There’s a tricky balance that lawyers need to strike: staying focused on the “task at hand” while keeping an eye on the future. The task at hand involves acquiring technical skills — drafting, negotiation, deposition-taking — at a relatively early point in your career. There’s nothing you can do to get around this prerequisite to becoming a competent practitioner. You need to get a good handle on the fundamentals.
But it’s harder to know what to do about the future. For one, the future always comes quicker than you think. Ten years out seems like forever, until it’s been 15 and you’re asking where the time went. One day you’re knocking back beers with the other summer associates, and the next you’re lamenting the end of “Parenthood” on NBC. (Yes, I write from experience.)
The Future Is Hard Because It’s Less Charted
Starting a legal career is the end of the well-lit path of youth for many. Graduate high school, go to college, take the LSAT, attend law school, get a job, pass the bar exam. When we’re young there’s a process that must be followed, and lawyers like processes. But then what?
Work hard and make partner? Okay, fine. But that’s like saying the Sahara Desert is the way to get from the Atlantic Ocean to the Indian Ocean. It will get you there, but it’s going to be a pretty rough ride.
While there are many different paths one can take in a career — some leading to happiness and satisfaction — there’s one common denominator that often leads to career misery: loss of control. If your time, and your career path, is dictated by the proclivities and preferences of others, it’s hard to get excited about your job.
Achieving “One of a Kind” Expert Status
So how do you take control? Instead of simply being a lawyer, focus on building a practice. If you have your own clients, you have more control over your career destiny.
Technical skills are important, but they are just table stakes. To build a practice, you must acquire the skills to develop and sustain a solid client base. And that’s no easy task. In today’s market, clients are looking for specialists, not generalists, so developing business requires niche expertise.
How do you know if you’re building a practice, rather than simply being a lawyer? Some introspection is required.
- Do you have a long-term plan in place to establish and project expertise in a narrow industry, or are you simply reacting to opportunities as they arise?
- Are you “in the middle” of your target industry, writing and speaking frequently, or are you dabbling in a range of industries?
- Are new clients seeking you out, or are you seeking out new clients?
- Are you “too busy” to express thought leadership through public speaking and writing, or do you prioritize time for these essential activities?
- Are your clients geographically diverse, or are they concentrated in geographic proximity to you?
- Do you solve vexing problems for clients, or do you simply complete assignments for them?
- Is your day structured with activities and initiatives that advance your expert standing, or is it driven by the day’s email traffic?
- Do you carefully consider, vet and often turn away opportunities that aren’t the right fit, or do you jump on any new opportunity that presents itself?
- Are your billings and collections steadily climbing, or are they erratic — up one year, down the next?
- Can you perform routine tasks within your niche with little thought and effort, or do matters routinely require you to brush up on the relevant law and industry at issue?
- Do you feel in control of your life, or does your life feel controlled by others?
It doesn’t require an expert in business development to tell you which of these are characteristics and practices of lawyers who have achieved expert status. But in business, as in life, there’s often a big gap between knowledge and actions.
We generally know what we should be doing. What’s missing is the discipline and courage to do what we should be doing. The longer you wait to do, the easier it is to do nothing. So it’s important to begin early in your career. And it won’t happen by accident. Many years of dogged, disciplined effort are necessary.
The Power of Intentionality
“Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?” said Alice. “That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,” said the Cat. “I don’t much care where—” said Alice. “Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,” said the Cat.
In this passage from “Alice in Wonderland,” Lewis Carroll delivers a powerful message about the importance of intentionality. Intentionality involves acting with a particular goal in mind and taking deliberate steps to achieve it. It brings discipline to decision-making and purpose to action. The opposite of intentionality is aimlessness, which involves following comfortable patterns, going through the motions and acting without much forethought.
Expert status and practice building, therefore, start with mindset. There’s a big difference between being busy with little things, and being focused on big things. Because it’s easier to focus on the little things, they get most of the attention. The ability to focus on the big, important things, such as the steps necessary to build a practice, requires acting with specific intentions.
The specific actions you take to build your practice are up to you. Yes, there are some common traits that experts exhibit and practices they employ, such as writing and speaking frequently. But the essential first step is to make a determined decision to become an expert and build a practice, then act purposefully every day to make it happen.
The important takeaway is this: While being a lawyer is aimless, building a practice is intentional. That’s not to say that simply being a lawyer is a bad thing. It’s not. For some it’s the right path. But if you are looking for more control, it’s important to recognize that building a practice isn’t a matter of happenstance. So start today.
Jay Harrington is co-founder of Harrington Communications, where he leads the agency’s Brand Strategy, Content Creation and Client Service teams. He also writes weekly dispatches on the agency’s blog, Simply Stated. Previously, Jay was a commercial litigator and corporate bankruptcy attorney at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom and Foley & Lardner. He has an undergraduate degree in journalism and earned his law degree from the University of Michigan Law School. Follow him @harringj75.
ONE OF A KIND:
A Proven Path to a Profitable Law Practice
Practical advice for building a more profitable practice. Almost every lawyer wants to command higher rates and attract more clients. But many are stuck perusing ineffective strategies. Others don’t even know where to start. In his new book, lawyer-turned-legal marketer Jay Harrington lays out a path for lawyers to build a profitable practice.