Beyond The Billable Hour™
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by Ellen Ostrow, Ph.D., CMC and
You probably didn't choose to go to law school because you love risk; most likely you don't spend your free time surfing 40-foot waves or snowboarding. However, you have the fortune to be beginning your career during a period of unprecedented change in the legal industry. Whatever your prior relationship with change, be prepared to befriend it because it is likely to be your constant companion.
Law firms are changing the way they recruit, hire, develop, evaluate and compensate their associates. Prior associate classes may not necessarily have been able to count on advancing to partner, but they did take for granted several years of annual lockstep promotions and salary increases. Today there is little a new associate can afford to take for granted. The legal industry has undergone dramatic changes during the past 18 months. What law firm economics expert Bruce MacEwen of the Adam Smith Esq. blog calls "The Great Reset"1 is far from over, and outcomes are still unclear and being hotly debated.2
Working in your job but not on your career has never been a wise approach, although many lawyers did just this. Today a strategy like this would be career suicide.
The partners you are trying to please and whose model you are attempting to follow have a great deal more technical expertise than do you. But, with rare exceptions, they are almost as confused as you about where things are headed. What this means for you is that you must be regularly assessing the legal industry, your market, your firm and your career from a big-picture perspective.
As necessary as it is to focus on the task at hand in order to develop your technical skills, if that's all you do, you'll be back on the unemployment rolls before you've learned how to create a new matter number at your firm. Just as mammals (humans included) look up periodically while eating to survey the landscape for the presence of predators, you need to regularly check the backdrop for opportunities for, and threats to, your career as well as where your current position fits within the big picture of a constantly changing map of the legal industry.
Taking proactive responsibility for your own career is essential, not only due to the ongoing upheaval in the legal world, but also because the work of new associates has never had less market value. Tasks that may have filled an associate's billable requirements in years past may now be outsourced to lower-cost service providers. With their own budgets and staffs slashed, corporate legal departments are less than sanguine about paying $400 per hour for an associate's "tooling up" time.
Under pressure from clients for lower fees and greater efficiency, law firms too are dissatisfied with the capabilities of graduating law students. Having been a hard-working and successful law student who did all your alma mater required, it may seem terribly unfair to you to be called "worthless," as one outspoken general counsel put it.3
Just or not, you are caught in the middle of the struggles between law firms and law schools as well as law firms and their clients. Although it's not your fault, it is a reality with which you must grapple.
Of course, you stand to benefit enormously from this. But don't allow your firm's focus on training you in "core competencies" to allow you to become complacent and believe that you can rely upon your firm to benevolently take care of your professional development.
Competency models are intended to identify the attitudes, behaviors and skills an associate needs to master at each level along the path to (unguaranteed) partnership. Specified core competencies provide direction for the firm's talent management as well as for your own professional development planning.
However, firms have just begun using these models. The degree to which competencies have been validly and reliably operationalized is largely untested. Simply labeling a competency does not mean that partners are able to accurately assess the degree to which you have mastered it. Firms frequently confuse the presence of a metric with objectivity.
Thus far there is little evidence that assessments of degrees of mastery of competencies are free of the various influences that typically bias associate evaluations.4 Furthermore, it's highly unlikely that every cat has been herded in the direction of buying into a firm's core competencies model. Resistant partners will insist on doing what they've always done, and you have to surf the waves as they come, adapting to the exigencies of whoever supervises you.
Not every firm has transitioned from lockstep to levels. If you work at a firm that retains its lockstep model, you might wrongly conclude that you can take advancement for granted. Even within lockstep models, firms will be scrutinizing associate performance more closely, if for no other reason than the fact that the firm's performance is being examined more diligently by clients. In fact, if you work at a firm with a lockstep advancement process for associates, you would do well to take a look at some core competency models,5 in order to have a template for directing your own proactive career development plans.
Of course, you need to have opportunities to develop these core competencies. Theoretically, a firm that has shifted from lockstep to levels of core competencies will also have a work-assignment process that provides all associates with equitable shots at the kinds of assignments that will enable them to master the skills in question. Unfortunately, the distance between theory and practice within law firm reality can be vast.
While some practice groups are currently flush with work and ripe with matters on which associates can acquire skills, partners in other practices struggle to fill their hours and hoard whatever work they have. Coordinated assignment systems are frequently thwarted by partners who have already selected their "favorite" associates to complete delegated work. Prepare yourself to proactively seek out the kinds of stretch assignments that will enable you to master core skills, regardless of your firm's "official" assignment system.
In order to do this effectively, you'll need to get to know partners and their practices. Background research as well as in-person conversations can apprise you of practice goals. Track partner successes through google.com alerts and send appropriate congratulations. Allow your curiosity to lead you. Find out how an assignment fits within a big picture. Follow up after completing the assignment to learn how the case worked out. Take risks and show "fire in your belly."
You have to make yourself memorable. You don't have to be extroverted; even shy associates can demonstrate interest. But you can't just keep your nose to the grindstone and maintain a low profile. The partners for whom you work are dealing with this reality and so must you.
