Summary: After nearly two decades of meeting all kinds of attorneys, I believe I have the answer to what it takes to be a successful attorney.
In reviewing the careers of countless attorneys, I believe I have come to understand what makes the majority of attorneys succeed and the majority of attorneys fail. I reach this conclusion from having examined the careers of thousands of attorneys at both the partner and associate level. After nearly two decades of meeting enormously successful attorneys, average attorneys and below average attorneys, I believe I have the answer.
I remember during my second year of practice as an attorney standing in my office when two fellow attorneys in my law firm walked in. These attorneys were both my same class year and were nice guys. Incredibly, I had just gotten off the telephone with a legal recruiter who informed me that I had just received an offer from a competing firm where my salary would nearly double. This was before the days of the "salary wars" and major and important firms in the same city often had vastly different salaries. In this case, I had received an offer from a firm that was the highest-paying firm by far in Los Angeles.
God works in strange ways, and in this instance, the two guys almost immediately started talking about our current firm and how the attorneys in our class would all make partner if we remained. Both of these guys confirmed that was their objective. Out of the 15 people or so who were in my starting class at this law firm, these were the only two who stayed at the firm, and both are partners there to this day. I remember finding out that they had made partner and thinking to myself, "Of course they did."I am also confident that each of these guys will have solid careers at this firm, and each of them will remain at this firm throughout their careers.
I believe I am attracted to legal recruiting in large part because I love watching what makes certain people succeed. The people I have worked with benefit enormously from my study of success and failure. The difference that makes some attorneys have profound success in the law and makes others wallow is the difference between being strategic and being tactical with their careers.
A. The Tactical Attorney
When I sit in my office and interview attorneys, I often feel like I am in an alternate universe. It is common for attorneys to go to top 10 law schools and have a succession of 4 to 5 jobs with major law firms in less than 7 or 8 years. In each instance where the attorney leaves one firm and goes to another, you have to wonder, "Did this person think something was going to be different at the next firm?"You really have to wonder why they are moving around so much.
Consider the attorney who is moving from firm to firm like this. Chances are this attorney sits down at the new firm and does the same (or similar) work to what he did at the previous law firm. The attorney will likely have the same relationships at the second firm with his colleagues that he had at the first firm. The attorney will also likely encounter similar issues with the people giving him work as at the previous firm. The attorney will probably also dislike the same things about the fourth firm that he disliked about the third firm.
Even if an attorney is not switching firms, he may constantly be "on the defensive" with his career at his current firm, never feeling he is doing good enough, hoping someone gives him work, hoping someone leaves to make an opportunity for him and so on.
I have a lot of concerns about the way that most companies do business in America today and the way most executives approach their careers. Many companies do things simply for short-term gain. Many executives are hoping that their companies will award them stock options so they can "cash out" and retire or do something else. There is a lot of emphasis on short-term value and not long-term value in the way most people do business. This short-term emphasis is very tactical, and this tactical emphasis in a career is insane.
If you find an employer that is fair and reasonable, you could end up being there for 10, 20, 30 or more years. This sort of long-term connection between an employer and an employee is meaningful. The employee will typically feel a great deal of security in his position, the employer will be comfortable with the employee at all times, the employee will be around people that understand him and appreciate him for who he is.
Until the mid-1980s in most companies in America (not to mention law firms), most employees remained with a company throughout their career. This was also a time when America was considered very strong in the manufacturing industry on the world stage (much more so than today).With the threat of massive competition coming from Japan in the middle of the 1980s, companies started becoming less loyal to employees and terminating people more readily. Employees started leaving more often as well. A bond between employees and employers was broken even though it had existed for a long, long time. While I am not idealizing this era by any means, for the most part, an employee would only be discharged by a larger company for gross incompetence or extreme dishonesty.
When I use the term "tactic", I am referring to any method used to get short-term gain that is immediate. If someone needs money, a tactic would be to rob a bank, for example. If someone does not like how their work is perceived by their employer, a tactic would be to immediately switch jobs in order to feel better. Most attorneys I know of are tactical.
The tactical attorney looks to what results they are getting in the "here and now" for their efforts. For example, if their firm is not paying "quite market", they may investigate other opportunities. If they are not getting the work they want at the moment, they may also leave the firm they are at.
