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Ask A Mentor: How Can Associates Seek More Assignments?

Weil’s Director of Professional Development & Attorney Training Meela Gill recently authored a guest column for Law360 Pulse, offering insights on how associates can pursue meaningful work opportunities.

Q: How do you ask for more work at a firm without sounding like you are begging?

First, kudos to you for wanting to take strong initiative in obtaining more work projects.

While there are many ways to refine skills at large law firms, the most effective route to advancing your professional development is by learning and mastering legal and professional skills on substantive work assignments. It is, therefore, wise of you to pursue meaningful opportunities to ensure that you are progressing appropriately.

Firms take different approaches to assigning work. Some firms have a free market system, others charge assigning attorneys or professional staff with overseeing the work allocation process, and still others may assign associates to established teams.

The first step is to cover any official channels for obtaining work at your firm. Cheerfully but consistently check in, and succinctly and clearly state that you are available and ready to handle any new work that comes in the door.

Do not assume that noting your availability once or twice in the past will keep you top of mind for those who assign work. At the same time, take care that you are appropriately measured and judicious in following up; consider asking for feedback on the best method for staying in touch.

If your firm takes a more informal approach to assigning work, check in with the partners and senior associates in your group. Try starting with attorneys you know — prior supervisors, mentors, friendly faces from the hall (back when we were all working in offices), colleagues you have connected with during virtual programs and social gatherings, etc.

Ask if they could use any help on their matters, or if they know others who could use a hand. Also, think creatively about how you can expand any current work assignments into additional projects on the same matter, or new or related matters for the same supervisor.

Keep in mind the common refrain: It's not what you say, but how you say it.

Do your requests for work come with a lot of qualifications? Consider the negative messaging of statements such as, "I could probably do about six hours next week but only between two and four hours on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday," or, "I really need more work, but I only want to work on initial public offerings, and I definitely do not want any XYZ work."

Position yourself as broadly as possible, expressing enthusiasm and flexibility to help with whatever is needed. The ability to pick and choose assignments will come later. It may be necessary to get your foot in the door with small and unglamorous tasks to set the stage for more appealing opportunities in the future. The important thing is to get experience that builds your reputation as a team player who does outstanding work.

Stay visible and approachable. In the virtual world, maintaining visibility can be more challenging; you may have to try a bit harder and think creatively about new approaches to networking.

For example, reach out to mentors and ask to catch up, congratulate attorneys who have won awards or teams who have closed deals, drop a note of appreciation to an attorney who has led a recent training you attended, attend virtual socials, and generally seek opportunities to communicate proactively with colleagues. Take advantage of technology and our collectively evolving mindset to forge new methods of building relationships that will help to advance your career.

When back in the office, maintain a prominent presence even when you are not busy on active assignments. Keep your door open as often as possible to encourage visitors to engage casually and frequently. These unplanned conversations may lead to work opportunities.

Also, attend social functions, exhibit an approachable demeanor and make a positive impression. Convey that you are someone who would take work seriously while being a pleasant and productive team member.

Do not remain idle during your down time. Educate yourself on what is going on in your department and firm, and ask thoughtful questions when you cross paths with attorneys working on projects that interest you. Sharing curiosity and expressing support can inspire confidence from supervising attorneys and other firm personnel who can open doors for you.

Seek other opportunities to increase your exposure to different attorneys and functions of the firm. Take on a pro bono matter to broaden your skill set or volunteer to work on a nonbillable assignment, such as drafting an article or working on a business development initiative.

If everyone around you seems busy and you have some extra time on your hands, be prepared to take an honest look at why this may be the case.

Sometimes a disparity can be easily explained because the chips fell a certain way in the work allocation process. However, sometimes this gap indicates something more concerning.

Did you perform poorly on a recent assignment? Are you someone who regularly jets out of the office or goes offline at 5:30 p.m. on the dot, absent an understanding with your supervisor or a special arrangement? Do you take a long time to respond to emails? Were you receptive to constructive feedback on your previous work product?

Slow periods shouldn't necessarily cause paranoia, but make sure that your lighter workload does not signal bigger issues that you are neglecting to address and rectify.

When you receive new work assignments, make sure to perform to your highest ability and that your attitude is impeccable. The best strategy for securing future work assignments is knocking it out of the park on current projects.

And when all that new work does roll in, remind yourself that busy periods are providing you with vital opportunities to develop your craft as an attorney and to contribute meaningfully to your firm. Appreciate the work and give it your all. Good luck to you!

This article was first published by Law360 Pulse on January 11, 2021.
Meela Gill