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Jake, a senior associate who hadn’t done anything to deserve to be fired, was going to be eliminated. The call to set aside outplacement counseling time for Jake came from a young woman who handled human resources matters for this respected midsize commercial litigation firm. “What a shame,” she said. “We liked him so much. He is a very nice person, and he’s smart and hard-working.” “If he’s so terrific, why is he using outplacement?” I asked. “Oh, well, he lost the partner who gave him most of his work, and he wasn’t able to find another one in time to support him for partnership. He’s a seventh-year, you understand.” “A lost partner?” I queried. “Oh, you know, the partner left for another firm and took all his business with him.” Meeting Jake confirmed the glowing report from the HR lady. He was smart, energetic, nice, and savvy, too. What could have happened to set the wheels in motion for his demise at this firm? “I feel like I was the target of a mob hit,” he told me during our first session. “I guess I saw it coming, but too late. I didn’t do enough to reposition myself quickly.” He was right about that. He needed to cultivate an influential partner the moment he learned about the loss of the partner who had protected him and promoted him at the firm. For that, he was blacklisted by the powerful partners who felt no ties of loyalty to him. “These days,” I thought, “every new associate needs a straight-talking fairy godmother — or godfather (more like it) — to educate him or her in the unspoken ways of the brotherhood.” There are many hidden dangers on the road to partnership. The culture of a particular firm, the strength or weakness of the economy, your practice area, the personalities in your practice group, and a number of other factors are part of a sometimes surprising equation that adds up to success for certain lawyers and difficulties for others on the road to partnership. As a general rule, firms are not intentionally vindictive, vicious, or cruel to their associates. These days, much of the trouble experienced by associates stems from a simple desire for self-preservation on the part of partners who are under a lot of stress in a heated-up, competitive, uncertain work world. It is also true that partners who are used to a six-figure income are not about to metamorphose into Mother Teresa and share their hard- earned bucks with needy associates. Partners are just human beings who are usually trying to do the best they can for the firm and for themselves. They may not always give priority to the best interests of their associates. That’s why a young lawyer might benefit from the advice of a “godfather partner” to reveal the secrets of how to succeed — and avoid the career equivalent of a long walk off a short pier. What cold, hard, unlovely truths would your straight-talking godfather tell you about the ways of the “family” you have joined? Here are five scenarios you ought to anticipate that your real-life partner will never warn you about. • Don’t Bother to Bring in New Business “Sure, I tell you I want you to get new clients — we all say that — but the truth is you gotta help me take care of my clients. So I might not want you to spend your precious time running around doing unbillable things so you can become a player like me. Let’s just say I might be ambivalent, OK? You’re my key to success in this dog-eat-dog world. See, I need your billable hours. Yeah, I know your career may be a lot less secure if you don’t learn to bring in business and have time to develop clients. Cry me a river. You’re clocking billables for me now, junior. Of course, if you wanna be a player yourself someday, you’ll figure out that clients are power and you’ll do whatever it takes to get them. You’ll write articles, get busy in the bar association, speak about some special area you got covered better than the next guy. Look, it’s not that I don’t want you to succeed, it’s that I gotta look out for No. 1.” • You Just Joined a Law Firm That’s Managed Like Enron “Hey, kid, I shouldn’t be telling you this, but this place is being run by a bunch of greedy guys who are out to get big bucks for themselves. They don’t care if they suck the lifeblood outta this firm in the process. Those in the know here have figured out that we’ve gotta get out to survive. Don’t tell anyone, but a bunch of us are looking for a new family, if you get my drift. If you ask me, you shoulda asked around before you came here. Sometimes you can find out a lot about the reputation of an outfit before you go to work there. As a matter of fact, you should make it your business to talk to people who used to work at the place, to get the dirt. Look, no family is perfect, but some of them stink. Some people got a lot to tell you, kid — only you gotta ask.” • You Work for a Partner Who Is Going Down “Let’s face it, I’m a lousy rainmaker these days. The economy is a roller coaster, my clients are all breathing down my neck and threatening to find a better deal, and my divorce is unhinging me. I can’t take the pressure. I gotta hoard as many billable hours for myself as I can. When it comes time for your review, I’ll have to say you’re not working out too good. You didn’t hear this from me, but I need a fall guy. I gotta keep up appearances or I’ll be outta here myself. So pack your bags, kiddo. Better you than me. You’re young, find yourself a partner with a practice area that’s going gangbusters, who will introduce you to his clients and show you how it’s done. “You say it’s not fair? You got assigned to me? That’s right, but you might have finessed a move. You might need to change law firms to get what you need. That’s OK so long as you explain that move to your next boss and keep that job for a long time. Look around and see how the survivors do it. Next time, hitch your wagon to a star. Yeah, and look for practice areas that not only have potential for the future but that really float your boat.” • Everyone’s Too Chicken to Tell You “Listen up, kid, you need to improve your game. Your turnaround time is too slow. You’re not kissing up to the right people. Remember the time Tony asked you to do a memo over the weekend and you said sorry, you had plans? That wasn’t too smart. You’re gonna be sleeping with the fishes if you don’t get with it. Yeah, I know your reviews are good. But they aren’t good enough to save you if you’re ticking off certain people. The truth is, no one wants to point out your faults or tell you how this place really works. “Don’t ask me why it’s such a big secret around here how the associates are really doing. All I know is that most guys don’t like to give people bad news. They’d rather tell you everything is great and then put you on the hit list. Let someone else do the dirty work. You want to know what to do? You gotta go to the partners you trust and tell them you want the truth about your work and how you’re doing and ask what you could improve. And the secretaries you trust — take them to lunch. Find out the buzz, especially the buzz about you. It’s not always easy to figure out the truth about how the boys see you. So be thankful if someone tells it to you straight — before it’s too late. Maybe you can get your game going better and eventually end up at the top of the heap instead of at the bottom. Good luck, kid.” • Your Practice Area Is Dying “Practice areas rise and fall and, guess what, we’re in one that’s going down for the count. It might rise again someday, but I’m not sure when. You know, I’d try to help you make partner here, but I haven’t got the clout because I haven’t got the receivables. If you’re not a player in this outfit, you’re out of luck. But at least you’ve got a chance to make a clean break. You can reinvent yourself in some other practice area. Maybe you’ll have to change firms or go back to school, but at least you can make it out alive. Me, I’m a goner. It’s just a matter of time before the big boys come to fit me for the concrete shoes. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.” Sheila Nielsen is a nationally recognized career counselor specializing in attorneys. A lawyer and a social worker by training, she counsels lawyers on a wide variety of issues, including changing jobs or careers. Her business, Nielsen Consulting Service, is located in Chicago. She can be reached at (312) 616-4416. Clients discussed in this column are composites, and all names have been changed.

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