“Twenty years from now, you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do, than by the ones you did.” — Mark Twain
I was reminded of Mark Twain’s quote after two recent conversations. The first was with a large-firm senior associate who is gently being nudged out the door. Despite having done good work and registering impressive billable hour numbers over many years, she has no clients and no real business prospects on the horizon. As talented as she is, there are others coming behind her who are equally as good (or better) and have made more strides on the business development front.
The second discussion was with an associate general counsel who had been bypassed when the top spot in his legal department had opened. He, too, had been a good solider over the years and received strong reviews. The new general counsel, who came in from the outside, had much broader experience that had been obtained while working in several other companies and proved to be the decisive hiring factor.
In these cases, and many others I am familiar with through my practice over the years, there were no questions about the legal acumen or talent of the lawyers. The common denominators that led to them being surpassed by peers were twofold. First, each one of these lawyers suffered from career myopia, as they tended to only focus on the work that was given to them. They had adopted the mindset that as long as they worked hard and performed well, they would be protected. Second, even when those momentary interludes arose, when the light went off that signaled that they needed to make a change, take a risk, or otherwise get out of their comfort zone, they ultimately succumbed to the grip of inertia by retreating to the (assumed) safety of sticking with their daily routine.
An external factor, which often contributes to these decisions to eschew making a bold move, is the oft-repeated maxim that a legal career “is a marathon and not a sprint.” This adage is a law firm favorite that has some merit, which is why it has endured. Much like a popular sports metaphor, that one “should not get too high with a win or too low after one loss,” the legal equivalent supports the belief that no lawyer should be unduly influenced by a single win (or loss) or one particularly good (or disappointing) year, as there will be many others to follow, which may serve to balance things over time.
If someone hears that aphorism repeated enough, it very well may cause an unintended consequence — complacency. This may lead someone to believe that it is acceptable to put off the change that is needed, or the critical analysis of one’s career that should be done, as there will be plenty of time to do so later, since, to continue the metaphor, there are still many more miles to run before the marathon ends.
The key difference, today, is that very few lawyers will spend their entire career in one firm, company, agency or other organization. In fact, U.S. Department of Labor statistics reveal that professionals in this era generally change jobs approximately every five years. As such, even though one’s personal career is a marathon, it is more akin to a series of sprints within the shorter periods that a lawyer is likely to spend in a series of firms or companies.
Consequently, although there may be more windows of opportunity (if the lawyer of today works in more organizations than his predecessors), the associated timeframes in which someone can thus make an impact are much shorter. So, when an opportunity arises that could significantly impact your career, it merits serious consideration. Moreover, if those opportunities are not popping up, or if you are blindly just trudging ahead in your career, the need to more affirmatively take action has now taken on elevated importance.
It is important to note that the opportunities alluded to are quite varied, and go far beyond potential job changes. They include a range of possibilities, such as accepting a leadership opportunity in your current organization that presents itself, not being afraid to take the risk of going after a significant potential client, advocating a bold strategy that entails not playing it safe, or any other number of examples.
The reality is that there also are other stages in a legal career that affect everyone — including those who will only call one firm, company or organization home. Lawyers need to be aware of the likely endpoints in each such stage, as, if they wait to take action until the stage is about to end, it will be too late.
The first eight to 10 years, generally, are foundational years that largely establish the template for one’s career. These formative years are challenging, not only because of the quantum of work, but also because of the time that needs to be devoted to honing the skills that will enable someone to be an outstanding lawyer. Those factors, in addition to the hours-based rewards systems that are in place in most organizations — especially law firms — can contribute to the myopia that was referenced, above.
At some point, and hopefully it happens early, there is a need to start focusing on you. This seems antithetical to a team-first mentality, but, in actuality, it is consistent with that ethos. In this regard, the lawyer in this early stage who starts to build a network of contacts, learns the business of his or her firm (or company), and then takes concrete actions to pursue business (or builds his or her profile, if the lawyer is in-house), is positioning himself or herself well for the future. While this seemingly constitutes me-first action, it is not, as you are also making yourself more valuable to your organization (and its clients), and, in so doing, are helping the firm or company in the process. This is especially the case if you start to bring in business or help your company in its industry through enhanced awareness of it.
The next 10 to 15 years represent the crucial period during which you are building your practice and reputation. This is the stage when your firm or company is still prepared to invest in you, as the promise of what tomorrow may yield still burns brightly. It is important to capitalize upon opportunities or to try and create them, as this is the stage where your organization is likely to still back you, even if you have not yet produced big-time results. There needs to be a sense of urgency, as this stage is going to fly by quicker than you could imagine.
When one is at the 25-plus-year stage, you should have arrived. If you are making rain, you should be at your zenith for the next 10 years or so. If you are in-house, it is the time when you should have become general counsel (or are clearly knocking on the door). If you are in government, the time has arrived where you should be the chief or head of your unit or agency (or, like your in-house peers, are about to reach that stage). If you haven’t hit your peak by now, it will be exceedingly difficult to do it going forward, as the realities of life are such that the sands of time are now pouring much quicker through your career hourglass.
If you can thus be more aware of these typical career stages, it should be quite beneficial. You simply can’t plug away blindly in each stage, as there are important steps that must be taken to better position you for the window that lies ahead. The predicate almost always involves taking action and not simply hoping that hard work will result in good fortune finding you. As you progress, you will find that no matter how benevolent your organization is, there is only one person who ultimately has responsibility and an interest in ensuring you are successful. That person is not your managing partner, department head, general counsel or CEO — it is you. •
Frank Michael D’Amore is the founder of Attorney Career Catalysts, http://www.attycareers.com, 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.