climbing-stairs
climbing-stairs ()

Large law firms are increasingly handling higher-end work and ceding the lower-end tasks to other providers. While the transition will be wrenching, this is good news for elite firms for a number of reasons. An ever more uncertain and complex world ensures robust demand for that high-end work, individual firms have a greater ability to provide offerings that few alternative providers can match, leading to better price realization and profitability.

The shift in demand to the upper levels of the stack is also good news for the best young lawyers. It means less time paying one’s dues doing document review and due diligence and more time on the more challenging and interesting aspects of client service.

In terms of career development, the implication for young lawyers is that they should eschew the typical advice to develop a singular deep expertise and instead look to combine a legal expertise with a broader skill set. The broader skill set includes things like effective interpersonal and negotiation skills, business understanding and judgment and empathizing with and understanding client’s psychological needs. Achieved in full, that lawyer can meet the unstated, but fundamental, client need: assurance.

What might you do to help develop this breadth earlier and in full? Here are some ideas to consider.

At Law School

Paradoxically, law school is an important time to learn about more than the substance of law. To lay a firm foundation, young lawyers should seize the opportunity to learn about business and interpersonal dynamics.

On business: While studying for your J.D., take courses outside of the law school that focus on business. Strategy and marketing are probably the most useful. If you don’t have a firm grasp of technology, take a survey course that exposes you to database structures, expert systems and artificial intelligence. Technology will be a strong driver of the legal landscape, and it’s important to have enough of an understanding to be able to track developments. Frankly, if you didn’t work between college and law school, you should take a year off and work in a business, any business.

On interpersonal dynamics: Take courses that focus on interactions with people—negotiations, small group dynamics, skills, communications and presentation skills. Focus on courses that require working in groups. This can be exasperating, but it teaches essential collaboration and leadership skills. Serve as a teacher’s assistant or find volunteer opportunities that allow you to advise people. Bottom line: Spend less time at a computer, more time interacting with people.

In Choosing a Firm

Look for a firm with an enlightened view of attorney development. For example, look for firms:

That have moved beyond a one-size-fits-all eight- or nine-year partner track, instead encouraging a broader range of development experiences along the way.

Where people in leadership positions have followed nontraditional career paths. Have they been on secondment with a client, worked in more than one office, or spent time at a government agency?

Whose training programs feature multiple options for breadth development and soft-skills training, such as leading teams of lawyers, communicating effectively with clients, and persuasive skills.

With low leverage—that is, low numbers of nonpartners per partner. Lower leverage creates more opportunities for learning directly from partners and is also an indicator that the mix of work is skewed toward the top end of the client-needs stack.

That can tell you specifics of their development process. What’s the frequency of development reviews, who provides them, and how direct are evaluators? Does the firm ask associates how beneficial the reviews were?

At a Firm

Make time to attend training classes, especially those focused on softer skills. Take review sessions seriously: They’re opportunities to learn, not just a time when you are graded. Consider taking a secondment at a client. There’s no better way to realize what it is clients are, and are not, looking for in their outside counsel. Find a way to work in an overseas office. Use pro bono assignments as a way to be the lead adviser to someone. Ask for feedback, often. Volunteer to be a beta tester for any new technology being deployed.

Despite the changes afoot, the next several decades are going to be a great time to be a lawyer at an elite law firm. A little thought now on where to place the emphasis in your development will pay handsome dividends in the years ahead.