Let me tell you a couple of stories about attorneys I know who were quite tactical with their careers.
One brilliant attorney I know of graduated near the top of his class from a top 10 law school. He did some important work outside of a law firm for a few years and then joined a law firm in his third year of practice. When he joined the firm, he told them that he did not want to do anything other than intellectual property litigation. The firm he joined was one of the top firms in the United States. When the attorney joined the firm, the firm did not have any intellectual property litigation cases, so they put him on another type of case. He refused the work on the grounds that he was hired to do intellectual property litigation, and that was all he intended to do. After four or five attempts to assign this attorney work, the firm gave up. Six months later, he had not billed any hours and was fired for not billing any work. With this on his record and horrific references from his prior firm, this attorney was never able to get a job with anything but a small law firm ever again.
A couple of years ago, I was with a recruiter from our company who met an attorney for a meal. The attorney had recently been placed at a firm and said that he did not like the firm because they had changed the floor he had to park on at the firm's building. The attorney was looking for a job.
Most attorneys are tactical and are focused on what they can get in the here and now. This focus is extremely limiting because they do not have a long-term view of where they are going. Looking at the small things in relation to their employers is something that holds them back tremendously.
Think about the things you may do in your career that are tactical. In my case, I might still be practicing law if I had not been tactical long ago. I looked at a competing salary as an important factor in my career, for example, even though I knew in my heart that remaining where I was could have given me a long-term result that was fantastic.
Strategic attorneys typically are the most successful attorneys. When an attorney is strategic, they have a well-defined and detailed plan to achieve a long-term goal. They use tactics as a means of carrying out their strategy.
Think back to the two attorneys in my firm who knew they wanted to be partners. Compensation issues were not really meaningful to them. In addition, I am sure they never were too concerned about parking. These guys simply knew where they were going and knew they were going to get there.
Most people do not have written long-term goals. I highly recommend having long-term goals and, in fact, believe they are the most important thing you can have. If you have not seen the movie or read the book, The Secret, I highly recommend doing so as both this book and movie go into considerable detail about the power of goal setting.
Whether it is Napoleon Hill's classic, Think and Grow Rich, or a Tony Robbins seminar, most self-improvement programs you encounter will push you aggressively to set goals for yourself and know where you are going. Once you decide where you are going, your subconscious and conscious mind will figure out a way to get you there. The decisions you make in response to your goal setting will literally shape your destiny.
Strategic attorneys know where they are going. The strategic attorney's goal may be to become a partner in his law firm (or another firm). The strategic attorney may be interested in being a famous attorney. The strategic attorney may be interested in being the attorney with the most business in his city. The strategic attorney may want to be President of the United States (as Bill Clinton did even when he was in law school). Regardless of the strategic attorney's goal, he will have a goal. This goal for the attorney is important.
2. The strategic attorney has a purpose for desiring the result
Just wanting something is never enough. You must also have a purpose for wanting what you want. You need to have reasons for doing what you want to do. These reasons are something that will motivate you and give you a purpose for wanting to achieve. You need to ask yourself "why" you want to be something you are seeking to be or do whatever you are seeking to do.
Every attorney should commit goals to paper and write them down for one year, three years, five years, ten years and 20 years. If you do not have long term strategic objectives, your career will be like a ship without a rudder.
As I mentioned earlier in this article, my decision to leave the firm when I did may have seemed "tactical", but in reality it was not. Long, long ago, my grandfather had been friends at the University of Michigan with the founder of the second firm I worked at (the founder of this firm had once ran for President, and my grandfather was proud to have been friends in college with someone who went on to be a presidential candidate). When I was younger, I wanted to be an attorney, and my grandfather told me, "If you want to be an attorney, you should go to work for Thomas Dewey's firm."I set a goal for myself to work at Dewey Ballantine (now out of business) when I was only 18 years old. My grandfather died a year later. When I was in law school, I did not get an on-campus interview with the firm. When I began practicing, I only applied to that one firm because I had set a goal for myself to work there. I imagine I made a lot of decisions based on this strategy I had for myself.
The setting of a goal (long-term strategy) is often equivalent to its attainment. But if you do not start somewhere, you'll ultimately be nowhere. The strategic attorney is the most successful attorney. If you are strategic, your career and life will change.
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