Sometimes, partners push the responsibility of developing business onto associates in order to cover up for shortcomings of the partners. Before I started my own practice, I worked at a firm that was going through tough financial times. Many of the partners and associates in my office had worked on a number of related matters for years, and the work dried up almost immediately due to settlements. Since the partners had dedicated themselves to that one line of work for an extended period, their in-house contacts had grown stale, and the partners had difficulty finding work to keep people busy at the firm. As a result of that huge work shortage, attorneys who were once busy had little to do and were under constant threat of being axed.
While that firm struggled financially, the partners held a meeting with all of the associates about business development. Several of the partners said that each attorney had the potential to develop business, and the firm could no longer rely solely on the work generated by a few senior partners. As a result, management of the firm said that they would hold each associate responsible for developing business, and the firm had a number of follow-up meetings so that every associate could be trained and guided about business development.
It was fine for the partners to provide business development support to associates, but it was unfair for the partners to hold associates responsible for developing business. Many associates could not help but think that partners were deflecting blame for the financial state of the firm onto associates, who were victims to the partners’ inability to generate business.
The partners should have turned their attention inward and devoted their resources and energies to improving their own business development acumen. Not only was it unfair to burden associates, but partners are more capable at developing business than associates due to their experience and contacts in the legal industry. To think that a bunch of associates in their 20s and early 30s would be able to have enough in-house contacts and other connections to originate a significant amount of business at that firm was somewhat ridiculous.
At other points in my career, I worked at firms that decided to hold associates responsible for business development for other, mostly selfish, reasons. As mentioned in a few prior articles, I worked at a few shops that did not provide origination bonuses to associates who brought clients into the firm. Although it might make sense for Biglaw firms to forgo origination bonuses (since they pay associates enough as it is!) most other firms should have such bonuses out of fairness and to incentivize associates to develop professionally.
Firms where I worked that did not have origination bonuses justified that decision by expecting associates to originate business as part of their normal job responsibilities. Those firms said that originating business may factor into discretionary bonuses at the end of the year, but since signing clients is a normal responsibility of associates, there would be no extra bonus.
Such an understanding is extremely flawed, and developing business should not be an ordinary job responsibility of associates. Partners are given more leeway with billing and more resources so that they can develop business. Expecting associates to bill an insane amount of hours and to fulfill other firm obligations — while simultaneously hustling for more business — is very unfair. As a result, associates who sign new clients should be rewarded with origination bonuses.
In the end, associates at many firms are under enormous pressure, since they are forced to bill an ever-increasing number of hours and meet other employer expectations. Partners are best situated to develop business, and associates should simply be tasked with doing the work that partners originate. If firms want to pay associates a bonus for originating business or consider rainmakers for partnership, that’s fine. However, signing clients should not be a normal job responsibility of associates at most firms.