Stuart Clements article, “Key Lessons for Associate Success From a Piano Teacher,” in Texas Lawyer
Reprinted with permission from the April 19, 2023, edition of Texas Lawyer © 2023 ALM Media Properties, LLC. All rights reserved. Further duplication without permission is prohibited, contact 877-257-3382 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Practicing the Fundamentals Leads to Increased Success
Earlier this year, I attended the funeral of my high school piano teacher. Mrs. Gunning, as her students called her, was a masterful teacher, pianist and organist. In addition to running a private studio, she taught at the university level, served as a keyboardist for the New Mexico Symphony Orchestra, was the accompanist for the New Mexico Symphony Chorus and was the organist for the church I attended through high school. Mrs. Gunning and I continued our friendship after high school until her death at age 79. As such, I was one of a handful of former students who had the pleasure of calling her Maribeth.
When I began studying piano under Maribeth, I was already a rather accomplished pianist for my age; at 14 years old, I probably had a big chip on my shoulder. At the time, Maribeth seemed overly fastidious and unyielding. She insisted on all students dedicating 30 minutes of each weekly lesson to studying music theory — practicing melody, rhythm, counterpoint, harmony, tonal systems, history, scales, tuning, consonance, dissonance — what one might refer to as musical book learning.
In reminiscing on our relationship over the weekend when Maribeth’s family scheduled her funeral, it occurred to me that these requirements, which I thought were beneath me at the time, were essential to my growth as a musician. Maribeth was a visionary in that she saw potential in people and insisted on cultivating her students to realize that potential.
Studying musical book learning built the foundation that allowed me to thrive as a musician, but these were also lessons that I carried into my life generally. I began thinking about what fundamental building blocks are important in professional success as an associate.
Believe in Yourself
This is critical. I had two careers before becoming an attorney, and some days I still get a bit of imposter syndrome. Lawyering is an overwhelming career, and it takes a while to get your sea legs. You need to remember that you are good enough. You did the work in law school, got the grades and passed the bar. You wouldn’t be where you are if you hadn’t done the work.
There was no room in Maribeth’s studio for doubt, and there is little room in the legal practice for it either. Be confident in your abilities, but don’t forget the details, because they are important.
Trust, But Verify
As an associate begins building professional contacts, thinking on your feet is an expected skill to master. When clients or referrals start slinging questions, it can be hard to keep up. As your breadth of knowledge increases, you will feel comfortable answering some questions on the spot, but if you are not comfortable or just don’t know the answer, remember the phrase: “I have some thoughts about that, but let me look into it and get back with you.” Clients and referrals ultimately will appreciate the correct answer more than your ability to respond in the moment.
Another instance where you need to trust but verify is when you begin reviewing colleagues’ work. Be intentional. The colleague is asking because they value your opinion and want your honest feedback. Don’t neglect to review citations and check any details you think might be off. These are important, and you will better serve your colleague and the client with substantive and constructive feedback.
Record Your Time
Record your time every day — even multiple times per day. An often-recited quote (but never cited) statistic from management is that those who record their time daily capture 10-30% more billable time than those who wait. Again, I have no source for this, but it is easily provable. Whether you track your time through timekeeping software the firm provides or write it on a bar napkin to be entered later, make sure you record it contemporaneously and get it into the system every day. When you’re an associate, billable hours are your bread and butter; you do right by yourself, your clients, and your firm to record every bit of hours worked.
At least one shareholder in our office will use the phrase, “Work finds the good associate.” A good associate doesn’t need to be the sharpest tool in the shed, but they do need to be an associate who pays better-than-average attention to detail and completes tasks on or ahead of schedule. As such, be mindful of time management. If you have six projects on your desk already with deadlines (not to mention family and social commitments), you need to be honest with the requesting superior about when you can complete new projects. We all struggle with this because we are trying to impress. That said, if you commit to something you cannot possibly complete … that won’t be impressive.
Communication is key. Whether you received an email or voicemail from a client, or you have a task owed to a superior that you cannot get done in time, reach out sooner than later to inform the requesting person of your schedule. Managing expectations is critical, and it is better to under-promise and over-deliver than vice versa. But you need to be responsive.
Respect Your Staff
I have heard far too many complaints through my tenure from staff members complaining about other attorneys being rude or talking down to staff members. Remember, these people are here to help you, not serve you. If you include staff members as part of your team, you will get what you give. We are all people and need to be treated with respect.
I cannot promise success following these fundamentals, but if Maribeth taught me anything, it is that perseverance and attention to details set you on a path to success. That’s served me well throughout the years. The “musical book” theory that laid the foundation for my formative years has carried over into to my personal and professional career.
Stuart H. Clements is a senior associate at Chamberlain Hrdlicka’s Houston office, where he advises both individual and institutional clients in federal, state and international tax planning and controversy matters, including income, employment and excise tax considerations.