Summary: Your long-term success in a major law firm depends heavily on the amount of talent you have in these four areas.
Attorneys need four essential qualities to be successful in the largest, most competitive firms.
Those qualities are intelligence, work ethic, perseverance, and social intelligence.
These qualities, however, are only needed to work within the largest firms.
If an attorney does not have all of these qualities, but still wishes to practice law, that attorney should consider a career outside of large, major law firms.
One of the reasons so many attorneys are unhappy and unsuccessful is because they put themselves in situations in which they are not suited and thus continually come up against resistance. This happens frequently in legal job searches and legal careers. Attorneys who do not have high levels of the four specific qualities of intelligence, work ethic, perseverance, and social intelligence try to get jobs at—and succeed in—major law firms. Their efforts are not successful because attorneys need to have these four qualities to succeed in major law firms. This leads to those attorneys facing needless and debilitating career failure and unhappiness.
This is absurd. I have nothing against self-improvement—and am all for it—but it is crazy for attorneys to push themselves into situations where their natures and innate skills will not be rewarded. When it comes to working in the largest and most competitive law firms, your ability to advance and thrive will be largely determined on the basis of your (1) intelligence, (2) work ethic, (3) ability to persevere, and (4) social or emotional intelligence. If you do not have most or all of these qualities, you will experience resistance if you insist on trying to work in major law firms. If you do not have these qualities, but love the law and want to practice law in a fulfilling manner, you should consider career choices that do not involve major law firms.
How much of these qualities do you have? How has this made a difference in your career?
The Importance of Intelligence to Succeeding in Major Law Firms
Being intelligent is a major part of the game of being an attorney. Attorneys are hired in order to figure out problems for others and, in most cases, attorneys work adversely to other attorneys who are trying to do the same for their clients. In litigation, one attorney will be up against another attorney. In a transaction, there are attorneys on both sides of the deal. Even in patent prosecution, there is a patent examiner and a patent attorney. In all of these contexts, the attorney who is the most intelligent is the one who is most likely to figure out the best solutions and cause his or her client to prevail. Intelligence gives an attorney an undeniable edge in the practice of law. This edge is often profound and the deciding factor in which client wins or loses in any given matter.
The best law firms typically contain the attorneys who are the most intelligent. They went to the best law schools, got the best grades in the best law schools, and often also went to the best colleges. These attorneys also are the ones who did the best on standardized tests like the SATs and LSATs. At every stage of their academic lives, the attorneys who end up at the best law firms are the ones who demonstrated a consistent pattern of being able to solve problems and “outsmart” the competition. The largest and most successful corporations also want the smartest attorneys working on their problems and are willing to pay more money for them—and these attorneys also are almost always from the largest and highest-paying law firms that can afford to hire the most intelligent attorneys.
None of this is to say that in order to be a successful attorney you need to be a rock star test-taker or the smartest attorney. Instead, it is to point out that it is nonsensical for attorneys who are not very quick to put themselves in direct competition with the smartest attorneys and expect to succeed. This is a huge risk because the attorney who does this is likely to continually experience a great deal of resistance.
The largest clients hire individual attorneys who are the smartest and who can see the best solutions to their problems. As an attorney gets older and starts trying to get business from different corporations and clients, the attorney will need to talk with lots of attorneys—especially in-house counsel at companies that need to hire law firms. If the in-house counsel senses that the attorney does not have a deep understanding of the issues and does not understand matters with the depth and complexity of other attorneys, the in-house counsel will almost always not want to hire them. They will hire the attorneys with the better track record for intelligence and insight. This insight is often no different than being able to figure out a logic game on the LSAT—some attorneys can do this sort of thing very well and others cannot. If an attorney is not especially smart, often the best course to pursue is to find a niche within the law in which that attorney can excel and will not constantly be competing (and losing) against smarter attorneys.
