Improving Your Professional Stock

by | March 10, 2009

Dear SJL,

I'm a junior/midlevel transactional associate at large national firm. I have a growing family at home and my daily commute is at least an hour each way, so when I'm in the office, I try to put my head down and work. My billable hours are slightly above average for my class year, I get solid, but unspectacular, reviews and my job security is good. I don't think partnership is for me, but I'm starting to worry that it won't even be an option if other opportunities don't present themselves. There are associates at my firm who consistently bill over 2,500 hours a year and it is those people that the partners seem to spend the most time and effort training and mentoring. What's worse, on the rare occasions when I go to ask a partner a question, he or she is on the phone or in a meeting with one of the more hard-charging associates. I feel like no matter how productive I am, I'm on the outside looking in.

I just don't have time to wait around in the hallway in hopes that I'll get 30 seconds of attention from a partner and also work the hours that are required in order for me to keep my billables remotely competitive with the top billers. Short of billing 3,000 hours a year (and never seeing my family), how can I improve my stock among the partners at my firm?

Signed,

On the Outside Looking In

Dear OOLI,

I want to first commend you for your hard work and willingness to seek input on how to make the most of your law firm experience. Your question is one that many associates grapple quietly with, but few address openly or in a meaningful way. The good news is that you have already displayed the quality that will be critical to improving your stature among the firm's partnership - initiative. But before planning, re-planning and/or attempting to jumpstart your career, you have to take that important first step: self-evaluation.

Before you set off on a campaign to win the hearts and minds of every partner you have ever encountered, at least attempt to clarify what you are trying to accomplish. We all like being liked, but at the end of the day, "What's in it for you?"

You say that partnership is probably not for you. Well, what is it about partnership at your firm that turns you off? What aspects of a typical partner's work, lifestyle and day-to-day responsibilities do you wish to avoid? Are any of these aspects specific to a particular partner with whom you have worked? Do these aspects apply primarily to attorneys in your practice area? How many may be attributed to your firm's specific partnership structure?

I have inferred from your letter that you see only a two-pronged fork in the road to lawyerly success: law firm partnership and in-house counsel. But if maximizing time for family is paramount, you may want to explore career opportunities at your firm for attorneys that either are considered for, but not elected to the partnership, or don't seek partnership in the first place. If you do intend to pursue a long-term professional home outside the law firm setting, what about in-house opportunities are attractive to you? What type of company do you envision yourself counseling? Does your firm represent such clients? Are you currently working for any of them?

Taking the time to think about and develop meaningful answers to these questions will help clarify your true desires and instill the confidence and strength of convictions necessary to pursue those goals with passion they deserve. Now it's time to roll those sleeves up and follow through. Here are three things to think about that should help maximize both your productivity and the impact of that productivity on the partners you seek to impress.

First, connect with one influential partner whose work you generally enjoy doing and/or whose clients you see as potential future employers. And by "connect with" I don't mean smiling more broadly when you say "Hi" on the way the john. I don't mean complimenting his snazzy new briefcase. I don't mean taking up golf for first time in your life because she's a 5-handicap and a member at Winged Foot. You need a mentor, a teacher, a confidante on the inside. Spend a couple weeks familiarizing yourself with the hierarchy of your firm, your office and your practice group. Know which partner has which client relationships and who heads up the committees charged with shaping associate life, compensation and professional development. Be aware of which partners hail from your alma mater or home town. Ferret out which one shares your passion for Celtic music. If possible, determine which partner the others go to when they need a consult, or better yet, a favor. Preferably, your mentor will be an individual for whom you have worked previously, and who knows how dedicated you are to your clients, but don't rule out the partner whose work no one else seems to want - depending on the circumstances, servicing his or her clients may be just the break you need.

Once you've identified this lucky partner, waste no time connecting. Get on his or her calendar for a half hour and when the opportunity presents itself, explain your interest in the partner's work, ask for as much responsibility as you can handle on his or her next deal and thank him or her for taking the time to sit down with you. And feel more than free to tell the partner you sought out this meeting because you wish to take a more active role in the development of your career. If there's one thing I've learned, it's that you can't go wrong with good, old fashioned honesty.

