I can think of a million reasons why I don’t have the time to write this article. Or to check Hootsuite for the news of the day. Or to review my LinkedIn feed, post an article of interest or congratulate a colleague on a recent achievement. I’ve got pressing reasons not to maintain and grow my professional (and, often, personal) relationships. I’m “flat out”. Last week was “crazy” and it’s all I can do to catch up. I need some sleep. Did I already say that I’m “flat out”? I also have “a full plate”. And I’m “buried”, really. I’ve been preparing for next week’s training program “24/7”. Wow, my back is “killing me”, again.
And, if you push me I can always fall back on: “I can’t charge for blogging.” And the equally compelling: “Tweeting doesn’t pay the bills”.
Too Busy Billing Hours
But that would be ill advised, short-sighted and self-defeating. Blogging doesn’t pay the bills in and of itself. But, blogging is one way I get better at what I do. The process keeps me fresh, focused and reflective. It also offers me ways to deepen my network of legal professionals, those who offer me advice, collegial support, valuable industry information, writing and speaking opportunities and, occasionally, client and other referrals. And it helps me build my reputation as someone who is very good at what she does.
Sure, you say, but you don’t have a hefty annual billable hours requirement hanging over your head.
Billable vs. Non-Billable? Not Always a Useful Distinction.
The fact is that I am developing my coaching and consulting business in very much the same way that my partners and I, then in our twenties and thirties, built a large transactional law practice serving the media and communications industries.
To build our practice we adopted a strategy, in a mix of intent and intuition, that applies every bit as much to you as it did, and still does, to me.
Of course we worked long, hard hours. Anyone building a career must be prepared to pay her dues. We spent nights and weekends at the office, negotiating and drafting documents and closing financings, mergers and acquisitions and leveraged buy-outs. Most of this was “billable” time, but we weren’t just counting hours–we knew we were worth more.
After all, anyone can run up billable hours. Our toughest competitors worked just as hard, charged as much (or more) and were (usually) just as smart. We had to offer more.
What set us apart? What will distinguish you from your peers in the adjoining offices or cubes or at other law firms?
Consider these four benchmarks. None are rocket science, but if you set each as a daily priority, blending the billable and the non-billable, you’ll soon have a career on your hands.
- An absolute commitment to responsive, proactive service–to the client, of course, but also, where possible, to a rich and ever-expanding network of friends, contacts and prospects.
- A proven and detailed understanding of each client’s business, industry and competitors and the challenges (both legal and financial) they face.
- Ongoing interaction with clients, contacts and prospects, by telephone, email and mail and in person- in their offices, in yours, and at the conferences and other settings where they convene with their peers, customers, investors and business partners.
- Commitment to a single, overarching principle of business generation and career satisfaction (on a par, I would argue, with The Prime Directive...):
To add value to the client’s business and prove ourselves worthy partners in its growth– not infrequently without the meter running.
A Career, Not Just a Job
Along the way, the members of our network became our friends, our “jobs” became life careers, and business generation transformed from obligation to privilege to way of life.
And my point is?
No lawyer (in fact, no service professional) can prosper, especially in the current economy, without a rich strategic network and a first-rate reputation, in both his or her law firm and community. These goals cannot be achieved solely by billing hours and going through the standard “marketing” motions (attending the annual bar association “Gala”, sending out those dreadful “Holiday Cards”, attending a panel presentation in body only, and so on). They cannot be reached by crafting the quintessential “executory contract” with your beleaguered practice group manager: This would be that two-page ”Marketing Plan” she distributes once a year.
Most young attorneys begin their careers with minimal practical skills, a narrow professional network, an inadequate understanding of business transactions and disputes, the cautious habits of a student and the risk-averse nature of the pre-modern lawyer. With very few exceptions (those with business degrees and relevant prior work experience), the newly minted JD has little idea how to be a lawyer, much less develop a law practice. Neither of these skills gets much attention in the average law school, even during the inexplicable, oft squandered, third year.
