International Society of Primerus Law Firms

Words to the Wise—Advice from Duncan Manley

Duncan Manley, Esq.

Christian & Small LLP

Birmingham, Alabama

This is the first of a series of interviews with successful senior lawyers at various Primerus member firms offering advice to young lawyers on how to succeed and thrive.

What’s the best advice you could offer associates as to how to work with partners in the firm?

  • Rarely say no, and then only for a very good reason.  When you must say no, ask the partner for a rain check.
  • Be reliable!  Do what you say you are going to do, by the time you said you would do it.  Meet deadlines.
  • Strive to be the “go-to” associate.  Be the person who partners want to seek out.
  • Your work product must be impeccable.  No typos, no spelling errors, no formatting mistakes.  One of our partners recently told me how much she enjoyed working with a certain associate who had written a motion that could be sent out without a single change.  This is what partners want.  If I receive a document with errors—that hasn’t been proofread—I take it as a reflection on the work ethic of the lawyer.
  • Exhibit enthusiasm for your work and your career.  Don’t complain—especially not to other associates who aren’t in a position to address your concerns.  If you have an issue, take it up with a partner directly.
  • Ask to “shadow” a partner—accompany him or her to meetings, to court.  Clients don’t want to pay for double teaming, so you may have to work nights and weekends to stay on track to meet your billable goals, but the non-billable “shadowing” will allow you to gain invaluable insights and experience.  Invest in your own career.
  • Volunteer for work and projects; don’t wait to be asked.
  • Follow these four rules—always:
    1. Do what you say you are going to do.
    2. Finish what you start.
    3. Be on time and meet deadlines.
    4. Say please and thank you.
  • Consider the opposite of the above four rules and you’ll see why they are so important to follow.

What makes a star a star at your firm?

  • Excellent legal work!
  • Impress clients—when we receive a letter or note or call from a client mentioning they were pleased with an associate’s results or service, we circulate it within the firm.
  • Exceed your billable hour goals or other production goals every year.
  • Be interested and active with regard to marketing and business development.  Client development and business development are keys to success.
  • Join organizations and be active—take a leadership role.
  • Stay in touch with classmates—connect and network.
  • Become knowledgeable in an area of law and share your knowledge by speaking and/or writing—become recognized as an authority.
  • Develop excellent communication skills.  Learn to express yourself articulately, whether on paper, in conversations, or in presentations.  Read books, attend seminars, take a Dale Carnegie course, join Toastmasters—do what it takes to become adept and at ease.

What’s the kiss of death—in terms of associate behavior—in your opinion?

  • Unethical conduct—this goes without saying.
  • Bad conduct or behavior, whether inside or out of the courtroom.
  • Lying, deceitful behavior, or being untrustworthy—once you develop a reputation for these things, you’re done in our industry.
  • Failure to follow firm rules and administrative procedures can be damaging as well.

How have you developed business over time? 

  • Be interested in developing business and in marketing.  In every law firm, there are people who are good at it and people who aren’t.  The successful lawyers are those who want to do it.  Unsuccessful lawyers tend to be shy or uninterested—uninterested in others and uninterested in developing their marketing skills.
  • Marketing is nothing more than meeting people.  Meet them and care about them.  Develop a relationship over time—stay in touch.  Inspire confidence that you will do a good job.
  • Seek new business and develop new relationships AND take great care of the clients you have.  You must do both.

Duncan Manley is the Chair Emeritus of the Defense Institute of Primerus.  He served as the Institute Chair from 2004 to 2007.  He is a partner at Christian & Small, a leading Alabama law firm.  Duncan has more than 40 years of trial experience and is a graduate of the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee.  After active duty as a U.S. Naval Officer, he received his J.D. degree from Vanderbilt University School of Law.

For more information about Mr. Manley, please visit or the International Society of Primerus Law Firms.

The general information contained herein is intended for informational purposes only. It is not intended to be, and should not be construed as, legal advice or legal opinion on any specific facts or circumstances.

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