So, you've established an initial connection. But with all that you've got on your plate, how are you going to ensure that you make enough of an impact on your first assignment from your new mentor to prevent him or her from becoming your old mentor? The answer sounds simple, but it's easy to overlook in the heat of the moment at 4:30 pm on a Thursday when you've got reps and warranties to draft, a bank closing in the morning, a client call at 6pm, and four junior associates' due diligence notes to cobble into a coherent summary by noon tomorrow. If you can keep your eye on this ball, however, I guarantee that it will be the key to your success -"communicate up" and do it religiously.

"Communicating up," in this case, substitutes nicely for a phrase that's become all the rage amongst managers and sharp-witted career counselors in all businesses and industries - "managing up." In the law firm context, managing up is the idea that it's not enough for a midlevel associate to diligently complete his work, coordinate with junior contributors and present a finished product within the time allotted for said project - this is mere competence. The standout associate does all of this while regularly reporting up to her supervising partner, no matter how much or little has happened since their most recent communication. This creates opportunities for interaction regarding all aspects of a transaction and makes the partner look good for his or her clients. It's not working harder, it's working smarter.

Most partners are too busy managing their own work, coordinating with firm management and keeping their clients happy to monitor every up-and-down or in-and-out of the process by which a deal goes from term sheet to closing. But if the partner gets a surprise call from the client and hasn't heard from you in two days (let alone two weeks) he/she is going to be stuck with outdated information about the deal - this, to put it bluntly is not good.

So, take the initiative.

Don't wait until a project is complete or until a deadline is 24 hours away to update your supervising partner as to the status of your deal. In fact, don't let a single day go by without delivering a brief status update. There are a number of ways to keep yourself honest in this pursuit. You might determine one or two times of day at which your partner tends to be in the office and not terribly swamped; make it a point to drop by for five minutes at one or both of those times. You might also set a check-in schedule and build it into your copy of your deal's closing checklist or working group schedule. And don't just put it your calendar, put it in your secretary's calendar and ask her to remind you for good measure. If you are unable to get the partner's attention during one of these times, schedule a follow-up with the partner's secretary and ask to be reminded or notified if the partner's schedule changes.

Here's another important reminder: when trying to connect with a harried partner, his or her secretary is your ace in the hole. He/she can tell you when the partner is returning from lunch, who he's meeting with tomorrow, what time he's leaving to catch the train, what time zone he happens to be in today and much, much more. Become friendly and familiar with this individual, and you will hold the key to becoming a mainstay on your partner's radar.

And lest we ignore the actual substance of our communication efforts, the key to effective managing up is efficient use of the partner's time - believe me, he or she will appreciate it. Here are some basic tips for effective communication in short blocks of time: (1) Be prepared. Keep a small notebook dedicated to any questions or concerns that come up throughout the day. Then spend at least 15 minutes at the beginning or end of each day (use your long commute for this, if possible) reviewing the past 24 hours of activity, updating the schedule going forward and making note of any additional questions you have. (2) Begin by providing the partner with a succinct snapshot of the current status of the deal - this is the stage we're at now, these are the three things that have happened since we last spoke, these are the three things that must be accomplished between now and our next check-in. This step should take no more than 2 minutes, allowing plenty of time for the partner to ask informed questions that may not have occurred to you and offer suggestions for how best to push your deal over the next milestone. (3) Communicate areas of concern, questions about your tasks and needs for additional partner attention to the matter at hand. It's in moments like these that you'll get much of the mentoring and training that you seem to so sorely crave. Just be sure to remember that training and mentorship is a two-way street - you'll get out of it what you put in.