However, many attorneys who did poorly in law school, or average in low-ranked law schools, continually desire to put themselves in positions in which they are going to be outgunned by much more intelligent attorneys. All this does is lead to frustration and bitterness. It is counterproductive for all involved. For example, if an attorney who did average to poorly in a low-ranked law school tries to go to work in a very prestigious large law firm, he or she is going to be competing against people who will be able to figure out problems more quickly and get better outcomes. This will make it more difficult for the attorney to please the people within the firm for whom the attorney works, as well as clients. Sadly, the smarter attorneys may even talk about the less-quick attorney behind his or her back and not even consider that attorney a peer.
This may sound like a politically incorrect argument, but in reality, it is no more politically incorrect than it would be for an average Division IV basketball player to try to walk on and start playing for the Los Angeles Lakers. Certain athletes have different innate abilities than other athletes. People who are highly intelligent have certain advantages that others do not. I certainly would not do very well if I enrolled in an astrophysics PhD program at the California Institute of Technology, having taken only three semesters of calculus in college. Similarly, I do not think I would do very well if I was expected to prepare and argue a case before the United States Supreme Court about an important constitutional law issue, having never personally drafted or argued an appeal in my legal career.
One example I see in my recruiting practice that is fraught with resistance is when an attorney from a lower-ranked law school, who did not do well there, tries to work in a major firm in a major market with the highest salary. An attorney in this kind of situation—such as an attorney who did poorly from a fourth-tier Midwestern law school but sets his or her mind on working in a major law firm in a prestigious New York City firm—is going to be met with a great deal of resistance. There is an overabundance of highly qualified attorneys trying to work in that New York City firm. The attorney from the fourth-tier school is not even going to make the initial cut. In trying to compete in that arena, the attorney is setting him or herself up for defeat. Even if the attorney is somehow able to get a position—through major perseverance, social intelligence, or other factors—it is still not likely to end well. The attorney will be met with resistance as he or she tries to compete within the firm, and the odds are very slim that the attorney will be able to succeed in a pool surrounded by so many highly intelligent attorneys. Why would any attorney want to put him or herself in a position in which he or she stands such a high likelihood of being so completely intellectually outmatched and, ultimately, of failing?
Attorneys who put themselves in environments in which they are unlikely to succeed are only going to face disappointment. That disappointment will make them feel incompetent and unintelligent. This negativity will color their careers and they will not be able to develop at their own speeds into the sorts of attorneys they are capable of being. Moreover, they may not get the best references if they leave their jobs and will feel that they do not belong in a profession where they could otherwise succeed if they made better choices.
None of this is to say that an attorney who starts out at an intellectual disadvantage could not eventually become extremely competent—perhaps even more competent than more intelligent attorneys—later in his or her career. But putting him or herself in an initial situation in which he or she may not succeed is a very risky proposition. I have seen far too many attorneys fail from not navigating this portion of their careers as well as they could and should have. Many attorneys drop out of the practice of law because they ended up swimming in pools where they were more likely to sink than rise.
The best decisions that attorneys often can make for their careers involve putting themselves in situations and work environments in which they are making the best use of their intelligence (and other skills, talents, and qualities). This can mean working in smaller firms or choosing practice areas where the matters are not extremely complex.
However, it must be stressed that simply being highly intelligent is by no means something that guarantees success in the practice of law or in a large law firm. In fact, regardless of intelligence, very few attorneys can ever succeed in large law firms unless they also have a very good work ethic, the ability to persevere, and social intelligence.
How has your intelligence helped you in your legal career?
The Importance of Work Ethic to Succeeding in Major Law Firms
Work ethic is very important to the practice of law, and especially to the practice of law in a large law firm. A law firm’s profitability is determined by the number of hours that each individual attorney works. In addition, depending on the type of work that is being done, certain clients will need lots of work and hours and others will not. Your choice of the type of practice environment you work in will determine how important your individual work ethic is to your career.
Work ethic also is very important in certain practice areas. Many matters require a lot of work for months at a time and often will have tons of last-minute work that may require attorneys to work seven days a week for extended periods of time. Moreover, these “fire drills” can occur again and again throughout the attorney’s career—just as one fire drill is put out, another begins. The attorneys who work the hardest and have the best work ethic provide their clients with the best service and help their clients prevail in the most matters.
