonomy on my deal, and ran the junior associates under him the way a mid-level partner would.  By all appearances, under the metaphysics that govern the BigLaw associate universe, Jeffrey’s star was rising.

When I recently ran into one of his co-workers I was surprised to hear that Jeffrey had been let go.  We at Brightleaf work with a lot of large law firms and are well aware of the exodus of their associates over the past two years.  Still, given Jeffrey’s apparently upward trajectory, his departure initially seemed odd to me.

When I asked what lead to Jeffrey’s ouster, I was told (paraphrasing), “the stuff that got him to the doorstep was not the stuff that was going to get him over the transom.”  I’ve thought about this conversation over the past month or so, and have come to believe more than ever that the way firms train and rate and promote associates does those associates a disservice.  It’s not just the pace and lack of formal instruction and pressure to bill hours, it’s what Jeffrey’s co-worker said:  the selection pressures you evolve against in one phase of your profession often leave you ill-suited for the next phase.

This is certainly true for other professions as well.  Focus and self-involvement might get you to the top ranks of the pre-med class at a competitive college, but they do not correlate with the empathy and listening skills required of excellent doctors.  Republicans race to the right and Democrats to the left during party primaries, only to then have to race each other desperately back to the middle for the general election.  The course you chart to follow your goal often abandons you part way to that goal.  It’s like an old boss of mine used to say:  if you are trying to get to the moon and you start climbing a mountain, you might delude yourself into thinking that you are getting closer and closer to your goal as you go up and up.  But ultimately, no matter how hard and fast you climb, when you reach the summit, you’ve gone as far as you can go along that approach.   In order to reach your goal, you have to come down from the mountain and build a rocket. 

From what I could see, Jeffrey’s particular work style—lots and lots of hard-churned hours driven in part by a willingness to keep re-negotiating negotiated points on behalf of his client, a pinch of personal abrasiveness—worked well in the short term but killed him in the long.   They got him up the mountain but kept him from the moon.  Ultimately, it was difficult to see how even his clients would like his approach for long…let alone how he would ever bring in new clients.  And the large firm that benefitted for years from the undoubtedly huge number of hours he spent during his climb should perhaps shoulder much of the blame for encouraging him on that path before pushing him off a cliff.

Let’s hope wherever Jeffrey is now, he’s hard at work on his rocket.