You’re a Law Firm Associate—You’re Going to Leave
I had to sneak into the law firm at night, after everyone had left, to use the copier. Technically, I was breaking the rules by making copies I wasn’t supposed to make.
The copies were handouts for seminars I was doing at a local women’s center. I developed a speech on family law and I delivered it to a small group once a month in an old house the center rented. The place was chaos. I talked, children climbed on the furniture, everyone was distracted--I was always agitated when I left.
But once in a while, one of those women in attendance became a client. That’s why I was there. I wanted to grow my practice.
The law firm didn’t approve. They wanted me focused on rural electric cooperative and employment law. I secretly made copies. I was a pain in their ass.
You are leaving the law firm
In retrospect, I guess I should have known that the law firm and I weren’t a good fit. They resisted my efforts to market the practice. I loved selling stuff, but they wanted me to bill hours. I lasted three long years.
The partners were good people, smart lawyers, and spent considerable time trying to reel me in. It didn’t work.
I can see now that I pushed their control buttons--they needed to feel in control of their law firm. I’ve felt the same way in response to some of my associates. The boss wants to be the boss. We want to be the decision-maker. The associate is supposed to do what they’re told.
But what if what you’re being told to do isn’t good for you? What if you can do both the marketing and the billing? What if you can contribute to the growth of the firm? Should you let them reel you in or should you sneak into the copier room at midnight?
I knew early on that I was leaving that law firm. You’re leaving too. Hopefully, you’ll last longer than three years. If you can make it work, maybe you’ll stay forever.
But the odds are strong that you’re leaving, eventually. Maybe you’ll go to a different firm. Maybe you’ll leave the law entirely or head into a government-lawyer role. Maybe you’ll start your own business.
I was ready and that readiness led to long term success
My underground marketing efforts worked. The Women’s Center speeches turned into speeches at churches and in civic groups all over town. That led to more volunteering, board memberships, and even more invitations to speak in public schools, at business groups, and on radio and television.
By the time I left the law firm I had a regular slot on a talk radio show, did monthly interviews on the biggest local TV station, and had a column in more than thirty newspapers.
When I moved on I brought my clients along. We had a strong bond. I’d also built relationships within the firm; one employee left with me and another followed shortly thereafter.
The referral sources I’d cultivated while at the firm started referring to me at my new location. In fact, knowing I needed more business, they amped up their efforts. The phone rang frequently.
The work I’d done to build my reputation while at the law firm paid off in a big way. And that foundation allowed my reputation to continue to grow. I already knew a lot of people, but I got to know even more as the folks I knew helped me meet others.
Everybody wins when you prepare to leave
I know some law firm owners will read what I’ve written as a threat to their success. They'll see the above as words of encouragement for the associates conspiring to depart with their clients.
I hear you. I get it. I feel your pain.
I did it to my first employer. I’ve had lots of associates do it to me. It’s the circle, the cycle, the system. Everybody is leaving. Nobody is forever.
By encouraging them to get ready to leave, I’m helping you create a more valuable employee while you’ve got them on your team. I’m trying to turbocharge them so they’re worth more to you and, ultimately, to themselves.
Your mission, Law Firm Owner, is to keep them as long as possible. Treat them well, know what they need, give them what matters to them. They’ll stay with you for a long time if you give them a place worth staying.
Prepare now so you’re ready to go
Your departure from your current employment situation may come voluntarily (hopefully) or it may come when the firm terminates you, lays you off, closes down, whatever (hopefully not).
But the odds of you staying where you are forever are slim--very, very slim. You are leaving.
It might happen next week. It could be next month, next year, or even a decade from now. But one day, you are leaving.
The issue for today is what you’ll have, when the time comes, to take with you. Will you have a reputation that’s worth something to future employers and potential clients? Or will you simply have another few years on the clock since your graduation from law school?
One day, you'll pack your snow globe in a box and walk out the front door. Will you spend the time between now and then increasing your own value, or allowing your value to diminish?
It’s time to get moving
I’ve had countless associates come back to me, long after they’ve left my employ, to tell me I was right about something.
Telling someone else that they were right, acknowledging that you were wrong, is hard. It’s a big, generous, grateful move. I’m proud of those lawyers who came back to tell me that I was right all along.
The primary thing they’ve acknowledged to me, long after they’ve left, is that they should have been doing more all along. They should have been more focused on their reputation. They should have been more concerned with their store of knowledge. They should have been more careful about cultivating their experiences.
It takes a big person to go back to your old boss and acknowledge that you got something wrong. I’m hoping the wisdom they gained is something which helps you a bit today. Learning these lessons on your own is hard. Absorbing them by reading an article is much easier. Hard-learned lessons are sometimes easier to remember, but I hope you don’t require that kind of learning.
Invest in yourself here and now
You’re safe and happy, paid and supervised, comfortable and warm where you are now. Use your environment to grow yourself. Leaving can be frightening, cold, desperate, and perilously unsupported. This is the time to invest in yourself while you have the luxury of doing so.
Use this time in your current job to get yourself ready for what’s next.
I’m not suggesting you steal copies from the copier. But I am suggesting that you treat every moment as an opportunity to increase the balance of your internal asset accounts: your reputation, your experience, your talents, skills, and abilities. Treat each assignment, introduction, and problem as a chance to grow.
If you coast along doing only what’s required, you’ll look back on this time with regret. You’ll wish you’d taken more time and devoted more energy to investing in yourself.
Here are some specific action steps to take. Please note that doing these things benefits you, and benefits your current law firm. These steps create future opportunities for you, and they grow your value.