Develop the 'Soft' Skills Too
Another aspect of "core competencies" that warrants your attention is the fact that they extend well beyond what you are used to considering as lawyering skills. These days successful lawyers must be multi-disciplinary.
Developing a working knowledge of business, economics, your clients' market and organizational psychology are prerequisites for a successful legal career. Client demands are increasing the value of what used to be considered "soft" skills.
Do you know how to manage projects (read people)? How are your team-leading skills? Can you effectively manage client expectations? How about collaborating across practice groups and even firms? Do you know how to form a strategic alliance with a client and share risk?
Of course you don't, and it would be unrealistic for anyone to expect that of you right out of law school. But you need a plan to develop these skills. Your interpersonal, management and leadership abilities will be evaluated, just as clients are evaluating these competencies in the partners they consider hiring as outside counsel.
So Wait, Whose Model Do I Follow?
Prior to today, these "soft" skills were devalued in big firms. "Just be a great lawyer" was the typical advice most associates received. Many of the partners for whom you will work persist in believing this fallacy which leaves you wondering, "What model should I follow?"
Herein lies the greatest challenge to you as a new associate. The partners for whom you work are trying to understand and respond to ever-changing client demands in a buyers' market. You are engaged in a parallel process with your clients: the partners at your firm. They must figure things out as they go along, and so must you.
Potential models who insist that everything will return to 2007 norms once employment picks up are probably not the best people to emulate, although you're likely to need to perform effectively for some of these. Instead, look for better success models: lawyers who are working to understand the industry they serve and to adapt their business practices to their clients' changing needs.
Look for success profiles among associates as well. Often your first clients will be senior associates at your firm. Try to analyze the competencies you observe them demonstrating. The ways in which their skills match or differ from your firm's explicit core competencies can be very telling. Their behavior may provide specific examples of competencies that you can work to acquire. Differences between their behavior and stated competencies may suggest recent changes in success criteria or discrepancies between ostensibly desired competencies and those the firm actually rewards.
Advisors, Mentors, Connections
Construct your own personal board of advisors. Your firm probably offers formal training in its desired competencies but this is not primarily how you will learn them. Immediate task-related feedback, mentoring and coaching are necessary for the acquisition of these often subtle skills.
Rather than attempting to find one impossibly busy partner to take you on as a protégé, develop relationships with several people who can help you succeed. And, with the pace of lateral movement these days, you can't count on any one mentor to stick around. Senior associates, colleagues outside your firm, external coaches as well as firm partners are all potential candidates.
In order to reap the benefits of a personal board of advisors you have to craft a career development plan that articulates where you are, where you'd like to be headed and the gaps you need to fill. Beyond that, you have to invest in building meaningful relationships with potential mentors and coaches.
Junior associates invariably neglect this part of their careers. Building a network of connections both within and outside of your firm is as essential to your career success as is acquiring technical expertise. Genuine relationships built upon generosity, shared interests
Don't tell yourself that you don't have time to build these relationships. You simply cannot succeed without them.
Developing these relationships requires many of the "soft" skills now being incorporated into competency models. Leadership, client development, project management, motivating others, and enlisting cooperation all require sophisticated interpersonal skills deemed irrelevant in most law school curricula. Among the most fundamental of these is earning trust.
Earn Their Trust
At a recent conference hosted by the Georgetown Center for the Study of the Legal Profession,6 Patricia Gillette, partner at Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe, called for renewed trust between partners and associates.
Partners are more apt to be preoccupied with trying to earn the trust of clients who have come to view outside counsel as friendly adversaries hoping to profit at their expense. Therefore, the burden of responsibility for building associate-partner trust is likely to fall on you.
Clients want their outside lawyers to understand what keeps them up at night and then provide whatever is needed to help them sleep. That's what partners want from you. Keep in mind that partner insomnia has worsened during this time of uncertainty about what law firm business model will survive.7
How can you, fresh out of law school, shaken by layoffs and deferments, with little practical legal knowledge, earn the trust of a partner?
Be reliable: do what you say you will do. Understand what is important to a partner, not just for a particular assignment, but in that partner's practice.
This is not the time to try to hide your ignorance by avoiding asking questions. You're not revealing anything that isn't already assumed. Far better to find out what is expected of you than to return an inferior product because you didn't understand what the partner had in mind.
Follow up. Request performance feedback and use it. Ask what happened to the project after you completed your assignment. Don't allow working 24/7 to serve as a proxy for commitment.
Genuine commitment means thinking like a partner from day one. Stay on top of this constantly changing market by reading the Wall Street Journal and industry publications. Understand the firm's business model, your client's business (not just its legal issues) and partners' practices and align your contributions with partners' and firm goals.
Whether or not you tend to be naturally risk averse, you have to take risks to stand out. Inaction and passivity are far riskier. And leave any semblance of arrogance outside the firm's door.
Yes, this is a hazardous and anxiety-ridden time. But it's also a time of great opportunity for new associates. Your choices and actions will determine the rewards you reap. Grab your surfboard. It's time to create your own future.
This article was originally published in the New York Law Journal Online, June 7, 2010.
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