Nobody begins a career lacking the desire to grow and develop it successfully. After jumping through the hoops by going to college, and in this case law school, the hope is that this all winds up paying some very nice long-term dividends in the end. To ensure that’s the case, striving to build career security and stimulate constant career growth are the two fundamental objectives of every entrant to any given field. After all, these objectives are the fundamental building blocks of a successful career. In law, a young associate in private practice either dreams of partnership, exit options with greener pastures, or gaining enough experience and loyal clients to eventually strike out on his or her own. Either way, everything that is done from day one is done with the intention to continue building that young career. However, what exactly is required to build a successful career in the legal field? There is often a disconnect between what law graduates believe is necessary to achieve that goal and what the reality of legal practice actually dictates is necessary. By the time you have a few months of legal experience under your belt in private practice, it should quickly begin to dawn on you that success in the legal industry is a bit more complicated than expected. The traditional factor most law graduates believe makes or breaks a legal career is the “brilliance” of the legal work performed. In other words, as a young associate, so long as you are able to deliver great work product to the partners or directly to the clients, your job is done. Great work product will impress the partners and send more work your way. The more work you handle, the more valuable you will become to the firm and the more experienced you will become overall. With experience, of course, you’ll either be able to move on up in the firm or have the flexibility to go elsewhere. The common assumption, therefore, is that the strength of your work product dictates your value. Although understanding that value is at the core of both career security and growth is a good start, focusing on work product alone will not get you very far in the legal field.
To understand what it takes to truly succeed in building a legal career, you must first understand the core objective of law practice. Hint: it is not great work product. The legal profession is a service industry. This means that lawyers provide a service. That service is the performance of legal work for clients. However, they can’t perform any legal work if there are no interested buyers acting as clients. To receive clients, therefore, they must sell their services. This makes the sales pitch the true building block of any law practice. Although work product is a great way to develop a solid reputation that attracts clients, it is nothing more than a mean to a greater end. This brings up the key point: if all you bring to the table is solid work product, what will happen if the clientele starts drying up and the demand for your solid work quickly begins to drop? As you can tell, for a young associate only focused on doing a great job on assignments this is a situation that leaves him or her completely at the mercy of the higher ups. A situation that is a far cry from career security and an opportunity for career growth. To avoid this problem, outside of doing great work a focus on developing client relationships should be an instrumental component of any young associate’s objectives as soon as they walk through the door and begin private practice. Because fostering client relationships is different for associates at big firms and associates at medium and smaller firms, the two types of private practice are tackled separately.
If you are a junior associate at a big firm, you generally have a very simple role: handle a lot of work well. The more you bill, the more money you make for the partners. This makes them happy, and strengthens your position at the firm. This is also where the focus on solid work product is most relevant, as solid work will ensure you receive more work. The problem, however, is that there is a rather short period of time in big law where your presence is justified simply by your billable hours. Once you become a mid-level around year 4, partners will suddenly start to evaluate you on much more than your yearly billable count. Your future prospects at the firm will now include the partners’ beliefs about your future ability to handle and bring in clients. For the few golden rainmaker prospects, everything is smooth sailing. However, if you’re nothing more than a churn and burn grinder that is aging in seniority, it is around this time that your job security will slowly begin its decline. Those grinders that choose to stay, and are allowed, face a greater degree of uncertainty with each passing year. Although there are now more non-equity partners and very senior associates at firms, those are not enviable positions in the big firm hierarchy. This is why most mid-level associates, after gaining enough experience to be marketable, jump to various exit options. If you’re in big law just to do your time and leave, a focus on work product alone is often sufficient to get you by enough to present you with solid exit options. However, for those that want to make big law a career and for those that want to keep as many options on the table as possible, a focus on clients needs to begin early. In fact, even for those intending on only staying a few years, client relationships often provide the best exit options so there is really no reason for any junior to stay blind to this objective.
