It’s been 15 years since I stood on the steps of Langdell Hall as a newly minted Harvard Law School graduate. Along with 500 of my classmates, I naturally assumed we would launch our careers, rise through the ranks, and then make partner — all at the same firm where we started. Little did I realize that the path to success is not a linear one, but rather a series of well-intentioned moves in a complex landscape where legal expertise is only one facet.
Here are my suggestions for recent graduates as they navigate the next decade of their legal careers:
- Build Your Network. Though I am no longer a practicing attorney, the network of friends and peers I built in my short stint in Biglaw pay dividends even outside the practice of law. For attorneys, the payoff is even greater; attorneys live and die by their reputation and maintaining a group of advocates, mentors and friends will both embed your reputation in the legal community – for better or worse so be careful – and open new opportunities to you from lateral movement, referrals, career advice or even just moral support.
- Keeping On Climbing. Perhaps the most apt metaphor I’ve heard to describe a Biglaw career is that it is akin to climbing a mountain. It is a constant uphill battle that becomes steeper the higher up you climb. While attempting to climb the ranks in Biglaw, you will get outpaced by your coworkers if you fail to recognize that steady endurance and constant commitment are the keys to success. Our clients measure attorneys based on their future expected performance, which is often demonstrated by tangible benchmarks from their past, such as originations and hours. Try to maintain an even pace that allows you to hit both the quantity and quality requisites for working in Biglaw.
- Death of a Salesman. Young lawyers often think of sales and marketing as ignoble and would rather devote their time strictly to the practice of the law. While an endearing sentiment, the reality is that any partner worth his or her salt has developed sales prowess. In my dealings with rainmakers, the one thing they all possess is the ability to communicate with clarity and act with authenticity. It takes a track record of expertise to get in front of a client, but once you’re there, you have to close the deal and pass up when you cannot deliver. Look for partners with a demonstrated record of procuring large clients, and see if they are willing to mentor you, ride their coat tails.
- Play Chess Not Checkers. Navigating your legal career requires finesse and foresight. From Elementary School to Law School, your path has likely been fairly linear. The game of law is not so much – it requires a deft touch to get you where you want to go. You may have to sacrifice short-term happiness for long-term gains. For instance, though you may be enamored with your overly leveraged firm and have few opportunities for servicing meaningful work and practicing your client development skills. Come your eighth year the firm is not going to make you partner just because you love the firm so much. We have had clients that lateral away from their dream firm to gain the requisite experience at another firm to later come return to that firm as a partner. Think three moves ahead, not just one.
- Always Explore Your Options. The days of the lifer are pretty much over. Staying with one firm for eight years in hopes of becoming a partner won’t boost your chances as much as you might hope. In making your career plan, remember that there are always opportunities for more substantial work, higher pay, and better mentorship. It never hurts to be aware of your career options and check in on the marketplace from time to time. Worst-case scenario, you stay at your firm if the current opportunities are not quite the right fit.
As you embark on your law careers, remember there is no singular piece of advice that will fit every attorney. Much of your career will be reacting to new information with little notice. We counsel our candidates based on each individual’s current situation and goals, and we invite you to explore your options with us.