A few months ago, I spoke to a friend of mine who does transactional work for a large law firm. He was bemoaning the fact that the pace of his workload was unsustainable. He felt like he was drinking from a fire hose. Clients and partners were emailing him at all hours, he was spending a significant portion of his family vacations on the phone and in general, he was feeling burnt out.
Fast forward several months and the situation has changed. My friend is still working hard; but by modifying his own behavior, he finds that he is feeling considerably less stress.
What was interesting about my discussion was that my friend had come to realize that a portion of his stress was self inflicted. Despite the fact that he had worked for the firm for over five years and had proved himself to be reliable and hard working, he was treating every phone call and email as urgent.
In short, he was not setting limits on any requests he was receiving.
So now, he turns off his phone at 8 p.m. every night and unless he is up against a deadline, he reserves the rest of his evening to spend time with his family and pursue his personal interests. More importantly, when he gets requests from clients at 5 p.m., he asks them when they need to hear back. More often than not, the answer is NOT 8 a.m. the next morning. Similarly, he asks partners when they need a response.
By turning off his phone in the evening and by asking clients and partners for REAL deadlines, this friend of mine has made a meaningful difference in his work/life balance. He still works long hours. But now he is much more selective about what work is urgent and which matters can wait until he gets into the office the next day. And life is much better for him.
Benjamin Barton, a professor at the University of Tennessee School of Law, offers a sobering assessment of the state of the legal profession–law schools graduating too many lawyers, graduates who can’t find jobs and a crushing debt load for the majority who don’t win the large law firm lottery and who end up in lower paying jobs. Barton also lays out the systemic changes to the practice of law including the increased use of technology and contract lawyers (both domestic and international) who perform lower level document review that was once completed by law firms.
He concludes with some positive notes about how the public as a whole will benefit from some of these changes. But anyone reading this book will think twice about applying to law school.
In truth, the message has already made it to the next generation of wanna be lawyers. Applications to law school are way down.
It’s a good read and it ties together a number of themes that have been percolating in the legal and popular press (particularly since the Great Recession).
Julie Fleming, of Lex Innova Consulting, has a nice post on how technology may be interfering with your business relationship building. It’s a short read, but right on point.
In the past 18 years, I have spoken to thousands of law firm associates about their career concerns. While there are a number of themes that are common (long and unpredictable hours, difficult clients, concerns about not making partner), one thing I have heard over and over again is the desire to go in-house. Simply put, many of these associates have a strong belief that life in a corporate law department is better. Getting one of these coveted jobs would be like winning the legal lottery.
In the 25+ years since I graduated law school, I have also spoken to many in-house attorneys and it is apparent to me that there is a gap between perception and reality when it comes to in-house jobs. While life can be great from the inside, there is hardly a universal feeling of utter career satisfaction amongst lawyers who work in a corporate environment. In fact, there are some real tradeoffs when leaving the law firm environment.
Lawyers who pursue the in-house route like the notion that they can get away from the billable hour. There is a perception that hours are better and because you are now acting as the client, you have fewer unexpected emergencies. There is also the belief that being on the inside is a chance to build ongoing relationships with your internal clients and an opportunity to become part of the “team”.
There is some truth to these perceptions. From my observations, in-house lawyers do tend to enjoy better hours and fewer unexpected emergencies (though there are many exceptions to this.) In-house lawyers are often freed of the burden of having to record hours and by living with one client, there is an opportunity to really get to know the business.
From speaking with many in-house lawyers, I also know that getting off the law firm track does involve some compromise.
First, unless you are doing licensing deals for your company, moving in-house means moving from the income side of a business to the expense side of the business. With this can come a loss of professional status. In a law firm, the partners rule. In a corporation, lawyers are viewed as a cost of doing business. In considering an in-house role, look at the status of the law department in that company. Does the GC report to the CEO? Or the CFO? Is the GC considered part of the senior management team? If there are several attorneys in the law department, what do they say about how they are viewed by the business team? Is their opinion respected? Are they brought in at an early stage before deals are made? Or do lawyers simply come in at the end to make sure everything is documented properly?
While many in-house lawyers do not track their hours, the reality is that this is not a given. In some corporations, you still need to track your hours so that the legal expense can be properly allocated to the appropriate business unit.
In a law firm, you generally have a broad mix of clients. In a corporation, you are dependent on one client. This means that you are putting more of your eggs in one basket. In other words, going in-house can be more risky because you only have one client. If that client is acquired or if the business gets into financial trouble, your job may be at risk. And since in-house jobs are not so easy to find, it may be hard to find the next job. Furthermore, once you go in-house, getting back to a law firm can be challenging because as you get more senior, law firms will want to know what business you can bring with you. As an in-house lawyer, you may not be well positioned to bring any work.
Finally, if you care about the level of sophistication of your work or maximizing salary, then consider whether in-house is the right place for you to practice. In-house lawyers certainly get their share of sophisticated work, but it is more likely that challenging or novel legal problems will be sent to outside counsel who see the same problems across a range of clients. Similarly, unless you get lucky with stock options, in all likelihood, if you leave a major law firm to go in-house, you will probably leave salary on the table.
