Tips for new associates … pass ’em on

Anita Wilson is VP & Chief Employment Counsel at TreeHouse Foods Inc. in Westchester, Ill., where she handles all labor, employment, benefits, ethics and compliance issues.

I am often asked to speak to new associates about how to have a successful legal career – not because my legal career has been so great (which it has been actually thank you), but because I’m just sometimes more willing than others to publicly admit my mistakes and expose my own flaws if doing so will benefit someone else.  My family is from Barbados and I grew up with a plethora of West Indian sayings that my mother has told me to help me through the trials and tribulations of law school, practice and life.  Here are two of my favorite West Indian sayings that I have shared with others that have fared me well during my legal career.

“Eat the meat and spit out the bones.” I was not a star associate. Oh if you ask certain partners NOW — partners who hope to one day perhaps get business from a certain former associate — they will say that I was a brilliant associate — a true Thurgood Marshall with a $50 billion book of business.  Not true.  I was an average associate.  While some lawyers came out of the womb knowing how to file a 12(b) (6) motion,  I had to learn how to think about the law and about legal problems.  I specifically remember one partner who wrote a pretty nasty comment on my performance review.  To this day, I remember that he wrote the comment in pink ink. Why? I don’t know but it (both the pinkness and the statement) certainly made an impression on me.  The criticism was painful and you will never get me to repeat it.  And in my view, it wasn’t true. But I ultimately had to grasp the fact that the perception was true.  I had to take the criticism and think about how I needed to improve, but I couldn’t let the criticism cripple me so much that I began to dislike the partner (who wasn’t the most likeable person in the first place), or dislike the firm, or worse like many associates begin to do, dislike practicing law.  So I had to “eat the meat and spit out the bones.”  In other words, I had to take that part of the criticism that was helpful and leave the rest of it – the nastiness, the embarrassment and the pain of the statement – behind.

Associates who really want to become good attorneys will learn early on in their careers that they have to want, request, take, and “eat” – if you will – criticism and feedback in order to learn and grow as an attorney.

“One day monkey gon’ want wife.” The first time I heard this saying I was driving and almost crashed the car.  “What do you mean ‘one day a monkey is going to want a wife?’” I asked, translating the saying into proper Queen’s English.   I truly loved and continue to love the University Of Illinois College of Law where I received my law degree.  But when I graduated, I was really ready to leave Champaign.  I drove out of town full throttle in a SUV full of stuff yelling “see ya!”  I stupidly thought that I would never see certain classmates or certain professors who had hazed me ever again. Surprise. It’s a small world.  In some way or another, I’ve run into almost everyone from my law school class and more than a few professors in either one of two circumstances:  a) I needed them, or b) they needed me.  I’ve either been the monkey wanting a wife or the wife that the monkey wanted.   The saying means that you need to maintain good relationships with people – with your classmates, your professors, former employers, opposing counsel because inevitably they will need you but, more often than not, you will need them.  I’m not saying that you have to sing “kum bah ya” with everyone. But no one should hear you yelling “see ya!” as you drive away either.

My mother has about a hundred more of those West Indian sayings and I can turn all of them into advice for associates.  What do you tell new associates?

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3 responses to “Tips for new associates … pass ’em on

  1. When I first started at my firm as a lateral associate, one very nice partner told to “hitch my wagon to a couple good horses.” He understood that longevity at the firm is often dependent on who would advocate – and protect – you. I will never forget that advice and it has proven true in various forms over the last 10 years. Great article Ms. Wilson.

  2. This message was on time for me. I have been dealing with what I perceived as unfair criticism from my supervisor, however, as you said, whether true or false, I must work on correcting my manager’s perception.

  3. Anita Wilson

    David, thank you for the kudos. And I agree with the advice you were given. That might be a good idea for the next article – – how do you determine which horse is good for hitching?! When I was at a firm, I had to hitch and then switch!

    And Reg, I am very happy to know that this column was timely for you. Sometimes criticism – – whether warranted or not – – can be very difficult to handle. But it helps to know that everyone gets it at some point, right? Good luck.

    Thanks again for your comments.
    Anita Wilson

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