In major markets such as Los Angeles, New York, the Bay Area, and Chicago, an attorney needs to bill a lot of hours and have a very good work ethic if the attorney wants to survive inside of a large law firm. In fact, while intelligence may get you in the door of a large law firm, your work ethic will enable you to stay there and even advance. In many instances, large law firms will advance people and keep them around according to how many hours they bill. Attorneys often are made partner based on their having billed more hours than other attorneys at their levels in their firms. Moreover, at the senior level, the partners who bill the most hours typically also make the most money (provided they also have a lot of business).
Because work ethic is so important to the practice of law, an attorney needs to carefully choose what sort of environment he or she is going to work in if he or she wants to be happy. If an attorney is not interested in working a lot of hours, then the attorney is going to come up against a lot of resistance if he or she tries to work inside of a large law firm. These attorneys are going to continually be unhappy and will not do nearly as well, or experience anywhere near as much success, as they might otherwise achieve if they did something else. They may also be unhappy working in very demanding small law firms.
What kind of work ethic does your law firm require? Are you happy with it?
Geography and salary also play a role. Law firms in the largest cities tend to demand that attorneys work the hardest. Law firms in smaller cities often do not. In order to recapture high salaries, law firms that pay the most money often require their attorneys to work the most.
If an attorney desires to be happy practicing law, the last thing the attorney should be doing is putting him or herself in a work environment that requires him or her to have an extraordinary work ethic. Instead of working in a major law firm, a high-paying law firm, or a law firm in a demanding practice area, the attorney would be better off finding a position that does not require him or her to have as much of a work ethic and bill so many hours. Attorneys who do not want to work extremely hard will experience a great deal of resistance in their careers if they are consistently choosing to work in environments that require the most work ethic.
Something that I see again and again is attorneys from major law firms and markets dropping out of the practice of law because they believe that the work ethic they have been living with is all that is out there. This is simply not the case. It varies by geographic location and also by the size of the firm and what the firm pays. For many attorneys, their egos and how they look to others in terms of the prestige of their firms, or the size of the markets they are working in, takes precedence over taking the time to understand themselves and what is important to them individually.
There are plenty of positions that an attorney can work in that do not require an extreme work ethic. Some kinds of jobs that do not demand an extreme worth ethic include working at many small law firms, many in-house jobs, most government jobs, jobs as solo practitioners, teaching jobs, and public interest jobs. It makes no sense for an attorney without a very strong work ethic to put him or herself in a position where that is how he or she will be judged in terms of his or her value to the organization. Instead, these kinds of attorneys should go to places where they are continually going to feel safe and rewarded for the quality of work and contribution that they make.
What kind of market are you currently working in? What do you like most and least about working in this market?
The Importance of Perseverance to Succeeding in Major Law Firms
During 2001 and 2008, I watched entire classes of corporate associates at major law firms throughout the United States lose their jobs. In fact, during that time, there were very few jobs at all for corporate attorneys as many markets came to a complete standstill in a variety of practice areas. Despite this, I saw numerous attorneys who had lost their jobs refuse to give up and emerge years later inside of other large law firms that may have taken them years to get into. If an attorney desires to be successful in the practice of law, the attorney needs to have perseverance and not give up at the first sign of defeat, because there will be many defeats along the way. An attorney will lose a job, make mistakes, and often have many bad things happen to him or her along the way.
The more competitive the law firm and the more money it pays, the more an attorney will generally need to persevere in order to succeed. It is not uncommon for the largest law firms to hire a class of 100+ first-year associates and for only one or two of those associates to remain after 10 to 12 years when it is time for the law firm to consider a new class of partners.
In addition, law firms can be very unwelcoming places. The success of an attorney in a given law firm will often have more to do with things such as who the attorney is working for specifically, the work the law firm has in the attorney’s practice area, the politics of the individual firm, how the attorney fits in with the culture of the individual firm, and more. In fact, there is so much stacked against attorneys when they join a firm that finding a firm that works for them is often more related to chance than anything else.
