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How to Generate ROI as a Young Lawyer

By Jay Harrington

Your law firm cares about your personal and professional growth. But make no mistake, the law is a business — often a cutthroat one. Your firm has made a big investment in you in terms of salary, benefits, training and overhead. It expects a return on that investment. As a young lawyer, it’s important to understand your firm’s point of view as to your value, and to a great degree it comes down to dollars and cents.

Law firms rely on leverage, which means having lots of associates in place to work and bill. Young associates should understand they are typically less valuable (in terms of dollars and cents) to their firms than mid-level and senior associates. It’s a fact of life in today’s economic environment that clients are less willing to (as they see it) subsidize the on-the-job training of young lawyers by paying for unproductive time. This means that as a young lawyer you must be productive and effective — and not just busy — to stand out.

Generate a positive return on the firm’s investment year after year and, all else being equal, you’ll be fine. Fail to make the firm money? That’s when you start hearing things such as “alternate career path” and “lack of long-term career viability” during annual reviews.

DownloadBut there’s some important nuance baked into this issue that is important to appreciate. Generating a positive financial return on investment is in many ways table stakes for an associate with big career aspirations. You need to make money, yes, but you also need to make life easier for those around you.

Take Ownership Over Your Work and Your Future

The best way to demonstrate value is to take ownership in all aspects of your work. Adopting an ownership mentality reflects an understanding that your superiors don’t want to micromanage you. They certainly don’t want to hold your hand. They’re busy and are trying to keep their heads above water, too. They understand the challenges you’re facing at this point in your career. Most are willing to help (to some extent), but they expect you to take ownership over your projects.

Indeed, developing a reputation as the “go to” person to get the job done is the single most important thing you can do to get noticed as a young associate — to get the plum assignments, and to accelerate your career development. One of the biggest blind spots many young associates have is failing to appreciate just how much partners value excellent associates who take ownership over their work.

“Did She Even Read It?”

Early in your career, you may not even think partners notice you — you feel like a cog in a wheel. You may not have direct contact with the project partner since your work filters through other associates before reaching the partner’s desk. When you work tirelessly on a project, it’s frustrating when you don’t receive any feedback.

You’re not invisible. Because partners are so busy, they need the support of good people below them. Partners compete for the best associate talent. They jealously guard “their team.” Their success depends on it.

Bottom line: They notice. They read it. They know who you are — good or bad.

Here’s how to know if you’ve caught the eye of a partner (in a good way):

  • You’ll start to be staffed on projects with the same group of attorneys; you’ll become part of a team.
  • The partner will start copying you on emails.
  • You’ll have no idea how to tackle new projects (at first) because others will have confidence that you’ll be able to “punch above your weight.”
  • You may start receiving more critical feedback. If you’ve ever played sports at a relatively competitive level, you know that when a tough coach stops yelling at you for mistakes it’s probably because they’ve lost faith in your abilities. If you’re a junior associate receiving criticism directly from a partner, it’s probably because they know you can do better based on past performance. Otherwise, they’d probably just move on from you.
  • You’ll be asked to take charge of the administrative details of a matter. You’ll be in charge of running the weekly internal status meeting, preparing the client status report and maintaining the project calendar.

If You Want to Be Indispensable …

And here’s the type of behavior you’ll exhibit if you want to become an indispensable young associate:

  • You’ll show up. It’s easier than ever to work remotely, but that doesn’t mean it’s always a good idea. Litigation and transactions are tackled by teams, and your team needs to know they can count on you to be there. Face time seems like an antiquated issue, but as more associates zig toward remote work, you’ll distinguish yourself by zagging toward more time spent in your superiors’ offices forming relationships, discussing cases and listening in on conference calls.
  • You’ll understand the nuances of the relationship partner and client. You’ll take the time to understand the “little things” (in scare quotes because these are, in fact, very big things) like preferences in communication and timekeeping. I’ll never forget the call I received early on in my career from our practice group leader about a mistake I made in a time entry. Not good.
  • You’ll ask lots of questions, but only after thinking through the issues. Many young associates are too eager to approach superiors for help before attempting to solve the problem themselves. If you do have questions, get them all gathered at once, ask for a meeting time and be thoroughly organized so as not to waste the other person’s time because you’re scattered.
  • You’ll communicate. When you’re taking on an assignment, you’ll find out deadlines and brief back the assigning attorney on your understanding of the objectives to make sure you are on the same page. Make sure to review your notes immediately following the meeting and follow up as necessary. It’s far better to revisit the issue right away than to spend the next two days spinning your wheels.
  • You’ll look for the big picture. Taking ownership involves more than simply completing the discrete task that was assigned (although that is the first priority), but thinking beyond the task and anticipating future needs as well. This requires having a broader view of the case or matter that you’re working on, and not wiping your hands clean once your immediate task is complete. Outstanding young associates will be proactive and creative in finding additional ways to contribute value to the client and firm. Your senior colleagues are juggling lots of different issues and matters, and welcome thoughtful debate with, and insights from, informed, independent thinking associates. If you know what you’re talking about, speak up.

Of course, there’s so much more to know and do to distinguish yourself as an invaluable young associate (that’s the point of this monthly column, after all). But this is a pretty good framework to build on. If you can understand the investment that your firm is making in you, how you can help generate a solid return on that investment, and how to know if you and your work are being recognized for all the right reasons, then you’ll be on track to make a big, positive impact as you grow and evolve as a lawyer.

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Jay Harrington Jay Harrington

Jay Harrington is the owner of Harrington Communications, a leading thought-leadership PR and marketing agency that specializes in helping law firms and lawyers build awareness, influence and new business. Jay is the author of three books for lawyers on issues related to business and professional development, including “The Productivity Pivot,” “The Essential Associate” and “One of a Kind: A Proven Path to a Profitable Practice.” He podcasts at The Thought Leadership Project and writes a weekly email newsletter. Previously, he practiced law at Skadden Arps and Foley & Lardner. Follow him @JayHarrington75.

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