1. Get out and meet people
Get to know more folks. Go EVERYWHERE. Join clubs, go to Meetups, exercise in a group, get active in the bar association, join the Chamber of Commerce, get involved in charities, do more.
Build your network of friends. This is a game where the one who dies with the most friends wins. Make more friends.
Use your time waiting at the courthouse to meet people. When you get sent on a wild goose chase to pick up a box of files that your boss forgot, use the drive time to call people and chat. When you email opposing counsel, tack a P.S. on at the end, inviting them to lunch.
2. Be visible
Do things in the community. Volunteer in a political campaign. Teach a class. Join a religious group or an atheist group or whatever kind of group. Get out of your office and your apartment and see other humans.
I’ve asked associates to go out and do things in the community and the response I’ve sometimes received is “how will I be compensated for that?” They’re doomed. They aren’t doing the math. The small investment of your time translates into big value in your visibility. Don’t look for a few bucks now. Look for the big bucks as you become known to others outside of your firm.
3. Write stuff
Turn your assignments into observations about the legal world. Write a blog or create articles for the firm website or submit them for publication to the local business journal.
Look at every client and every project as an opportunity for writing. Then turn that writing into YouTube videos, or podcasts, or LinkedIn posts. You’re creating assets with each of your creations. These assets pay off for a long time to come. You’ll publish them now, but you’ll also recycle them later. Keep writing.
4. Add skills
Be open to doing things you don’t know how to do. Do the research, ask questions, figure it out and secretly add it to your list of skills. Keep learning.
Seek out external learning opportunities. Find out who the gurus are and attend their continuing education programs. Go sit in the gallery and watch the successful lawyers--take notes. Sit in on public meetings, visit the appellate courts and chat with the clerks.
Read more than you want to read. Read the treatise. Outline the statutes. Read the latest cases, follow the promulgation of new rules, read the publications piling up around the office. Take notes, develop a database of your thoughts, make your learning systematic, and create a portable repository.
5. Do your best
Treat every project as an opportunity to demonstrate your capabilities. If you’ve been assigned to mail something at the post office then do it perfectly. If you’re writing a brief, make it better than expected. If you’re handling a client, turn the client into a raving fan.
Now is the time to push yourself toward excellence. Being better than average isn’t hard to do if you make it the way you do things. It’s easy to slip to the lowest common denominator. Do better. Be better. The work ethic you develop now will be your work ethic going forward. Don’t tell yourself that you’ll really turn it on when you need it--later. This is it. Turn it on now.
There is no later--start now
Don’t start later--start NOW. Don’t convince yourself you’ll do the above when you start your next thing. Don’t believe you’ll do it when you begin the next stage. The next thing has already started. You are underway. You are now in the early stages of what’s next.
It’s tempting to be dissatisfied with your current situation (and most of us can ALWAYS find a reason to be dissatisfied) and then rationalize our lackadaisical approach to investing in ourselves. We’re unhappy and we don’t want to work hard for the benefit of the boss.
Sure, the work might benefit the boss, but it mostly benefits you. It’s all an investment in you. You take it all with you when you walk out the door every night.
And the sooner you invest, the more your value grows.
The assets you create today will grow exponentially. There’s a compounding effect. Starting later means you retard your growth. It’s like trying to save for retirement when you’re fifty instead of starting when you’re twenty.
Don’t worry about your employer
Some lawyers, when deliberately turning their work into a way to grow themselves, see this as taking time or energy away from their employer. Don’t think that way.
When you get better, when you grow, the law firm gets better and grows. You don’t exist outside of the ecosystem of the firm. You are a piece of the building. Your growth makes the firm bigger, stronger, more capable, and more valuable.
When you grow, we all grow. Sure, you may take that growth with you later, but for now, you are a critical piece of what enables the law firm to deliver on its promises.
There is no conflict between you and the law firm. The smart law firm finds a way to exploit your new-found value. The smart law firm finds a way to keep you on the team for as long as possible. The smart law firm views your effort as a contribution to the success of the entity and understands that you’re a free agent who will stay for as long as staying makes sense--for you.
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Be ready to move
The work you’re doing to grow your own value makes you more important to the firm with each passing day. It also makes you more valuable to the market outside of the law firm.
Keep growing. Each day is another chance to increase your value.
Look for bigger chances to take, new opportunities to try new things, and interesting people to meet. Keep growing your skills, your relationships, and your reputation. It’s all portable. Be ready to take it all with you.
The more you grow, the more powerful you become. Your value to the market keeps increasing. You layer growth experience on top of growth experience. Your opportunities grow with each passing day.
Final note to law firm owners
Yep, they really are leaving. It’s the nature of the business.
But that’s not a problem--it’s just the way it is, has been, always will be.
Train them, grow them, invest in them. Get attached to them, care for them, help them, profit from them.
Don’t build a business model that will be devastated by the departure of employees. Build a business model that strives to retain employees, but accepts the reality that one way or another they are all eventually leaving this business--nobody gets out alive.
Creating a vision that requires employees to stay with you forever is like planning a vacation and expecting it to never rain. Most of what happens in our lives, and our businesses, can be anticipated, planned for, and handled smoothly when the time comes.
Life is predictable.
Your home is a good illustration: your air conditioning and heating systems will wear out, you’ll need a new roof, the windows will eventually require replacement. The house needs painting, the driveway needs sealing, the gutters need cleaning. These issues are predictable. You know what’s coming so you plan, you budget, you set aside time to deal with what’s coming. Sure, the issues might arise at inopportune moments, but you’re ready when they happen.
The same is true of the associate. The timing might be off, but it’s anticipatable. Be ready. Expect it to happen when you least expect it and are already stretching your systems. Have a plan. It’s coming. Accepting reality helps you be ready for reality.