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There’s at least one partner, sometimes many, in every law firm who has a reputation that sends associates scurrying for cover. Demanding. Exacting. Difficult. When their name pops up on caller ID, it invokes a moment of terror and forces a quick decision, fraught with risk: “Should I answer or send to voicemail?”

However, reputation does not always equal reality. There’s a big difference between having high expectations, on the one hand, and being rude, condescending, and unfair on the other.

Partners with high expectations for associates are typically top performers. They are busy. They have lots of business. They are often on the road. Many are involved in firm and practice group administration. It’s no wonder they’re brusque!

I worked for a difficult partner. He had tons of business, shuttled from city to city, and didn’t accept anything less than excellence. There were plenty of times when I resented what I considered to be his unreasonable demands. Sometimes the demands were objectively unreasonable, even by large law firm standards. Other times I was merely being unreasonable myself.

Almost 20 years, three kids, and lots of life and work experience later, and I get it. There’s no other way he could have managed things. At his level, with that many balls in the air to juggle, he had no choice.

It was hard, but I ultimately earned his respect, and through the experience I came to appreciate that working for a difficult partner who pushes you to get better is one of the best ways to learn valuable new skills, become accountable to yourself and others, and climb the career ladder in a law firm.

It won’t be easy, but if your objective is to advance and make partner at your firm, then you’ll need to hitch your cart to senior allies who wield power. Many who fit this bill are “difficult.”

Dealing with difficult partners is a fact of law firm life, which is all about trade-offs. Want to make partner? There is going to be some pain and suffering along the way, often resulting from working with a difficult partner. By stepping up to the challenge, you can demonstrate that you have what it takes to persevere under difficult circumstances.

Difficulty breeds opportunity: to take ownership; to exhibit leadership; to demonstrate resilience. These qualities are all hallmarks of high-performing lawyers. And you can develop these qualities in yourself, and exhibit them to others, by rising to the challenge of working with and earning the respect of a difficult partner. You will stand out by:

Taking ownership of your work. Ownership is accountability. Be the go-to person to get the job done for the top performers in your firm. They don’t have time for hand-holding, so demonstrate that you understand the big picture and add real value through your work.

Exhibiting leadership. Anyone can be—and should be—a leader. Leadership is reflected in behaviors, not job titles. From day one, the partners in your firm are looking for leaders not followers. Show initiative. Invest in the firm’s future. Be valuable.

Being resilient. Persevere through challenges. Take on the hard assignments. When you make a mistake, own it and fix it. Don’t point fingers.

In short, if you want to make partner, you need to start acting like one. Before the partners in your firm will elect you into their partnership, they need to perceive you as one. You must act “as if” you are the thing you want to become, because our actions follow our identities—not the other way around. One of the best ways to act “as if”—as challenging as it may be—is to work with partners who demand excellence from you.




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