In reviewing the careers of countless attorneys, I believe I have come to understand what makes certain attorneys succeed and other attorneys fail. I have reached this conclusion after examining the careers of hundreds of attorneys at both the partner and associate level. After nearly a decade of meeting enormously successful attorneys, average attorneys, and below-average attorneys, I believe I have the answer.
I remember, during my second year of practice as an attorney, standing in my office when two fellow attorneys in my law firm walked in. These attorneys were both in my class at the firm and were both nice guys. Incredibly, when these two guys walked into my office, I had just gotten off the telephone with a legal recruiter who had informed me that I had just received an offer from a competing firm where my salary would nearly double. This was before the days of the "salary wars," and at the time, major and important firms in the same city often offered vastly different salaries. In this case, I had received an offer from a firm that was the highest-paying firm by far in Los Angeles.
I believe I am attracted to legal recruiting in large part because I love observing what makes certain people succeed. The people I have worked with, I believe, have benefited enormously from my studies of success and failure. The difference between attorneys who find profound success in the law and attorneys who stagnate is the difference between being strategic and being tactical regarding one's career.
See related article: Why You Will Never Succeed at Practicing Law Until You Understand This One Thing
The Tactical Attorney
When I sit in my office and interview attorneys, I often feel like I am in an alternate universe. It is common for an attorney to go to a Top 10 law school and have a succession of four to five jobs with major law firms in less than seven to eight years. In each instance when an attorney leaves one firm and goes to another, you have to wonder, "Did this person think something was going to be different at the next firm?" You really have to wonder why he or she is moving around so much.
Consider the attorney who is moving from firm to firm like this. Chances are this attorney sits down at the new firm and does the same (or similar) work he or she did at the previous law firm. The attorney will likely have the same sorts of relationships at the second firm with his or her colleagues that he or she had at the first firm. The attorney will also likely encounter issues with the people giving him or her work that are similar to those encountered at the previous firm. The attorney will probably dislike the same things about the fourth firm that he or she disliked about the third firm.
Even if attorneys are not switching firms, they may constantly be "on the defensive" with regard to their careers at their current firms—never feeling they are doing well enough, hoping others give them work, hoping others leave to make opportunities for them, and so on.
I am very concerned about the way most companies do business in America today and the way most executives approach their careers. Many companies do things simply for short-term gain. Many executives are hoping their companies will award them stock options so they can "cash out" and retire or do something else. There is a lot of emphasis on short-term value and little emphasis on long-term value in the way most people do business. This short-term emphasis is very tactical—and taking this kind of tactical approach to a career is insane.
If you find an employer that is fair and reasonable, you could end up being there for 10, 20, 30, or more years. This sort of long-term connection between an employer and an employee is meaningful. The employee will typically feel a great deal of security in his or her position, the employer will be comfortable with the employee at all times, and the employee will be around people who understand and appreciate him or her.
Until the mid-1980s, in most companies in America (not to mention law firms), most employees remained with single companies throughout their careers. This was also a time when America was considered very strong in the manufacturing industry on the world stage (much more so than today). With the threat of massive competition coming from Japan in the middle of the 1980s, companies started becoming less loyal to employees and terminating people more readily, and employees started leaving more readily, as well. Bonds between employees and employers that had existed for a long, long time were quickly broken. While I am not idealizing this era by any means, for the most part, an employee would only be discharged by a larger company for gross, gross incompetence or extreme dishonesty.
When I use the term "tactic," I am referring to any method used for immediate, short-term gain. If someone needs money, robbing a bank would be a tactic he might employ, for example. If someone does not like how her work is perceived by an employer, she might immediately switch jobs as a tactic to make herself feel better. Most attorneys I know of are tactical.
Tactical attorneys look to what results they are getting in the here and now for their efforts. For example, if their firms are not paying "quite market" they may investigate other opportunities. If they are not getting the work they want at the moment, they may also leave the firms they are at.
Let me tell you a couple of stories about attorneys I know who were quite tactical with regard to their careers.
One brilliant attorney I know of graduated from a Top 10 law school near the top of his class. He did some important work outside of a law firm for a few years and then joined a law firm in his third year of practice. When he joined the firm, he told the people there that he did not want to do anything other than intellectual property litigation. The firm he joined was one of the top firms in the United States.
