Denver Bar Association
February 2002
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Do You Know the ‘Secret Rules’?


Fascinating insights from partners, associates.

Everyone has "secret" rules at the office. That’s a rule.

At first you don’t know what they are. Oh, you’re introduced around at the new firm, given forms to fill out, told where the bathrooms and coffeepots are. Then you’re dropped on your head, without the real information.

Like, is it okay to play salsa music on your CD drive? What if you smell like cigar smoke all the time? How casual is casual Friday?

At the DBA office, we’ve actually codified our secret rules, and they include orders from on high that no one may cook fish, popcorn (or "strong smelling substances") in the microwave (an idiosyncrasy belonging to the boss). We can’t show our bellybuttons, and we have to clean up everything all the time. When it’s a co-workers day to maintain the kitchen and the dishwasher is full, clean and not emptied, people start buzzing and you’d better not be the culprit. The worse, perhaps, is signing up to bring food to the staff meeting on Tuesday and walking in empty-handed. You’ll be greeted by hisses and moans of hunger. You then must look stricken, run out to the store and miss the staff meeting, returning quickly to feed the beasts and avoid total humiliation.

We asked some attorneys—juniors and seniors—to tell us some rules in play at their shops.

Here’s advice from a partner at a large firm for associates who may not have been informed: Return calls to colleagues as promptly as you would your clients. Meet deadlines or say why you can’t. Dress nice even on casual days. Don’t visit any Web sites during business hours. Don’t run personal expenses on company credit cards whether you mean to pay it back or not. Dating happens; be discreet. There’s no formal prohibition but a partner dating an associate would be frowned upon. Someone wearing "loud" cologne or perfume will probably be dealt with in a closed-door meeting. But the worst, this attorney said, is to see new associates or summer clerks act like a know-it-all or feel like they have to speak up at every meeting on every subject whether they have any idea about it or not. "I can think of summer clerks who weren’t asked back to meetings because of their professorial pontificating," he added.

At most firms, even though there’s a policy on parental leave, men don’t take it or they’re looked at strangely.

The Docket knows, from a meaningless survey we did last year, that even though a sabbatical policy may exist, nobody takes one unless senior partners take them and actively promote them.

A certain guy who now runs his own firm is still traumatized by an event that happened in his associate days at a big firm. Seems that a morning ritual was serving doughnuts in the coffee room about 9:30 a.m. Unbeknownst to him, a person was only supposed to take one. He took two and was publicly humiliated. How could he not know?

That seems pretty tame compared to the couple who were caught in the library having sex, at another firm, by the managing partner, after hours. (See? Nobody would tell you not to do that.) This lawyer added that he’d heard similar stories with lots of firms.

A big firm partner said a while back he had to send an associate home because she wore jeans on a Friday and he wanted to take her to a meeting. "People can’t tell the difference between business casual and blue jeans. . . . Of course, I have some partners who wear jeans. . . ." He said his attitude might result from jealousy, since he has put on weight and thinks he looks better in slacks and a jacket.

The basic rules of etiquette need to be followed, he added. No popping gum (even if you are trying to quit smoking); no cologne, he added.

If partners are working on the weekends, should associates also be there?

"Two weeks before Christmas, I was in the office both days of a weekend, and didn’t see a single associate," he said. "One thing I’ve noticed is that they (associates) don’t have the same fear we did. In part, it’s the good economy. You get out of school and get a great job; if it doesn’t work out, you get another job. In good times, there’s this attitude of entitlement."

We heard from some associates that they get one message verbally from partners about what they’re supposed to do or not do, and quite another message from what really happens.

From one female associate: "If they say business casual, that means the men get to wear Dockers and plaid but women have to wear suits or skirts, and make-up. If they say we don’t believe in working weekends, that means I (the partner) better not have to work weekends, but I don’t care if you do. If they say we have a fair billable requirement that is easy to meet, that means if you bill only the minimum requirement, you will never get a raise, bonus, or become a partner. When they say we mentor our associates, they mean that an associate is responsible for everything in a file, they expect everything to be done and anticipated by the associate without telling them what to do."

Another cynical associate added these rules he’s been learning:

"Never admit that you made a mistake. If you did, it will be self-evident.

"But, no matter what, the partners don’t want to work with someone who crumbles into an admission at the mere suggestion that there is a problem.

The partners know that they have never made a mistake. (This may be a general lawyer thing.) Of course, it helps if you don’t make mistakes.

"You definitely want to be seen as a full team player. You are available whenever needed (as determined by the partners) and will sacrifice whatever it takes to be seen as a real colleague.

"Don’t ever criticize the team. Whatever is going on, no matter how dysfunctional you think it is, never offer your opinion. Don’t even suggest that there is a problem.

"No matter what anyone says, go out and generate business for yourself. This is particularly true for big firm associates.

"Brown-nosing works. No matter how many times partners ask for your honest opinion, only say positive things about everything. Otherwise, you are a trouble-maker. It is far better to be a sycophant than a trouble-maker. Oh yeah, and don’t ever cause any real trouble."

And from another veteran of the large firm: "Beware the partner who wants to start handling business for your clients—they might not be your clients much longer.

"There is no such thing as job security, or undying loyalty, in the practice of law. You are only as secure as the clients you can take with you."

Editor’s Note: We know this only skims the surface of the real "secret rules". Share yours with us! E-mail: Client/editor privilege observed.

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