Understandably, most lawyers tie their professional identities to their employers. For example, a lawyer not only introduces himself as Joe Attorney, a partner with XYZ firm, but also has created a similar internal persona that defines him. While this is admirable, especially with respect to promoting your firm or company, it is important to remember that, if you cut through everything, you are a one-person enterprise. Regardless of whether it is ultimately defensible, you could be fired tomorrow, no matter who you are. Similarly, your law firm, even if it has been around for decades, could be gone quickly — as we have seen happen in recent years — or your company could be sold or merged out of existence.
If any of those scenarios unfolded, what fate would befall you? If you were thrust into the lateral or employment market, how likely is it that you would be hired? If you were the decision maker, and had to make an objective evaluation, would you hire yourself?
These questions came to mind when a partner candidate was excessively grilled by a service partner in the hiring law firm. Although the candidate had a good, solid and growing book of business, the partner took him to task for not having portables that exceeded $2 million. This was an interesting critique, since, as I later learned, the service partner had never broken the $1 million mark in his long career, and, as several related, would have no chance of being hired today if he were looked at anew by his firm.
So, let’s assume that there is a development that tosses you into the vortex of a new job search. Are you ready? And, if not, why not? You likely may have a family or others who financially depend on you, along with clients who heavily rely on you, so why aren’t you prepared to take care of them? Hopefully this column serves as a wake-up call, so that you are better prepared for exigent circumstances. The suggestions should also be of general value throughout your career.
A key first step and, again, one that you should do periodically anyway, is to conduct a self-assessment of your strengths and weaknesses. There are different schools of thought as to whether it’s better to build on strengths or to focus on shoring up weaknesses. Personally, I think there is great value in emphasizing your top two or three strengths and bolstering your biggest weakness. No matter where you come out on this issue, it is vital that you perform a critical appraisal. In so doing, don’t just brush off reviews you have had (including, partners or general counsel, those 360-degree reviews you have received); rather, be introspective and consider how meritorious the comments are. Similarly, take client feedback to heart and, if you haven’t received any, seek it. The more that you are brutally honest with yourself, the more likely it is that you will be able to effect important changes, if necessary.
With respect to more micro-level suggestions, I will separately tailor these to law firm partners, associates and in-house counsel. There are fundamental concepts that apply to each category, but I will attempt to focus on the discrete ones that are more common in each sector.
As to partners, do you know your performance metrics — such as hours, originations, working attorney receipts, realization, etc. — for the past three years? If not, you should, and you need to keep track of these. How impressive are these numbers? You surely should have a sense of what your firm looks for in this respect from laterals. Do you meet those expectations? If the answer is “no,” this vaults to the top of your list of to-do items, as, without better numbers, you likely will be, or are today, in a vulnerable position. I am cognizant that you cannot push a button to make this happen, but creating a sensible plan and working hard to execute it should accelerate your progression.
We all know how important it is to stay close to your clients, but, being very busy, having competing obligations and other aspects of the human condition can sometimes make this a challenge. Do your best not to let that happen and, if you haven’t seen your clients recently, especially your most significant ones, see them. The competition for work is fierce, and, no matter how much you think you are loved, there are numerous other lawyers working hard to dislodge your work. You need to be in front of your clients and have to maintain a close relationship, especially if you expect those clients to move with you on quick notice.
Most partners who are in the market are expected to either have a written business plan or have one in mind that can cogently be explained in an interview. Are you ready? Even if you have a document that it is submitted to a department head each year, how incisive is it? Is this just a pro forma document that checks the box of a requirement that you view as being annoying? The elements that form the basis of this document are at the core of your livelihood and thus need your attention, as they will be carefully vetted by another firm in an interview.
If you are a partner with a good practice, you should have a team in place that is likely to follow you if you were to move. Would they? Subject to the ethical rules, a prospective law firm is going to want to know just how cohesive your team is and whether you will be able to keep it intact. In this regard, then, much like your relations with clients, don’t take things for granted. Make time to thank the lawyer on your team who has been doing a good job or get that lunch or dinner scheduled to strengthen the rapport with an attorney who is important to you but needs more attention.
If you are a service partner, do not kid yourself that your brilliance as a lawyer will carry the day on the open market. There may be exceptions, of course, if you happen to have a highly coveted skill in a niche area, for example, but, as a general rule, a transition on your own would be difficult. As such, your relationship with the key rainmakers in your group needs to be airtight and solid. In fact, your goal, if you want to ensure long-term protection, is to make yourself indispensable to those rainmakers, your group and the clients for which you work.
