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Jettison The Myth Of Individualism

The Complete Lawyer
November 2008

Alone, all alone
Nobody, but nobody
Can make it out here alone.

   ~ Maya Angelou

You can make more friends in two months by becoming interested in other people than you can in two years by trying to get other people interested in you.
   ~ Dale Carnegie
 
As a new associate in a law firm, you’re undoubtedly trying to determine the most crucial survival rules. The message to meet your billable-hours requirements, triple-check your work and cultivate your legal skills are emblazoned in your brain. But if you heed only that advice, you’ll spend endless hours at your desk and fail at one of the two most important tasks you need to master to ensure a successful career. Second only to developing your technical expertise, you need to build your social capital.
 
Too many young attorneys mistakenly wait until they want another job or need to develop business before devoting time and energy to nurturing interpersonal resources. If you wait, you’re already missing out on the enormous benefits they can provide right now.
 
What is social capital? It is the resources—information, ideas, influence, mentoring, opportunities for assignments and business, job leads, assistance, cooperation, referrals, trust and emotional support—that reside within the relationships you develop as you create your personal and business networks. These are not personal resources: you never own them. They exist only in the context of authentic relationships with other people, both within and outside of your firm.
 
Jettison The Myth Of Individualism
 
If individualism is a uniquely American value, then law firms are particularly American. Law firm culture places singular emphasis on individual abilities and effort. You are rewarded for the hours you bill; typically, partners are compensated for the business they individually originate. The mythology that success is forged by heroic individual feats remains unquestioned.
 
The fact that no one succeeds without the help of others is one of the elephants in the law firm lobby. If success depended solely upon individual effort and ability, why are partners leveraging your research and writing abilities, to say nothing of your time? Why do teams of lawyers work on RFPs and pitches if self-reliance is really all it takes? The partners giving you work didn’t reach their lofty positions thanks to individualism: good law professors, great mentors and powerful advocates helped them every step of the way. You need the same kind of training and advocacy to succeed at your firm.
 
Even if you don’t care about becoming partner, your need for social capital doesn’t diminish. In fact, your social capital requirements may be even greater than if you plan to stay. Certainly recruiters can find you other law firm jobs. But what if you want to transition to a different kind of setting? How can you learn about what it’s really like to work in any given workplace without some insider information?
The key to success, wherever you work, is to find a niche that allows you to be of value and to develop professionally. No one can do that without social capital.
 
Help Yourself By Helping Others
 
Developing your social capital may sound like currying favor with those who can give you what you need to get ahead, but in fact nothing’s further from the truth. The paradox of social capital is that you will only reap its benefits if your networking efforts are driven by generosity. To the extent to which you develop relationships in order to get something for yourself, you will fail.
Social capital is the by-product of your efforts to contribute to the success of others and to activities which you find intrinsically meaningful and rewarding. Helping others without regard to how they will help you is the best way to make sure that you will benefit from the network relationships you create.
 
Networking is about giving, not getting. Once you embrace this seeming contradiction, you’re ready to begin working toward professional and personal success.
 
What Does A New Associate Have To Give?
 
When you feel like a deer in the headlights, it’s difficult to imagine what you might have to offer someone else. Don’t confuse the way you feel with your potential for generosity. Within the firm, you can contribute your interest, energy, initiative and enthusiasm. The people who give you work assignments are your first clients—treat them that way. “Superplease”1 them by working to understand their needs, both in the broad context of their practices as well as their goals for any particular assignment. Follow up, ask questions about how the matter is going, and request other opportunities to help.
 
Reach out to your peers and senior associates. Everyone is ridiculously busy and would benefit from some kind of help. Use your radar to detect unspoken needs, which sometimes are as simple as “I don’t want to be bothered now.” Remember that we all need what Edward Hallowell calls “human moments.”2
 
Network outside of your firm by joining organizations whose missions are interesting and meaningful to you. Given your workload, you’ll need to choose wisely. Don’t tell yourself that you can’t afford the time; in truth, you can’t afford not to spend the time to develop your network. Whether you join the Young Lawyers section of the ABA, your local bar, or an agency that provides services to people in your community, your active participation positions you to contribute to others and build valuable social capital.
 
Use Internet social networking sites like Linked-In to find old connections and create new ones. Linking unconnected people is one of the most important services you can provide to others—and it’s easy using the web.
 
Avoid the natural tendency to limit your networking to people at your firm or others like you. Many attorneys never stray far enough from their desks to meet a diverse range of people. A dense and homogeneous network will help you get cooperation but will not provide creative solutions to problems, or new business or job leads. Becoming a connector between different networks creates value for both groups of people. You don’t have to have all of the resources people in your network need; instead, introduce them to those who do.
 
Personality variables are not obstacles to networking. Even the most introverted people can show interest in someone to whom they’ve been introduced. Don’t pressure yourself to be glib or prove how smart you are. You can’t give to others until you know what they need, so create accurate and detailed cognitive maps of people you meet when the chemistry is right.
 
Know Your Own Social Capital Needs
 
As you help others, keep your own needs in mind. To succeed at your firm you’ll need a champion, a powerful partner to watch your back and support your cause. Demonstrating authentic interest in and enthusiasm about work assignments is likely to encourage senior attorneys to want to reciprocate. It is in a senior attorney’s best interest to advocate for an associate who is committed to helping her practice.
 
Reach out to others as well. The mid-level associates you helped accomplish their goals will want to show you the ropes and fill you in on the unwritten organizational rules of the firm. Law school friends and other attorneys you befriend along the way are potential clients. Actively building and maintaining rich relationships with them may provide long-term dividends.
There’s too much information in any area of the law for one attorney to retain. That’s why the most successful lawyers have good knowledge networks. Providing needed information to others increases the likelihood that answers to your questions—particularly those from anxious clients—will be readily available from others through your social capital.
 
People with good networks are happier, healthier, recover from illness more quickly and even live longer—and the more varied the connections, the better. Individuals who build social capital get better jobs, higher compensation, faster promotions and exert more influence than those who fail to build these networks.[3]
 
In the adversarial world of law, building social capital is a win-win solution. Don’t chain yourself to your desk trying to bill the required number of hours. Push yourself out the door and contribute to the lives of others—and help yourself at the same time.
 
NOTES
 
 
 
 
About The Author
Ellen Ostrow, Ph.D., is the founder of Lawyers Life Coach LLC, a firm providing professional development, career, business development and executive coaching services to attorneys and consultation to legal employers.
 

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