Dear managing partner: The view from an associate’s desk

By Lynae Tucker


“A good lawyer knows the law; a clever one takes the judge to lunch.” 

— Mark Twain

I became a lawyer because I didn’t want to be another millennial living in my parents’ basement. When I graduated with my bachelor’s degree, journalism was thought to be a dying art and my journalism degree wasn’t going to help me pay off my private school student debt. 

My experience in private practice began September 4, 2019. Since then I have seen children lose their siblings, attorneys fail to know the nuances of the applicable law, parents triumph over their addictions, and courts decide the fate of the families. I wasn’t sitting second chair observing a partner with the knowledge and skill-set to prepare me for these realities. I was the attorney. Professional ups and downs experienced while representing heartbroken parents were a reality of my first court-appointed contract.

Looking to the end of my law school career, I applied for nearly 20 clerkships, most of which did not want me. Trial team and law review were not on my resume. My first clerkship interview required me to travel to Hawaii. After my arrival, the judge told me his sole interest in me was curiosity. He wanted to know what a girl from South Dakota wanted from a clerkship in a state so far from home. I did not know how to tell him I would clerk anywhere that would see me as an asset rather than a law review reject. 

The other side of the bench

One chief judge saw my potential. I became a judicial law clerk for five judges across 11 counties. The chief judge helped shape my expectations of the legal profession and encompassed what I wanted from a mentor. He taught me about courtroom decorum, forming legal arguments, and buying a house. Thanks to him, I now know, rural Iowa has a yacht club.

Every judge who hires a law clerk bears the cross of direct impact on the quality of the legal profession. Law clerks go on to be ideal law firm hires. Their skills set them apart from those colleagues who have only been in front of the bench. They have been behind it. The person a judge hires will see the good, the bad, and the ugly of legal practice. Law clerks mimic what they know and what they see. If informality and bare bones filings are commonly accepted, the law clerk and soon-to-be new lawyer is shoved down an embankment of low expectations, lack of knowledge, and unprofessional informality. 

Thankfully, my clerkship experience taught me high expectations of practice. I learned how to choose my weapon—pen or speech. When both are ripe for application, timing is key. The expectations of a judge directly model the quality of advocacy in the room, whether it’s in chambers or a courtroom. Stiff black suits and a level demeanor at counsel table are not just formalities; sometimes they are the only thing that persuades clients to trust their lawyer. 

In my year as a law clerk, strong legal arguments often crossed my desk. I wrote rulings addressing multiple issues of constitutional law. The chief judge corrected me when I was wrong. He encouraged me when I was right. This law review reject left her post having written over 500 pages in one year.

Moving on

It was not long until the sun set on my days as a law clerk. An “outstate” firm found me. At the advice of the judge who mentored me, and with the support of the partners at my small firm, I took a county contract as a parents’ attorney. 

On my first day of practice, I had six open files and a high number of court dates. During my first week of practice, I was in court on two matters. In the first month, I appeared in court two days a week.

Clerking taught me two things: (1) attorneys must respond to the unpredictable, and (2) attorneys should not be afraid of the courtroom.

Child protection law is an area characterized by unpredictability and instability. The platform on which these parents stand moves like tectonic plates under the earth’s crust. Case law, statutes, administrative rules, and bench books intersect with chemical dependency, poverty, mental illness, illiteracy, and heartbreak, causing earth-shattering results. Each day in court there is a surprise.

One thing my clerkship did not teach me was how to utilize staff, manage phone calls, and console clients all while learning a complex, always changing area of the law. Court-appointed work was baptism by fire, and it worked.

Just as a judge paints the landscape of decorum, a law firm partner sculpts zealous advocacy and workplace competency. The ideal associateship straddles the fine line between dependency and autonomy.

Some advice for not-new lawyers

If I could write a letter to managing partners across Minnesota, it would begin:

Dear Managing Partner, 

If you hire me, you will set the standard of what I expect from my profession. How you prepare a case, what cases you let me work on, whether you look at the rules or rely on your memory. I am taking note. I will practice like you. Would you retain you?

I asked a few other local associate attorneys to offer their two cents as well. 

Samantha Berglin, a public defender in Clay County, found her passion for public defense prior to attending law school and attributes her passion in part to the mentorship she has received from the chief public defender and the intern supervisor in her office. 

“Supervisors have to try to get to know the people they interview or hire and avoid ‘cookie cutter’ interview questions,” Berglin notes. “Ask questions like ‘who is your hero and why?’, or ‘what motivates you or what do you do when you are not at work?’” According to Berglin, the happiness of a new lawyer—and the employer’s best chance of retaining them—comes from a supervisor who shows they are interested in the new lawyer first, and in filling office space second. 

Kelsey Knoer is an associate at Boyce Law Firm. Prior to going into private practice, she clerked for the United States District Court in South Dakota, and worked for the United States Department of Defense, Office of General Council in Arlington, Virginia as a legal extern. Asked what advice she would give law firms about hiring associates, she states, “Don’t just tell me what to do. Tell me why you do it.”

Knoer suggests that partners redline the changes they make before walking a new associate through each change with an explanation. “Don’t just change them and ship the documents off,” said Knoer. “Explain ‘is it about style or is it about what you think the judge or the client will like?’ 

“So many upper-level attorneys take the decisions they make for granted,” she goes on, “because they’ve been making them for so long. But unless I know why they’re making a decision, I will never know when to make that decision again.”

Abbie Olson, an attorney at the Maschka, Riedy, Ries and Frentz law firm, says, “Hiring managers should take into consideration that many new associates do not have networking or marketing experience and may have issues adhering to the old standards.” The old standards include things such as being expected to attend a firm- or bar association-sponsored happy hour or events that happen after hours or on weekends. 

“It was always very difficult for me to attend happy hour or evening events,” she notes, “because it meant I had to find and then pay for a babysitter. I think firms could do a better job of supporting associates in identifying individual marketing and networking possibilities that will work for them. Especially for those of us practicing outstate.” 

Lynae Tucker is an associate attorney at Costello, Carlson, Butzon & Schmit, LLP in Jackson, Minnesota. She practices estate planning, real estate, elder law and civil litigation.