The Seasons of Your Career: Autumn, When Careers Mature

Reprinted from:

Published 9/16/2011

By Ed Poll

Lawyers in the full autumn of their career are self-reliant and independent in maintaining and developing client relationships, even while contributing to the firm overall in ways that mark them as leaders.

As the summer of a lawyer's career progresses through several years of transition to culminate in the full stride of partnership, 15 years or more of hard work ripen into the fullness of career autumn. This is a time spanning up to two decades when lawyers reach their years of optimum performance and move into the ranks of firm leaders. By now the general career patterns established during the spring and summer career seasons, which we examined in previous columns, are set. One of the best ways to visualize lawyers in their harvest years is by using three simplified but recognizable characterizations:

  • Finders - those who generate and bring in new business. These are the rainmakers with the Midas touch, unsurpassed at aggressiveness, geniality and promotional skills.

  • Minders - the members of the firm who are on the front lines, with responsibility for both maintaining client relationships and coordinating the efforts of their colleagues to ensure that client needs are met.

  • Grinders - lawyers who are less skilled at business development, but whose technical skills are such that they attained partnership and are valued contributors.

Finders get the attention but are few and far between; grinders play a useful role but are not seen as leadership material; minders are the real heart of any firm, and epitomize a successful career autumn. They are self-reliant and independent in maintaining and developing client relationships, even while contributing to the firm overall in ways that mark them as leaders. Minders who are in the full ripeness of a career autumn embrace the essentials of delegation, leadership and mentoring, and avoid the risk of premature career obsolescence.

Practising the skill of delegation

Successful lawyers in career autumn, those who are effective minders, have long since shed (if they ever had them) attitudes of "I do everything anyway, so I don't need help," or "If I do it myself, it will get done right." Lawyers who think like this have likely never advanced to a fully successful career - they are overwhelmed by anything from inadequate client service to insolvency. The successful lawyer focuses on doing the work that only he or she can do - serving existing clients, marketing the practice to potential new ones and leading the firm - and delegates the rest.

Delegation is the principle by which a successful lawyer thrives. Lawyers who delegate can focus more on the work they like to do - whether it's meeting with clients or writing briefs. Delegating to an assistant, a paralegal or an associate requires making sure they have those skills (whatever they may be) to provide the necessary service to clients. It does not mean giving up responsibility; it means taking an active role to ensure that others can do the tasks they are assigned.

As the commentary to Chapter XVII of the CBA's Code of Professional Conduct cautions, the lawyer who delegates tasks must "supervise on a continuing basis the way in which the legal assistant carries them out so that the work of the legal assistant will be shaped by the lawyer's judgment." Striking the right balance so that others can handle the details is essential for focusing on the big picture that career maturity offers.

Mastering the art of leadership

Partners, by definition, have accepted leadership responsibility in their firms, the responsibility that comes from being the firm's owners. That means more than just an equity contribution and the opportunity to share in a bonus pool. It manifests itself in a true leadership commitment to personal efforts to make the firm's situation better, to be financially responsible, to support a workplace where everyone is committed to clients and respects one another.

Leadership expressed as a sense of personal ownership means contributing to the law firm as a whole in a businesslike way, being open and honest about what a firm needs to achieve, having no personal agendas, and supporting the use of sufficient resources to achieve firm-wide goals.

Lawyers who epitomize these leadership values occasionally have the opportunity to exercise them in formal leadership positions in an office or practice group, or in the firm itself as a management committee member. Lawyers in the autumn of their careers typically hold many of these positions but they are only successful at them if, like leaders in any organization, they connect effectively with every member of the organization through shared values and shared effort. The most important function of all law firm leaders is to facilitate continuous communication, ensuring that individual agendas do not subvert the firm's success.

There are organizational fundamentals, ethical responsibilities, partnership needs, and client service requirements that depend on good communication. Lawyers in career autumn - whether they are finders, minders or grinders - embody the values of the firm and the commitment to facilitate communication. Beyond the matter of maintaining firm culture, it is vital to maintaining firm financial strength. And that is a matter of personal economic well-being for every partner who has years of effort invested in the firm.

Giving back to the firm

Relatively few lawyers in the fullness of their careers have formal leadership positions - after all, not every player on a sports team can be a star, and not every lawyer in a law firm can be "in charge" of something beyond their own contributions. But virtually all firms of any size expect their more senior lawyers to be leaders in another way: mentoring younger associates to help integrate them into the life of the firm and the profession.

As law firms have increased in size, and as pressures continue to mount to increase billable hours, there often has been no time left for old-fashioned mentoring. Yet, new associates do not advance without the benefits of mentoring as provided in years past to lawyers now in their prime. Some firms formally designate more senior lawyers to mentor younger associates. Others say that the newer lawyer must seek out his or her own mentor from among the firm's elders who may be willing to make the contribution.

The best mentors are the lawyers of excellence, the "Big Dogs," and their skills are teachable through mentoring. Obviously, the mentor must have the technical skills of his or her practice area, and must continue to remain current as these areas change. Then, the individual must know The business of law and how to run a practice. All of this can be imparted when they take associates under their wing and mentor them to greater success - but only to those newer lawyers who pay attention, who really want to become a lawyer of excellence in their own right, and who have the work ethic and values commitment required to become successful.

Avoiding the obsolescence trap

The opposite of a Big Dog mentor was summed up in a phrase I recently heard used to describe a senior partner: "a carriage builder in an automobile world." The phrase connoted a craftsman who puts time and effort into creating a quality product, but who is unwilling or unable to work at a pace and in a manner that would make that quality product available to a wider audience. Yet this lawyer undoubtedly believes he is entitled to receive the same level of business and compensation that he has for years.

He does not understand that in a changing legal services marketplace, such attitudes create premature career obsolescence.

In large law firms, every partner targeted for forced retirement or de-equitization was originally added to the partnership because the firm had a strategic goal for his or her practice. However, when the firm's overallstrategic goal for profitability is not being met, the older partners who compound that problem are asked to go.

This is not a question of age only. Regardless of lawyers' ages, the majority of complaints against them relate to careless dealings with clients: poor service, failure to return phone calls, inaccurate billing statements. These are all management issues, and poor client service is a problem at any age. Older lawyers who continue to apply the client service lessons learned throughout their careers ought not to be in jeopardy. The key to avoiding obsolescence in career autumn is to be so connected to important clients that the firm wants and needs you to stay. Such lawyers are the ones who inspire confidence and who all clients want to handle their matters. These are the lawyers who get results and who are in frequent communication with clients about how their matters are progressing. They maintain key contacts while helping direct work to younger lawyers without fear of personal financial loss.

These lawyers will survive and thrive, and will be well positioned as the career season of winter approaches.

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