Nonetheless, if our youngest lawyers want to get and keep good jobs and earn enough money to retire crushing tuition debt and fashion a meaningful future, they will need to be as productive as possible, as fast as possible. And this does not happen on its own.
Choose Your Path Now, If You Can
Just bearing down, billing hours and getting the job done is not enough. Everyone is expected to work especially hard in a large firm, and the ethic is often equally (and justifiably) strong in small and medium sized law firms. In fact, partners often work harder than associates–so be careful what you wish for. If you have an inflexible personal life that draws on your time, reconsider large firm practice and focus your job search on much smaller firms, in-house practice, government service or other career tracks, with a careful consideration of each prospective employer’s culture.
Remember: Websites are commercials. They are not designed to give you the inside scoop. Find out, however you can, whether lifestyle and family are truly valued. If you look closely, spend the time and are prepared for a lower financial return, you may happen upon a firm that has instituted alternative billing practices for key clients and can afford to stress results and value over hours.
Make a Plan
Before things get away from you, make a career plan for the near future, hopefully with the help of your professional development or marketing department. (What kind of work will you go after at the firm? How will you keep it? Who are the best teachers and mentors? What do you need to learn and do to be the best associate possible? How will you build a network and reputation in your firm and the legal community? Can you identify a promising specialty or industry niche? How about writing for the firm’s blog? Or starting one? And so on…)
Then implement your plan, with discipline and optimism.
But, you say, I’m FLAT OUT! There isn’t time to get your billable work done, much less draft and implement a career plan.
This is not exactly true.
Make the Time
The trick is in the discipline. You’ll have to learn to better balance your work (clarifying assignments, tackling them efficiently, organizing tasks and projects efficiently, accessing time-saving resources and staying in front of deadlines), then setting aside some time each day (as little as 5 or 10 minutes on some days, more as you get the hang of it, and at least one lunch, drinks, coffee or dinner hour a week) to build and maintain a strategic network, learn about the businesses and people you represent or hope to market, and identify leadership, speaking and other opportunities through which to enhance your reputation and hone essential communication skills.
Consider this sampling of activities. The stand-out associate will make the time for:
- The monthly departmental or practice group meeting.
- A networking event hosted by the Firm to which associates are invited.
- An affinity group event organized for your benefit.
- Establishing a dignified presence on social media platforms that are well populated
by influential or rising members of your network.
- Training programs organized for your benefit.
- Contributing to a marketing pitch or a Firm blog or client alert.
- Serving on a bar association committee, with the ultimate goal of running it.
- Absorbing the critical news: local, national, global, financial. (And don’t forget your
town’s sports teams, especially on Mondays. As a native of New York and a longtime resident of Boston I speak from experience.)
Two Birds, One Stone
Make no mistake about it—the partners are looking for you at these events. And yes, they also expect to see your light on in the evening and to receive prompt responses to their emails–whatever the time. Only some of them may consider billable and non-billable hours mutually exclusive. They understand that their own success depends on your performance.
Discipline. Drive. Self-reliance. Proactivity. Responsiveness. Enthusiasm. Focus. All are portable skills, as are many of the business relationships you develop as a young lawyer. All are essential to your success within your law firm and in developing a practice in the business community. The partners and others who will determine the length of your tenure, and your compensation, will expect you to demonstrate these qualities. So find the time to do just that. At the same time you will be letting the world (and maybe your next employer) know who you are and what you can do.
Remember: No one else has any intention of taking care of you now. Only you can truly invest in your future. Gone are the days of mentoring that is both willing and useful. No matter how generous your assigned mentor appears to be, no matter how supportive the lawyers and staff seem to be at the first year associate orientation, the truth is that you can only rely on yourself. If you take charge of your career now, you’ll be ahead of the game.
Photo by Gordon Hatton via Wikimedia Commons
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