Finally, somewhat obvious and accordingly, often taken for granted, continue to learn. If you really want to be taken seriously by the partners in your group and firm management more generally, spend a few extra hours now to learn a new skill that will make you valuable to the firm's clients. Brush up on an area of law or deal structure that your clients favor, but which other attorneys at your firm have only a passing knowledge of; become your department's leading expert on antitrust regulations, synthetic financial products, or reverse triangular mergers. During your long commute, instead of snoozing or jacking some fool's ride on your PSP, spend some time studying your clients' industry sector(s) - read the Wall Street Journal, the Daily Deal, trade magazines. Ask your partners and clients what they read.

While there is no doubt that on-the-job training is best, take advantage of all of the resources that are available to you as an associate at a large national firm. Attend all internal CLE courses that pertain in any way to your practice area. Subscribe to PLI's email newsletter for regular information on programs available in your city, and sign up for a course that will expand your ability to serve your clients - the best part is that it's likely free (most large firms have PLI subscriptions that entitle all of the firm's attorneys to unlimited training programs). You can also contact your firm's librarian or professional development director for access to the aforementioned publications and additional CLE courses on CD and DVD, yet another way you might take advantage of your long commute. Explore your firm's Knowledge Management or precedent database to both educate yourself on long-standing best practices and identify areas where your own deal documents might serve to make the database offerings more robust.

Again, improving your stock and gaining mentorship and training from your firm's partnership is a two-way street. If your input to this process is not in the form of additional billable hours (working harder), then you must take the initiative to increase the value of the hours you are already billing, from both the perspective of your partners and that of the clients you may one day serve on the inside.

I hope that this has been helpful. Please feel free to keep in touch!

Brian


Brian Reinthaler joined SJL Attorney Search as a Managing Director in 2006, after more than four years of transactional practice first with the New York office of Baker Botts LLP and most recently with Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati, P.C.; Brian focuses on placement of associate-level attorneys at law firms and investment banks in the New York metropolitan area.

Brian is a cum laude graduate of the University Notre Dame, where he earned a bachelor's degree in government and international studies; he earned his law degree from the Georgetown University Law Center, where he served as a Student Ambassador and a staff member on the Georgetown Journal of Legal Ethics.As a practicing attorney, Brian gained experience advising corporate clients on a wide array of matters, from mergers and acquisitions and securities offerings to corporate structuring and operations, working closely with both private and public companies.

While he thoroughly enjoyed his legal work, Brian ultimately decided to utilize his skills on the recruiting side. Specializing in associate recruiting, Brian works in all areas of practice, including mergers and acquisitions, private equity, capital markets, securities, structured finance, tax, litigation, real estate, bankruptcy and intellectual property. His law firm experience affords him a keen understanding of associate life and professional development, particularly in transactional practice.

Brian's innate talents as a career counselor are invaluable to his attorney candidates, as is his formidable professional network. Brian is an avid sports fan, with a particular affection for his beloved Fighting Irish. He enjoys both playing and watching sports, including basketball and football, and has a newfound passion for kickboxing. Brian lives in Hoboken with his wife and daughter.


ABOUT SJL ATTORNEY SEARCH, LLC

Founded in 2003, SJL Attorney Search, LLC is a legal recruitment firm that works closely with law firms and other sophisticated legal employers to identify, recruit and ultimately hire qualified attorneys. Our consultants have successfully placed associates, partners and corporate counsel of varying rank in all practice areas of law, including mergers and acquisitions, capital markets, global finance, real estate, bankruptcy, tax, labor and employment, ERISA, intellectual property and litigation. In an industry that has a reputation for sharp elbows and cutting corners, we hold fast to our core values of integrity, quality, team work and accountability.

We understand the immense value of relationships and so, we have assembled a team of proven relationship builders in the firm. In addition to a research staff that supports our firm's goal to cull and store the best market information, SJL Attorney Search is proud that our consultants include former practicing attorneys with tremendous academic credentials, a former senior law firm administrator, a former law school professor and a former senior marketing executive. Please visit www.sjlsearch.com to learn more about our consultants and our firm.

Filed Under: Job Search


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