How To Succeed at Each Stage of Your Legal Career

By   Category Career Development, Personal Growth

Takeaway: Advancing to the next stage in your legal career requires much more than being a good lawyer. You must develop the right “identity” — the beliefs, capabilities and behaviors — needed to succeed at each level. It is important to note that what helped you succeed at one level is not what it takes to succeed at the next higher level.

Developing the Optimal Identity

A legal career is an organic thing – constantly evolving. The beliefs, capabilities and behaviors (identity) that make you a good associate differs dramatically from the identity that makes you a good working partner – or a good firm leader.

As shown in the chart below, many aspects of your identity must change as you move up the law firm hierarchy. Two of these behaviors, generating new work and managing aspects of the firm, directly affect the amount of influence you have in the firm.

Super Partner Supplying firm (only 1 or 2 in a firm) Managing many and/or firm Very High / Firm-Wide
Supervising Partner Supplying self many associates and partners Managing entire complex cases; has management role High
Working Partner Generating Supplying self and some associates Managing entire complex cases; may have other management duties Medium
Service Partner Not yet generating enough work for self Managing some cases and some associates Low
Senior Associate Being supplied work Managing some aspects of cases Minimal

Successfully Moving Up the Career Ladder

In many cases, this growth is a haphazard rather than a deliberate process. No conscious thought is given to the changes that are necessary as you fully step into each new identity.

Successful lawyers at every identity level understand and embrace the need for constant growth in all three areas – beliefs, capabilities, and behaviors – as they progress through their careers.

Successful law firms understand that they must cultivate an environment in which this growth can take place. By doing so, these firms can enjoy the increased revenues that result when lawyers maximize their personal and professional growth.

Selecting a Guide to Help You Make the Transition

The transition to each new level poses unique challenges. To successfully transition from one level to the next, you often need a “guide”; someone experienced in what it takes to succeed at each level and has helped others navigate these changes. Guides can be firm mentors or outside coaches. You can also draw on those in your personal network who have made the transition.

When selecting a guide, ensure the person has successfully helped others transition to the level you are moving to. For instance, if you are “working partner” and want to move to “supervising partner”, select someone who has helped someone make this transition.

The Challenges of Going it Alone

Without this kind of help, lawyers can become stuck in an identity rut – never becoming the best lawyers, team members, and leaders that they can be. They may have progressed to the next level in terms of business development while retaining the fear and insecurity associated with the previous level. In other words, their capabilities and behaviors have changed – but not their belief in themselves.

Business Development Requirements Change with Each Level

One primary behavior that needs to change throughout your career is how you ‘feed’ yourself, your group, and your firm – by bringing in new business.

At the bottom of the law-firm food chain, a new associate is fed by others while learning the hands-on aspects of practicing law. The new associate doesn’t have to search for work; it appears, usually in plentiful amounts, on his or her desk.

At the next stage, the senior associate is still being fed. He or she has learned the basics and is managing parts of a matter or case. Senior associates who want to make partner are focusing a lot of their efforts on this goal.

As senior associates become service partners, they fall under the direction of supervising partners; in this capacity, they may manage some cases and associates. Usually, service partners do not bring in enough new work to feed themselves. They usually have little role in firm management.

Law firms are most successful and profitable when the majority of their partners are working partners – bringing in enough business for themselves and ‘feeding’ a number of associates as well. A working partner manages entire cases and assumes some firm-management duties.

Understanding The Transition Between Levels

The transition that takes place as a senior associate or a service partner is asked to become a working partner is the most difficult – and can be very traumatic. Suddenly, you are cast out of the cave with the expectation that you will bring back a buffalo to feed the tribe. And you don’t know how to hunt. How could you? Business development is not taught in law school or in most law firms.

A working partner who has mastered the art of developing new business becomes a supervising partner – feeding a number of service partners and many junior and senior associates. At this stage, you are expected to manage entire complex cases and play an active role in firm management. You are well-known in your profession, your industry and your community – and a lot of work comes to the firm through your reputation.

The danger that arises at this stage is complacency. With plenty of “food” coming in, the supervising partner may no longer feel the need to generate new business. You have worked hard for a long time and your interests are changing; perhaps, for example, you want to ‘give back’ to the community through public service. At the same time, your children may be almost grown and you see one last chance to spend time with them.

At the top of the law-firm food chain is the “super” lawyer with a huge book of business that feeds many lawyers within the firm. Super lawyers are rare; there may be one or two at a firm. At this stage, their focus may change to strategic planning, leadership and the firm’s external relationships. However, many lawyers find it difficult to transition from “lawyer” to “leader” – to hand over their hard-won books of business, with confidence, to the next generation of leadership.

Successful navigation of each level of the law-firm food chain demands growth in your professional and personal identity. If your identity grows, you can advance in your career. If it does not, you can be left behind. If you, your team or your firm has reached a plateau, a guide can help.

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