The Seasons of Your Career: Summer, When Careers Grow Fastest

Reprinted from:

Published 8/23/2011

By Ed Poll

All the traits of a successful entrepreneur will assist the transition from senior associatel level to the firm's partnership: motivation, acceptance of risk, resiliency and commitment.

If "spring" is the season when a young associate's law career takes root, then "summer" is the time that pre-partner associates and early-level partners should see their careers grow the fastest. Reaching this point can involve sacrifices. But most human beings are optimists and most lawyers traditionally have believed their sacrifices are worth it.

However, the financial turmoil that law firms, along with the rest of the economy, have experienced in the last several years raises questions about the conventional wisdom that every lawyer should want to become a partner. The essence of being a partner is ownership. This means being the last person to receive financial benefit from the firm, after staff, associates, vendors and suppliers. It means being personally responsible for firm debts and liabilities. It means lying awake at night wondering how to improve the efficiency, growth and profitability of the law firm. This is not an easy way of life, and it is even harder in times of economic stress.

Making a successful transition from spring to summer in a career recognizes these challenges, and requires that you demonstrate the traits of a successful entrepreneur: motivation, acceptance of risk, resiliency and commitment. Basically, you must answer the question, "What do I want to be when I grow up?" Each person's answer is unique, and can change over time. In this article we'll examine some of the factors to consider in making the most of a career's summer.

Building your book of business

Building a partner-level book of business takes effort. When you make a conscious effort to create a connection with potential clients, you have a better chance of succeeding. That's a powerful message when so many lawyers today seem to be waiting for "things to come back." The world of passively waiting for business will never return.

Transitioning from a senior associate level to the firm's partnership requires answering two questions: 1) Do you know who your potential clients are? 2) Do you know how to reach out to them?

The answer to question one is simple. Create a profile of your ideal client and develop a marketing strategy aimed at this target. Focus on the demographics, occupation, location, financials and other characteristics of clients who will give you the work that you want.

Such a marketing approach defines what your practice really is (or should be) and who best can use those services. This can change over time, depending on how your skills and interests evolve, how the economy is doing, and many other factors. Learn where to find your target market and think about how you can best reach them to let them know that you can deliver what they need.

That leads to question two, and a more complex answer. Building relationships with potential clients is a marathon, not a sprint. You must be able to measure your marketing efforts over time by the number of contacts made, clients added and billable time gained, without setting yourself up for failure with unreasonable revenue expectations.

Once your target clients are defined and you know where they are, then the tactics come into play – brochures, blogs, speeches, articles, audio products and all the rest. Make sure that your tactics are in tune with your target. For example, if your target audience is not focused on using the Internet and searching the web on a regular basis, then blogging is not so meaningful to them and may not be a worthwhile marketing tactic for you.

There is no one tactic that will cover the waterfront of opportunities to communicate with your market. Marketing is about being authentic, showing your own persona through your efforts. It becomes a question of your comfort zone, your creativity, your time availability and your budget.

Evaluating the decision to become partner

Lawyers with a full and active book of business are best positioned to be asked to join their firm's partnership. However, it behooves them to think through the partnership decision carefully.

If you're an associate at a large firm, making a $200,000 salary, is it really worth it for you to become a junior partner with a $250,000 draw and the legal liability that goes with it? If you're joining the partnership of a small firm, do you know if your up-front contribution is going for the improvement of the firm, or being split among the other partners? In a firm of any size, do you know if there are only certain times of the year (for example, your anniversary, or the last day of the fiscal year) when you can leave and get your full investment back?

The answer to these and many other questions can be found in something all partners have but too few understand: their partnership agreement. If you are set to become a partner in a firm of any size, read your agreement before joining the partnership.

It should tell you how much you actually pay to join the firm as well as to leave it voluntarily, and whether you receive severance and your share of receivables if you leave involuntarily (through de-equitization). It should also detail the firm's management system (for example, one vote per lawyer, or one vote per pro rata share) and how much voice each partner has in firm management.

Potential partners who don't know if the agreements they are about to sign answer such issues are like the cobbler's children who lack shoes – and may find their career summers less satisfying than they hoped.

Finding the time for pro bono service

One of the most satisfying marks of a new partner's career summer, and one of the most consistent expectations that firms have for them, is fulfilling a broader social purpose of serving the public through pro bono work.

It is essential, in undertaking pro bono service, to understand if your firm gives compensation recognition for non-billable service – whether it is pro bono representation, involvement in professional associations, service activity in the community or the arts, or some other use of lawyer time that is not billable to client work. Engaging in civic and charitable activities, serving on bar association committees and boards of nonprofit organizations, and otherwise contributing to the public good is a tremendous business development strategy, provided that firms recognize and support it.

Any lawyer's pro bono work reflects personal decisions. If your client billings are not sufficient to support non-billable time, the commitment to serving the public will be tenuous at best. You should thus be certain that your financial situation allows pro bono time. A documented cash flow analysis can give you more peace of mind in this regard.

Ultimately there is no "one size fits all" approach. Pro bono work can simply be a series of steps taken one at a time according to the financial and time resources that you can devote to it at this point in your career.

Avoiding career decisions that lack proper planning

We have been concerned up to this point with the growth of your career within a firm. But in your career summer you may wonder whether the grass would be greener elsewhere, either in another firm or in a practice of your own. The decision to make such a change should not be taken lightly, and should involve weighing three fundamental considerations:

  • Collegiality: Do you like the people you work with?
  • Economics: Are you earning enough money to make staying worthwhile?
  • Values: Does the firm's approach to compensation, business development and practice growth agree with the future that you want for yourself?

These are important decisions. In large firms, associates work for up to 10 years before either being invited to become a partner or finding employment elsewhere. In a small firm, a young associate works for years and feels entitled to become a partner, but may not have rainmaking skills or a client following and so is still an apprentice to the more senior lawyers. Such associates may have the skills and capabilities to be successful in their current firms, yet may feel that they have not achieved success, and that leaving for greener pastures is the only option.

Few lawyers are averse to hard work. Successful big firm lawyers work long hours and are focused about what they do. If they pursue a small firm setting, it is not that they want a life of leisure – it reflects a greater desire to pursue their passion. Lawyers contemplating such a change in their lives should ask themselves why they went to law school and became a lawyer. Do they still love the law and enjoy helping people? Those questions, far more than issues of economics, will determine a lawyer's success in the summer of a career.

I believe that most lawyers, at heart, love their profession. And as Confucius said, "Pursue a job you love and you'll never have to work a day in your life." The trick is to get past the distractions and stress so you can see your career for what you want it to be and have a maximum harvest at autumn.

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