Even though the big law hierarchy functions in a way that is not conducive to fostering client relationships as a junior associate, there are things juniors can do to keep themselves involved. For starters, you are probably not going to be bringing in any business to a big firm so developing a book of business is largely a red herring. What you can do in this regard, however, is watch and learn how the rainmaker partners bring in business. Discussing these matters with the partners you work with and keeping your eyes and ears open from year to year is a step in the right direction. The main goal, however, is client contact. To begin, you have to adapt the mentality that client contact is goal number one. It takes priority over everything else. Developing great client relationships will not only ensure you have solid exit options, but strengthen your position at the firm. There is nothing better in a big law environment as a junior associate than receiving praise from a major client. Make this the goal. Outside of providing great legal work, you have to get involved in the partner-client circle of communication. If you are working for a partner that keeps you out of the limelight by giving you work, taking it, and providing the answer to the client, you have to try and involve yourself in the conversation when the partner is providing the client the answer. Ask to be on the call, ask to tag along with the partner if he or she is meeting the client, ask to be the person that handles the small-level correspondence between the partner and the client. Whatever the means, always find a way to be involved. There are often times when this is simply impossible because of the particular partner, but if that’s the case try and see if you can snatch some work from another partner in the group that may be more receptive without having it backfire with the original partner. It is that important.
Of course, this is all firm-dependent as well. At some firms, junior associates get client contact early and are able to take the lead on smaller matters as they grow and develop their experience. If you are at a firm like this, take full advantage of this as early as possible and with as many clients as possible. At other firms, however, juniors don’t even speak to clients until they are mid-levels and even then they are given very minimal contact. If this is your luck of the draw, you have to employ what you can to get involved with the clients for which you do work. Show the partners you are capable and find an in so the clients know your name. Clients are your real job security: you either inherit them or bring them in to the firm (book of business) or you’re liked by them to the point it is difficult if not impossible to fire you (strong client relationships with existing clients).
Unlike their big law counterparts, most juniors at medium and small law firms should understand that they have an immediate requirement of engaging in business development to justify their position. Most of these firms do not have the type of financial backbone that would allow juniors to simply sit away and bill as they learn and develop their legal experience. Instead, these firms are in constant need of new clients because there are very few institutional clients with repeat business available. What does this mean? A new hire is most often seen as a loss for the partners’ pockets unless he or she can justify the hire by bringing in business in the short-term. Some might wonder, how is that possible if the partners can bill the associate out at a much higher rate to the client than the associate is being paid? Well, the reason this billing rate profit is not enough is because it is only relevant when there are enough clients to keep the junior billing in the first place. Even if that’s the case, do you want to be at the unpredictable mercy of the volume of the legal work available to the firm? If you’re trying to build a career, certainly not. Therefore, business development should be priority number one. Unlike big law, client contact does very little in this context. The good news is that unlike big law clients, most clients at medium and smaller firms are clients that are average people with a legal need (excluding boutiques that function more like big law). Therefore, they are much more attainable.
Your focus as a junior associate should be to handle the work you are given but spend significant time going to bar associations, being involved with certain communities, member groups or charities, and anything else that can act as a source of opportunity to meet potential clients in your area of practice. Bar associations are mentioned because meeting other lawyers may help with referrals. The point is simple: find out what places cater to the types of clients your practice group or firm handles, and get involved. Many smaller firms have new hires set up a deal where they are paid a salary + a % fee split of whatever work the new hire brings in to the firm. You should welcome this scenario with open arms because it not only guarantees you a steady paycheck but allows you set up your own practice within the firm. It’s almost like a firm/solo hybrid. If you do well, not only can you strive for partnership but even go out on your own after a while. It’s a great proposition. The most important thing to keep in mind is to not look at these fee splits as a potential bonus but as an opportunity that can allow you not only much greater financial success but more overall career opportunities as well. Take advantage of this if you are offered something similar, and make sure the fee split is as high as possible. That semi-autonomy is priceless.
At the end of the day, law is about salesmanship. In big law, a junior is generally more focused on selling his or her ability to satisfy clients. In smaller firms, a junior is generally more focused on selling his or her ability to bring in clients. Either way, knowing what must be the primary objective in the applicable context and executing that objective to the best of your ability will ensure you have the best chance at developing and growing your legal career. Providing great work product is a given in either context, but your focus must be on the greater goal that so many young associates completely underestimate or ignore. Clients, in one form or another, are your value. Don’t forget that.