Finally, an area that many partners surprisingly neglect is keeping track of their own accomplishments. The blur of daily practice often leads some partners to not update their Web bios or CVs to include these achievements. I have often found that these partners simply don’t recall many of their successes, even though they may have significant value from a marketing perspective. Similarly, if you are mentioned in articles or otherwise receive favorable publicity, keep copies. One should not assume, even in our seemingly Googleized world, that a quick search will produce these mentions, as some will escape search engine attention and others may have had their rights gobbled up by media companies that will block access or charge you dearly for them years later.
As the layoffs that were triggered by the recession of 2008 so vividly and painfully illustrated, associates should not take anything for granted, even if they were at the top of their class and were on law review. One can no longer assume that capably completing assignments and billing many hours will be good enough protection if the economy worsens again or a firm goes under. Moreover, even in the best of times, the window of protection for an associate has shortened and will come to a close at some point. Some important safeguards must thus be taken.
While becoming an outstanding lawyer should be an associate’s overriding objective, especially in his early years, this, by itself, is not a fail-safe prophylactic. Even as a junior-level associate, it is essential to keep in touch with law school and college contacts, so that the framework of a network can be established. This will be buttressed by many new professional and civic contacts and will serve as a crucial support system throughout a career, but especially so at times of transition.
Very few, if any, firms expect junior or midlevel associates to bring in business. Nevertheless, beginning to not only think about that fundamental aspect of private practice, but actually laying the groundwork, is important. There are many ways to approach this, but writing and speaking remain key cornerstones. The more that you do this, or at least are preparing for it, the better you will be positioned if you have to enter a competitive market, especially if that were to happen unexpectedly.
Although it is verboten for an associate to ever acknowledge this, the ones who advance and are best situated, figure out what partners and clients are the best to work for. This is difficult to ascertain and should not be a primary consideration in the first few years of practice, as one will learn a lot by working for a wide range of lawyers. Additionally, you have an obligation to help the firm as a whole, and that will always be important.
Nevertheless, and consistent with the theme of protecting thyself, you will often get the best and most challenging assignments if you can work for one or more of the biggest hitters in your department. This becomes doubly important if you want to make partner someday, as those lawyers normally wield more influence in getting you across the threshold. Moreover, if things change in your firm, and those partners are ready to lead a group somewhere else, it is in your best interest to be considered an instrumental part of that team so that you at least have the option of joining them.
One of the biggest mistakes that in-house lawyers make, particularly those who have come in from private practice, is to breathe a sigh of relief that business development is no longer necessary. Although it is true that an in-house lawyer may not be required to personally bring in revenue — unless he or she works in a department where such fees are expected, such as licensing, for example — marketing is still essential for ultimate security and advancement.
Consequently, an in-house lawyer has to make a concerted effort to get out of his or her office to spend time with business people throughout the company. Even though getting to know and doing work for senior management are important objectives, it is equally essential that strong relations be formed with midlevel leaders throughout the company. As we have seen, turnover at the top is commonplace today. Often, new leadership comes up through the ranks. As such, having strong ties with future, potential leaders will not only help you get good work as they ascend, it will also help to protect you when changes occur.
From a skill-set standpoint, there is significant value in having broad-based experience. This not only helps to make someone more indispensable inside of a company, it also enhances employment opportunities on the open market. This is particularly important for ex-private-practice litigators who go in-house — getting as much nonlitigation experience as possible not only increases the odds of becoming a general counsel someday, but it also helps if a job search ever becomes necessary.
Maintaining your network is similarly crucial and, sadly, is often forsaken by some in-house lawyers who think it is no longer important. This can easily happen as in-house lawyers become accustomed to the preferred treatment they receive from private practice lawyers who so badly want their business. This can lead even the most wizened in-house lawyer to assume he or she will forever be in such an exalted position.
If a transition occurs, especially suddenly, the in-house lawyer’s network will be vital. This results from the reality that most in-house lawyers find their next job, at least 70-75 percent of the time, through networking. As such, this network should be a broad and deep one that includes other in-house lawyers, business executives, community and civic contacts, fellow alumni and friends. And, yes, one other key aspect of the network is all those private practice lawyers you know, especially the ones to whom you have been sending business. These lawyers should want to help you; the savvy ones will work quite hard to do so, as it will increase the odds that they will get more work from you if they helped you land a new position with a different company. •
Frank Michael D’Amore is the founder of Attorney Career Catalysts, a Pennsylvania based legal recruiting and consulting firm that focuses on law firm mergers and partner placements. He is a former partner in an Am Law 200 firm, general counsel in privately held and publicly traded companies and vice president of business development. He can be reached at email@example.com.