When the attorney joined the firm, the firm did not have any intellectual property litigation cases, so it put him on another type of case. He refused the work on the grounds that he was hired to do intellectual property litigation and that was all he intended to do. After four or five attempts to assign this attorney work, the firm gave up. Six months later, he had not billed any hours and was fired for not billing any work. With this incident on his record and horrific references from his prior firm, this attorney was never able to get a job with a law firm with more than a few attorneys again.
A couple of years ago, I was with a recruiter from our company who had met an attorney for a meal. The attorney had recently been placed at a firm and said that he did not like the firm because it had told him he would have to park on a different floor in the firm's building. The attorney was looking for a new job.
Most attorneys are tactical and are focused on what they can get in the here and now. This focus is extremely limiting because it prevents them from taking long-term views of where they are going. Concentrating on the small issues in their relationships with their employers holds them back tremendously.
Think about the things you may do in your career that are tactical. In my case, I might still be practicing law if I had not been tactical long ago in considering a competing salary even though I knew in my heart that remaining where I was at could give me fantastic long-term results.
The Strategic Attorney
Strategic attorneys typically are the most successful attorneys. When attorneys are strategic, they have well-defined, detailed plans to achieve long-term goals. They use tactics as means of carrying out their strategies.
Think back to the two attorneys in my old firm who knew they wanted to be partners in the firm they were in way back when. Compensation issues were not really meaningful for them. In addition, I am sure they were never too concerned about parking. These guys simply knew where they were going and knew they were going to get there.
Most people do not have clear long-term goals. I highly recommend having long-term goals and, in fact, believe they are the most important things you can have. If you have not seen the movie or read the book The Secret, I highly recommend doing so, as both the book and the movie go into considerable detail about the power of goal-setting. Whether it is Napoleon Hill's classic Think and Grow Rich or a Tony Robbins seminar, most self-improvement programs you will encounter will push you aggressively to set goals for yourself and know where you are going. Once you decide where you are going, your subconscious and conscious minds will figure out a way to get you there. The decisions you make in response to your goal-setting will literally shape your destiny.
The Strategic Attorney Knows What the Result Will Be
Strategic attorneys know where they are going. The strategic attorney's goal may be to become a partner in his or her law firm (or another firm). The strategic attorney may be interested in becoming a famous attorney. The strategic attorney may be interested in being the attorney with more business than any other attorney in his or her city. The strategic attorney may want to be President of the United States (as Bill Clinton did even when he was in law school). Regardless of what it is, the strategic attorney will always have a goal, and this goal will be important.
The Strategic Attorney Has a Purpose for Desiring the Result
Just wanting something is never enough. You must also have a purpose for wanting what you want. You need to have reasons for doing what you want to do. These reasons will motivate you and give you a purpose for wanting to achieve. You need to ask yourself why you want to be something you are seeking to be or do whatever you are seeking to do.
Every attorney should commit goals to paper and categorize them as one-year, three-year, five-year, 10-year, and 20-year objectives. If you do not have long-term strategic objectives, your career will be like a ship without a rudder.
My decision to leave the firm I mentioned earlier in this article might have sounded like it was tactical, but in reality, it was not. Long, long ago, at the University of Michigan, my grandfather had been friends with the founder of the second firm I ended up working at. (The founder of this firm had once run for president, and my grandfather was proud of having been friends in college with someone who went on to be a presidential candidate.)
When I was younger, I wanted to be an attorney, and my grandfather told me, "If you want to be an attorney, you should go to work for Thomas Dewey's firm." I set a goal for myself to work in that firm when I was only 18 years old. My grandfather died a year later. When I was in law school, I did not get an on-campus interview with the firm. After I had begun practicing, I only applied to one firm because I had set a goal for myself to work there a long time ago. I made a lot of decisions based on this strategy that I had for myself.
The setting of a goal with a long-term strategy in mind is often equivalent to its attainment. But if you do not start somewhere, you will ultimately be nowhere. The strategic attorney is the most successful type of attorney. If you are strategic, your career and life will change for the better.