I can vividly recall the admonition given to us in first grade by our nuns: “Your actions have consequences and there will be a permanent record that will reflect that and follow you through life.” As seemingly every misconduct sanction, recognition, and grade were discussed with them at year-end, I certainly took that warning quite literally in those early years. Perhaps because the precept was so deeply instilled, many in my generation also assumed that something akin to this “permanent record” followed us throughout our lives, including in the business world that we eventually inhabited.
Imagine how shocked some friends and I were, upon returning to that beloved grade school many decades later, to learn that there was no record whatsoever of our eight years there. On the one hand, it was cathartic to learn that all our various misdeeds had been wiped clean from the great scoreboard in the sky, but gone, too, were all those things we had worked extra hard to achieve — whether it had been an academic honor, awards for tutoring students who needed help, or even our treasured football trophy that had unceremoniously been tossed in the trash, too, as part of the record cleansing that eradicated all tangible signs of our time at the school.
I did not mourn later that night, and perhaps just a bit of hyperbole has infiltrated my recitation of the impact here, but, the reality is that this discovery truly was eye opening, as the specter of the “permanent record” has been a driving force throughout my career (and that of many others I know). To wit, I can remember how much I was looking forward to a Friday night dinner with my wife earlier in my career. We had been married for less than one year, had both been working extraordinarily hard, with nary a day of vacation, and were excited by the prospect of meeting some friends at a new, much heralded restaurant. Just as I was ready to depart our firm that night, I was nabbed by a key partner, who implored me to handle a breaking matter for his client that “absolutely” needed my immediate attention — and not that of any of the other hundreds of lawyers in our firm.
Of course, mindful of the good will this would engender — and with that permanent record hovering in the background, so I thought — I canceled my participation at dinner, stayed until midnight, and completed the assignment. The “key partner” did not retain that status much longer, as he left our firm for a competitor just a few months later and I never crossed paths with him again. During the evaluation process, there was no record of that Friday night assist, as the partner was gone and had not submitted any performance reviews before his departure. What did live on was the discussion among our friends, for years afterwards, of the tremendous time enjoyed by them at the dinner that night that we had missed.
In a similar vein, and to illustrate that this phenomenon is not limited to law firms, I, as a first time general counsel, along with another member of the senior management team, knew that our company needed an injection of life and enthusiasm, as morale was lagging. As our cafeteria was the place where employees could be found at various points of the day, we formed a team, and, over the course of two weekends, re-painted and freshened the space, baked untold dozens of cookies, and had a “re-christening celebration” that was a big hit.
Unbeknownst to us, the primary holders of the stock of our company were finalizing plans to put our company up for sale, which happened just a few weeks later. The rejuvenation of our work force was thus short-lived, as it was replaced by understandable fear about their futures, which unfortunately materialized as corporate synergies realized in the eventual sale eliminated many positions. Even our work in the cafeteria was for naught, as the acquirer sold the building shortly after the close of the deal.
The self congratulatory aspect of these stories is not intended, as there surely are countless readers of this piece who worked much longer hours and made many more significant sacrifices throughout their careers. The cynicism that may also be somewhat apparent is unfortunate, as all of us surely have made similar efforts that were well received, had long-lived and important positive impacts, and quite simply, were the “right thing to do.”
The key point, which one tends to understand better as the years pile up, is that there is a line, which admittedly shifts at times, between doing what is expected as a professional and going well beyond. If one makes it a habit to cross that line into the latter category too often, it frequently has negative personal consequences that far outweigh any assumed benefits that may be accruing in that permanent record that we think is being maintained.
Although studies differ somewhat on how many jobs someone — including professionals — entering the work force today may have, the consensus is that the average person will have between seven and ten different employers during his career. Assuming that one works for 40 years, this roughly equates to moving to a new company or firm every five years, which is a marked departure from the old “IBM paradigm” of joining one institution and staying there throughout one’s career.
This has implications even for those lucky few who defy the odds, find that perfect firm out of school, and only leave when retirement beckons decades later. For these lawyers, who are quite a rare breed, they are likely to see much more turnover at the top — some of which will be caused by retirements over the years, but much of which will result from the rise of greater numbers of laterals who may ascend into the leadership ranks during their tenure.
