As a young lawyer at a law firm, you have to be focused on billable hours. Your compensation, your annual reviews and your advancement within a firm is dependent, to a large extent, on getting your hours in—the more the better.
Billables are the measuring stick, but they are also a trap. If billables are all you’re focused on as a young lawyer, you won’t be well-positioned when the incentives start to flip.
As lawyers progress in their careers, billable hour requirements don’t necessarily go away, but other units of measurement will enter the mix. The ability to generate client work, for yourself and others, will start to take on greater importance. While most lawyers can buckle down and get their hours in, far fewer are adept at developing business. Typically, a small number of rainmakers within a firm are responsible for an outsized amount of work being generated to keep people busy. It’s the “80/20 Rule” of law firm economics. Because rainmakers are in short supply, they are also in high demand, and the incentives within most law firms reward them accordingly.
If you can develop the skills and attributes required to develop business as an associate, you can set yourself up for great success within a law firm. So why don’t more associates do so? For some, it’s a conscious decision. They have no designs on partnership, and instead are treating their time at a law firm as a springboard to something different.
For others, it’s just a matter of time—that is, they don’t have enough of it. Again, billable hours. But if partnership and the rewards that come with it are something that you desire, then it’s a big mistake to not make honing your entrepreneurial skills a priority from Day One of your career. If you don’t find the time to incrementally improve your business development skills and acumen, as a seventh-year associate you’ll find yourself racing to catch up in a game you can never win. If you’re on the cusp of consideration for partnership, and you haven’t demonstrated an ability—or at least an aptitude—to develop business, then you’ll be frantically thrashing about with no clear direction. The clock has been ticking, and you can never get that time back.
So, what to do instead? Play the long game. Understand that business development is a long-term process that doesn’t happen all at once. Appreciate that consumers of legal services are seeking out experts who have a track record of being engaged in the conversation in particular industries and who bring fresh ideas to the table. Realize that those who are in demand in the legal industry are thought leaders who have earned their reputations over many years.
Once you come to this realization, determine to become a thought leader yourself.
Thought Leaders Stand for Something
Lawyers who are thought leaders are industry experts who freely share their expertise with a broader audience for the purpose of educating, inspiring and adding value in order to help those competing in the industry become more successful.
Thought leaders don’t merely dabble—they are lawyers who fully immerse themselves in industries and understand how legal issues impact business performance. They know who the decision-makers are, what they read, what is keeping them up at night, and where things are headed.
Building a reputation as a thought leader is the best form of legal marketing, because it allows a lawyer to create a credible, authentic relationship with prospects and meet them where they are, which is online, in control, and searching for solutions to the challenges they face. If you are a young associate who aspires to become a thought leader, there’s likely a big gap between who you are (a competent, if not yet expert, practitioner) and who you want to become (a widely known influencer who is at the leading edge of your practice). As with anything in life, there is only one way to bridge that gap: taking one step at a time.
The Steps to Thought Leadership
Most lawyers—like most people—who are looking for a future result want to get there as fast as possible. They set an ambitious goal and try to accomplish it quickly, which typically leads to failure, burnout and frustration.
Because their plans are so audacious, they can’t possibly keep up. They start off on the right track but soon veer off course. A slip-up here and there, and pretty soon they simply give up. By starting early in your career, and sharing your ideas freely, you can develop a thought-leadership habit that keeps you on course. Then, as you progress, and your ideas and expertise reach the point where they meet the bar of market demand, the work you’ve put in will start to pay dividends.
Here’s how it works: Unless and until your expertise can be conveyed and validated through referral or reputation, one of the best and only ways that it can be demonstrated is through thought leadership expressed in the marketplace of ideas. In modern marketing parlance this is known as “content marketing.” Generating and disseminating compelling content builds trust and awareness, and positions the content creator as an expert. It’s a long-game tactic with a focus on relationship building, not the hard sell. But while it’s not the hard sell, content marketing is selling in the sense that it attracts people to you and your message.
Content—whether in the form of writing, audio or video—is like a magnet. It draws people, particularly those searching for solutions online, to you. It’s also like gravity. Once someone becomes aware of you, additional content keeps them in your orbit.
When someone who is in your orbit experiences a problem or has an opportunity related to a topic that you previously opined about, you’ll be high on that person’s list as a lawyer who possesses the requisite experience and expertise to help overcome the problem or seize the opportunity, as the case may be. While your readers, listeners or viewers may not be ready to act immediately, additional thought leadership will keep you on their radar screen, and when the time is right the relationship will shift from one of writer/reader to that of attorney/client.
Putting Ideas Into Action
There are many forms of thought leadership content you can produce, but in my experience coaching and consulting with lawyers, the starting point for developing a thought leadership-habit is writing, because it’s the form of communication that’s firmly in most lawyers’ comfort zones. If you’re interested in creating written thought leadership content, here are six tips to get you started:
1. Shut down the distractions. Disable email notifications, close internet browsers and shut your door. Sit in the chair, put your fingers on the keyboard and prioritize your writing time.
2. Just let it rip. Don’t try to edit as you go. Get words on the page, sleep on it and edit the next day.
3. Set a low bar. If you sit down with the intention of writing 1,000 polished words in two hours, the odds are you’ll walk away from most writing sessions feeling like a failure. Instead, shoot for two crappy pages. Set an easy-to-achieve goal that you’ll frequently exceed, which will keep you coming back for more.
4. Take notes. Write about issues that arise during your workday. Many lawyers agonize over writing topics and blame “writer’s block” for their lack of production. To generate writing ideas, be more mindful throughout the day and take notes as you go. Every interaction you have, every matter you work on, and every article you read contain nuggets of wisdom that you can put your spin on.
5. Get it out there. Don’t be afraid to compete in the marketplace of ideas. You’re smart and have a point of view, so share it. Use the publishing resources your firm makes available. Publish on LinkedIn or Medium. Find a trade publication in need of content. There is huge demand among publishers for good content; it just takes a little effort to find the right fit to reach your audience.
6. Stick with it for at least 30 days. It’s easy to be habitual for a week. It’s more challenging to plow forward for two or three weeks. Once you can get over that hump it gets easier. Hang in there and achieve some success (you will). Content creation will soon become an inviolable part of your routine.
You can do this. Don’t fixate on what you’ve done (or not done) in the past. Have big dreams. But, no, don’t beat yourself up for not being able to achieve them immediately. Your future self—a thought leader with stature and boundless opportunities—will tell you that these things take time, and will thank you for sticking with it despite the challenges. Start now, because eight years will go by faster than you think.
Jay Harrington is an executive coach and trainer for lawyers and law firms, and is the author of the new book, “The Essential Associate: Step Up, Stand Out, and Rise to the Top as a Young Lawyer.” He is the owner of Harrington Communications, and is associated with Simier Partners. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.