Law firm professional development director and lawyer Marian Lee has written a wise new book with the advice so many lawyers hunger for—how to thrive in the law firm world. Building Your Ladder: An Associate’s Guide to Success Beyond Partnership, a new release from the American Bar Association, is written with your long-term career in mind. In the following excerpt, she lays the groundwork: It’s going to take more than just good lawyering!
Think Ahead: What Got You Here Won’t Necessarily Get You There
When you’re an associate receiving positive feedback for your intelligence, diligence, and impeccable work product, it’s hard to fathom the need to start learning an entirely different set of skills for the later phases of your career. But success as an associate does not guarantee long-term success as a partner. Unfortunately, most law firms don’t do much to prepare associates for their eventual role as partners; rather, they encourage the skills and attributes that make them valuable in supporting roles, primarily legal skills.
Although your status increases and there may be some pay (and billing rate) increase associated with becoming a partner, this increase is bestowed upon you not so much because you are suddenly more valuable to the firm, but rather because the firm is investing in you and betting that you will grow into your new role. Promotion to partner is much more a forward-looking decision—a leap of faith based on what the firm thinks you can contribute as a partner—rather than a backward-looking decision to reward you for being a good associate.
This is an important distinction to recognize because you will remain relatively vulnerable until you fulfill your perceived potential.
Don’t Be Another Overpaid Associate: Beware Stagnation
The trap into which some new partners fall is viewing the promotion as a reward for past performance, believing that they have “made it.” Young partners who don’t live up to the firm’s expectations can then stagnate, and essentially become overpaid associates.
To practice successfully as a partner in a law firm, you’ll need strength in several areas: legal skills, business development, client relations, practice management and leadership. Although no partner will be equally strong in all five areas, the more diverse your range of skills, the better your long-term outlook. With few exceptions, lawyers must have more than legal skills to sustain a successful career.
Business development. This category encompasses a variety of skills and activities such as networking, branding yourself, developing a niche, self-promotion, client consciousness, and the ability to recognize and seize opportunities. It requires a hungry, entrepreneurial spirit. These skills and abilities are the ones most often ignored in associates. Ironically, a lack of these skills is often the most frequent reason for lack of success as a partner. Many firms are schizophrenic with their associates with regard to rainmaking, telling them in the early years that they do not want them to focus on bringing in business, but later judging them harshly when they arrive at the threshold of partnership without having developed the foundational skills necessary for effective business development. Associates should be spending their prepartnership years building a platform—a network, an awareness of the potential client market, and some visibility.
Client relations. It’s one thing to bring in a new client. It’s another thing to maintain and grow the relationship. Some lawyers who excel at rainmaking do not possess the same level of skill at maintaining and growing clients after they come in the door. Lawyers who excel at client relations keep their clients apprised of what’s going on in their matters. They pick up the phone when there’s an important development or decision to be made and call the client. They manage expectations so that the client has a realistic view of the likely outcome of the representation. Most of all, great client keepers are great listeners, a rare attribute among attorneys who are eager to show clients how much they know.
Practice management. You can have clients and be a good lawyer, but if you don’t manage your practice well, you are likely to create ethical and financial problems for yourself. Management skills include understanding what makes a firm profitable, allocating your time wisely, recording your time diligently, reviewing your pro forma statements and pre-bills in a timely and thorough manner, and letting go of unprofitable work and clients. Many associates receive little or no exposure to this skill set other than learning to bill time and juggle multiple projects at once.
Leadership. This includes the ability to develop talent in others; serve the organization as a whole; inspire, encourage, and persuade others; set and reach goals; and influence others to serve the firm’s interests. Because the majority of leadership positions within a firm are given to partners rather than associates, a good way for associates to develop these skills is to look outside the firm. By joining volunteer or community organizations, associates can find opportunities to learn about particular community issues, expand their network, and eventually serve in a leadership role. Leading a committee or board for a small nonprofit organization provides great practice for leading teams and committees within your firm later on.
What Else Does It Take? Attitudes and Relationships
“Stay positive” is a cliched piece of advice, yet it is universal in its validity. One of the most fundamental revelations that occurs to new partners is that their livelihood now depends, to a great extent, on how they impact the people around them. Moving to the next level means influencing others—influencing clients to hire you, associates and staff to do great work for you, and others in the firm to serve the group’s collective best interest.
Another common attribute of a successful lawyer is a predisposition toward building relationships. You can’t be a successful partner alone: you need other people. And the ability to influence these people depends largely on the kinds of relationships you build—at home, in the community, with your friends, within your firm, and within the profession. The ability to build and maintain relationships often makes the difference between stagnating after a promising run as an associate and thriving as a partner.
The Ability to Add Value Gets You Marketability—and Freedom
Everyone brings a unique set of skills, knowledge, and talents to the profession. Your formula for success will be different from that of your colleagues. Regardless of what you bring to the table, strive to continue developing the full package of legal, business, and interpersonal skills throughout your career. The irony is that the more skills you develop and thus the more valuable you are to your firm, the more job security and freedom you will have. In short, the more marketable you are, the more choices you have and the more control you’ll have over your career.
Marian Lee is the Director of Professional Development and Risk Management at Denver-based Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck. An attorney with almost 16 years of practice experience, Marian directs the firm’s professional development programs for attorneys in all offices, including orientation, in-house training, outside CLE opportunities, evaluation systems and other programs that support the professional growth of the firm’s attorneys.
Thanks to the ABA for providing this excerpt from Building Your Ladder: An Associate’s Guide to Success Beyond Partnership—definitely an enlightening and highly useful read. The book is available from the Attorney at Work bookstore through an affiliation with the ABA. — The Editors
Excerpted with permission from Building Your Ladder: An Associate’s Guide to Success Beyond Partnership by Marian Lee (American Bar Association 2013).