None of this is to say that lawyers should avoid in-house jobs. There is some evidence that the there is a trend towards companies increasing the size of their law departments. There are also many happy in-house lawyers who do not miss the billable hour. But consider the tradeoffs before you make the move. It may just be that law firm life is a better career option for you. It may just be that you need to find a firm that offers you the right mix of work, billing rates, opportunity to build your own practice and culture.
There are many ways to build your reputation as a lawyer and cultivate relationships that can turn into referral sources. The important thing is to stay involved in activities you enjoy, otherwise, you will find yourself making excuses to avoid that activity and you won’t enjoy the activity enough to make it worth your while. When I do marketing training, I always ask who likes golf? I tell the attorneys who don’t raise their hands to avoid it because it is unlikely to be a positive experience and unlikely to help you build your relationships.
As a lawyer, there are many non-profit and civic causes where you can lend a hand and make a valuable contribution. If you are thinking about the best way to do that, on March 19th, I am participating on a panel with the Massachusetts Bar Association. Click here for more information. The program is free for MBA members and can be accessed remotely.
If you are like most of your colleagues, the New Year has come and gone and so have your New Year’s Resolutions. Change is hard and in the high pressured field of law, resolving to spend more time on non-billable work may be easier said than done. While there continues to be slow and steady movement towards project based billing in private practice, the reality is that most lawyers still bill by the hour; and most law firms still pay close attention to billable hours in determining how much of a contribution you are making to your firm.
In the short run, a lot of the incentive is to maximize the hours you bill. But for most attorneys, building your own practice is what will give you more career satisfaction and more control over your destiny.
So you resolved to spend more time on marketing in 2014. But as we approach Groundhog Day, that resolution may seem like a distant memory. The good news is that its never too late to start making change. So here are some tips for how you can be more successful with your Groundhog Day Resolutions:
1. Don’t try to change everything at once. Choose one or two things that you want to do differently this year.
2. Resolve to spend a fixed amount of time every week on marketing and put it in your calendar (perhaps 15-30 minutes every morning before you become consumed with client demands).
3. Choose marketing activities you think you would enjoy. If you like to write, write about something you want to be known for. If you like to speak, get out and speak about something that will reinforce the reputation you want. If you enjoy playing golf or attending sporting events with referral sources, do that.
4. Don’t try to reinvent the wheel. When you work on a client matter, think about whether there are other prospective clients who might want to know about an issue. You’ve already done the work. Can you turn it into an article, check list or blog post?
5. Recycle your marketing. The goal is to be visible. Once you have written something, send it to individuals on your mailing list (start a mailing list if you don’t already have one). Create a newsletter that links to items you and some of your colleagues have already written (again, focusing on the subject matter where you want to build your reputation). Publicize your speaking engagements through a newsletter, on your website and in a LinkedIn update.
6. Send out articles (or links to articles) to people on your mailing list. “Thought this might be of interest to you.”
7. Get involved in a recreational, civic, non-profit or hobby related activity that puts you in contact with the kinds of people you want to meet. Again, choose activities you enjoy (i.e. not things you think you “should” be doing). You are much more likely to follow through and participate and you are much more likely to be relaxed.
Truly building a law practice can take years. So the sooner you get started, the sooner you will start to see the fruits of your labors. But don’t feel like marketing is an all or nothing proposition. Resolve to do a little more this year than you did last year and you will make a real contribution to your own success down the road.
Good marketing is the art of differentiation. If you present yourself like any other lawyer in the marketplace, potential clients and referral sources are less likely to remember you when they encounter a need you can service.
This is a hard lesson to embrace in a competitive field for legal services. Most of the clients I work with are concerned that if they do not mention everything they do, they will miss out on opportunities. But by not focusing your marketing message, the opposite is true. You run the risk of being memorable for nothing.
Think of it as you would when taking a photograph. A good photographer will focus in on those elements in the scene where they want your attention drawn. If your main subject is out of focus, then you often end up with a bad photo and the viewer doesn’t know where to focus his or her attention.
So if your primary practice focus is creating estate plans for middle class couples, don’t be afraid to tell that to the potential clients and referral sources you meet. If the individual is looking for a good divorce lawyer and you happen to do some of that work, you can always indicate that as the conversation progresses. Similarly, if they are selling a home or have a potential conflict with a business partner, and that is work that you have successfully handled, then you can add that to the conversation, as well.
The point is when someone asks what you do, try and limit yourself to one or two (possibly three), types of matters that you handle and who are the most likely clients for that work. Like a good photograph, a focused marketing message will stick longer in the memory of those who you are relying on for your work. You can always clarify that you also handle the type of matter that the individual needs help with. But keep the focus of your marketing message on those areas that you want to be known for. A focused message like that is much more likely to stick.
Great venn diagram on the subject.
I write a lot in this space about relationship building, reputation building and the tools you need to market your law practice. For those of you who practice in a law firm setting (either as an associate or as a partner), there are some bigger issues you should also address in your career.
There will always be tradeoffs when deciding where to build your career. But, what are some other questions you should ask yourself in order to assess whether your platform is the “right” platform?