Sunday, May 17, 2009

Lawyers and Career Uncertainty

In the last month since I began working for myself I have been contacted by several attorneys to help them with their long term visibility, networking, marketing and business development plans. With the continued slow down in the economy, lawyers are feeling the pressures. Mid-level associates and new partners are especially under pressure to bring in new clients.

With little or no sales training or a history of their firms encouraging them to participate in their community, some feel abandoned in the foreign world of business development.

While I am not exclusively focused on coaching attorneys and speaking at law firms, my experience inside professional services firms (including two Am Law 100 law firms) have lead me to working with many in this profession.

In the last several months thousands of lawyers at firms of all sizes have faced lay-offs, pay reductions and the word of shrinking annual bonuses. Many who had graduated from top schools (with top grades) and landed careers inside prominent law firms mistakenly believed they were forever recession proof if they simply did good work.

Being a good lawyer is not enough, as too many have learned in recent times. Law is a business, and like in millions of other industries, owners of companies are facing tough decisions.

For those lawyers who are nervous about their job security, they cannot afford to just sit on their butts. While it is always best to have dedicated the time to create your personal brand long ago, it is never too late to take the steps to help shore up your eroding job security. While it many not save a position that is already on the chopping block, it can help you prepare for your next opportunity.

Four Ways For Lawyers (and others) to Navigate the Uncertain Economic and Career Climate

1. Have a career game plan. If you do not know what you want from your career, how can you make the tough decisions? Everyday you will encounter choices (large and small) and you can evaluate decisions on if they bring you closer to or farther from your goal. Too many lawyers (and others) just show up for work everyday with the plan to do their "job" without any concern for how they are being perceived by their bosses, co-workers and clients. In these tough economic times you are being watched and evaluated at all times. Just doing good work will not make you stand out from the crowd.

If you do not know where to start, hire a career coach to help you define what you are trying to accomplish in your career. Then develop a personal brand and business development agenda. If you are ever asked by a partner to provide a "biz dev plan" and you look like a deer in the headlights, you are toast. Instead you want to immediately produce your plan (that was put together months earlier) and show how you are executing on the the steps toward accomplishing the goals.

2. Know your numbers. How do you compare to others in your firm in regards to billable hours and client origination. When the partners are making the decisions on who will stay and who will be fired, they will look closely at the numbers. Who is bringing in the most money for the partnership and who has the most potential to do client development in the future.

While other things will factor in, those with the ability to assist the firm in overcoming the finacial crunch are valuable.

3. Communicate inside the firm. Talk to the other associates, partners, and staff members. Treat everyone with respect, and be interested in them at a personal level. If you are aloof and grumpy towards others inside the firm, you could put a target on your back when cuts are being made. No matter how good you are as an attorney, if your co-workers think you are a jerk they will rejoice in finding an excuse to let you go.

4. Network like you career depends on it (because it does). Knowing a lot of people in your business community whom can benefit the firm will make you more valuable to the partnership. A good network will help you make connections that can lead to new business, and will keep you aware of other job opportunities (should the need arise). The thing to remember about networking is that people are not there to ONLY help you. It has to be about mutually beneficial relationships and therefore to be successful you will have to make people a priority. No matter how busy you are, you can find 15 minutes a day to devote to assisting others. Too many lawyers hide behind their hectic schedule to avoid thinking of how to impact others in their network, then they wonder why nobody is helping them. You have to give long before you get.

Have A Great Day.



My Law License said...

Akthough unintended, this part of your post is incorrect: "Many who had graduated from top schools (with top grades) and landed careers inside prominent law firms mistakenly believed they were forever recession proof if they simply did good work."

A BigLaw position is not a career, it is a job, and there is no such animal as "good work" when it comes to a young associate.

Young associates and "junior" (read: no equity, but stick around) partners are gauged by one thing, billable hours. Bill the most, you have done "good work." Client origination - discouraged.

Ask BigLaw associates how many of them have brought in a client and worked on the case from start to finish. As a career solo, after training at the public defenders, office, I can tell you that most are told that their "small fee" client is not welcome. Young lawyers in BigLaw can't land Fortune 500 business. BigLaw is nothing more than a crutch for lawyers, taught to believe there is no other way to practice law.

None of what you suggest will keep a lawyer in BigLaw. Networking? Not on their time.

Your advice is perfect for a lawyer who is looking to be a "lawyer" and not a BigLaw cog.

thomsinger said...


thanks for your comment.

Are you saying that people who work for big law firms have zero ability to influence their job security?

I disagree. I have seen lots of big law associates cultivate a reputation that put them head and shoulders about their peers. It has kept them secure in tough times and put them on a strong path to partnership.

But, they had to know what they were planning and doing. No accidents or waiting. Clear focus and taking action can make an impact.

While it is no guarantee, this advice in big law is better than sitting on your ass looking at your belly button.

Ari Herzog said...

Networking? Not on their time.Brian: Their time or their dime?

If this is true, perhaps one of the problems is attorneys are paid too much which detracts their focus from what Thom thinks they should do.

My Law License said...

Yes Thom, I'm saying that BigLaw "lawyers" have little to no ability to influence their job security beyond the billable hour. Find me one BigLaw who is a great networker but doesn't bill the required hours. BigLaw is about maintaining BigLaw, not the individual lawyers.

And Ari, your point is exactly the issue - BigLaws are paid alot because they are expected to bill alot, not because the firm wants them to succeed individually.

thomsinger said...


I was not saying that this replaces the billable hour. There are Big Law Lawyers who are both meet the numbers, AND have built good referral networks. Then there are those who JUST have the hours. My point is when a choice is made for who stays or who makes partner... the one who has BOTH looks best.

Partners have to bring in business, or they are being shown the door too. Thus, developing the skill to be a "rainmaker" is important if you want to stay in Big Law.

If you don't want to stay, and instead just want to ride the train and get the checks for as long as you can... then you can ignore me.

Leslie M said...

This would be a great area to start a coaching practice.