In light of this, the institutional history that tracks one’s contributions (via that good ‘ol permanent record) is much different today and will be even less influential in future years. For the average person, the history in any single firm is likely to be short and, for the most part, will not follow him to an appreciable degree. For those one-firm lawyers, there will be a much lower percentage of people who will be with them throughout the balance of their career. Accordingly, many of those sacrifices that went well beyond the pale will not inure as profoundly to the person’s long-term benefit, especially when compared to deeper institutional memories that existed in firms in past generations.
So, what am I suggesting — doing the bare minimum, adopting a “what’s in it for me?” persona, and positioning oneself much like a professional athlete who is on the verge of free agency? Of course not, as being a true professional entails working quite hard and doing so for others in your organization is important, especially in good organizations that will reciprocate with support when you need it. Lawyers, who are well paid and are bound by ethical codes that mandate zealous representation, surely should not and cannot adopt such a me-first persona. The relationships you build, which often are forged by selfless acts, will follow you throughout your career and will remain vital.
What I am urging, especially for lawyers who have many years ahead of them, is to be mindful of that dividing line between doing what is necessary, and important, for your firm and clients and protecting yourself. When that moment arises when you are asked to chair a department, head a committee, or lead a new project, step back and think about it before reflexively saying yes. Are you being asked because no one else will do it or are your particular skills truly needed (and vital to the firm)? What will this mean to your practice — will it forestall or lessen business development efforts and, if so, what will that mean for your firm and you in the short and long term?
These are not academic questions. As I now enter my second decade of recruiting, the number of former rainmakers and general counsel I have seen who have been burned by blindly adopting a company-first mentality throughout their careers, and have little to show for it today, is rising. As to partners, it is hardly a revelation that law firms have succumbed, to varying degrees, to the “what have you done for me lately?” phenomenon.
Rainmakers are much more vulnerable than in years past, as the legal pie has been shrinking and clients are much more likely to switch counsel or even vanish, especially in these perilous economic times. As such, even in the most benign firms, a rainmaker whose practice is declining may be carried for a few years, but his compensation, and tenure, are much more likely to be impacted today than in past eras. If such a development were to transpire, how important will it be that the partner had devoted a big block of time years ago to resuscitating the hiring committee? Who will be around to remember that contribution, and, even if it is recalled, how heavily will it be weighed if the metrics on the partner’s sheet are declining?
Similarly, in-house counsel have to be mindful of the bigger picture. There is an understandable desire to throw all or most of one’s energies behind the initiatives driven by a company’s existing leadership team. After all, this is required, and important, as the work of a company needs to be done and senior management has a huge impact on one’s job tenure.
Nevertheless, as CEOs now come and go at greater rates than ever before, one has to find time to develop relationships at multiple levels in a company, as future leaders very well may be plucked from those middle ranks. Additionally, as companies may be acquired or merged out of existence, you can best protect yourself for the long run by developing broader relationships in your industry and with your outside counsel, as they may be crucial to your efforts to find another job if that should be necessary.
This is a difficult article to write, as I also have played team sports since my adolescent years. The bonds that were formed, and the lessons that were learned, such as putting the team first and reveling in the support enjoyed among us, remain core principles today. Nevertheless, as I, and I trust others who read this, are not earning livings by playing sports, but are doing so in the legal world, things are a bit different from the days of eschewing glory by passing up an open jumper so that a teammate can make an easy layup to win a game. Most of us now toil in a world in which personal production matters and has far greater consequences than it ever has.
Reconciling these competing interests is a challenge. Even if there is no permanent record that follows us today, helping others, doing no harm, and adopting a strong moral code are likely to count in an afterlife or will at least generate positive karma during this lifetime. We thus have to be mindful of that as we traverse the shifting lines between protecting our organizations and ourselves — and those who rely on us. •
Frank Michael D’Amore is the founder of Attorney Career Catalysts, a ennsylvania-based legal recruiting, consulting and training firm.