For attorneys to succeed, they need to persevere and continue when it looks like they will not succeed. They need to have faith in themselves and always believe that they can do well even when it looks like the odds of this are very slim. Attorneys who do not believe in themselves and who do not persevere often will fail to achieve what they are capable of achieving.
When I was a third-year associate at my law firm, I remember a senior associate joking with a partner that no one ever makes partner at the law firm. This was the Los Angeles office of a New York City law firm that had only made one partner organically in the 15+ years it had been in Los Angeles.
“That’s because everybody leaves,” the partner said.
In fact, one of the reasons that people do not achieve what they are capable of achieving inside of law firms is because they do not persevere. When others are leaving, they start to think that they should too. When others are going in-house and doing other sorts of careers, they start to think that they should too. When others are doubting the intelligence of becoming attorneys and remaining attorneys, they start to think the same way.
What are the most important factors that your law firm weighs when making an attorney a partner?
If an attorney has perseverance, then anything is possible. One thing that I have noticed is that law firms will very frequently hire lateral attorneys who never would have been able to get into the same law firm out of law school. Firms do this with both partners and associates. The reasons for this are quite simple. If an attorney starts out with the sort of law firm the attorney may not be happy with but becomes an expert in doing a certain type of work, by the time the attorney is ready to lateral, other attorneys with that expertise have gone on and left their firms and may even have left the law firm world completely. So the attorney with the expertise can now get a position with the firm because the firm is in need of his or her expertise.
In addition, the law firm may very much want to bring someone on board who has shown that he or she is committed and has remained at his or her previous firm and continued to develop an expertise in something when others have left. Law firms love bringing people on from marginally-less prestigious firms than their own because they know that these attorneys are trying to improve themselves and get into better firms. It is in a law firm’s best interests to hire the most motivated people who want to prove something because they will work harder, be more grateful for their jobs, and be better assets to the law firm and its clients.
Perseverance is extremely important for partners. During the course of their careers, partners may lose jobs and clients and have many setbacks. Instead of looking for something else—such as another career setting outside of the law firm—partners need to persevere whenever they experience various setbacks. I have seen countless partners from major law firms lose their jobs multiple times and emerge on top simply because of the strength of their characters against all odds.
Perseverance is very important to an attorney’s job search. Many attorneys get frustrated after applying to a handful of firms and not getting the results that they want immediately, or even after several months. Without the market opening up to them, they conclude that it is time to give up and do something else. This is simply not the case. An attorney’s ability to get a job is dependent on multiple factors, including the competitiveness of the market the attorney is seeking a job in, the amount of business that the attorney has, and more. Almost always, if I work with an attorney long enough and if the attorney is willing to look at enough markets, the attorney is likely to be able to find a job.
Because different legal environments require more perseverance than others, an attorney who desires to avoid resistance is better off going into a legal environment that does not require as much perseverance. Perseverance is important for any attorney who wants to survive and thrive in a major law firm. It is less important in other positions. Certain government positions may not require a lot of perseverance to survive and thrive and others may. Certain public interest positions may not require a lot of perseverance to survive and thrive and others may. Certain positions inside of law schools may not require a lot of perseverance to survive and thrive and others may.
How has perseverance helped you in your legal career?
The Importance of Social or Emotional Intelligence to Succeeding in Major Law Firms
Social and emotional intelligence refers to how a person reacts to others and to his or her environment. Things such as intellect, work ethic, and perseverance will only allow an attorney to advance so much if the attorney does not have a solid understanding of others and an awareness of how to operate in a given environment. In order for an attorney to succeed, the attorney needs to be able to understand the inner state of the people who they are working with and for and also understand what is going on in complex social environments and situations. This means that attorneys need to be able to relate to others, have others relate to them, and also know how to handle the inevitable conflict that will be part of working with clients, fellow attorneys and supervising attorneys within their firms. Each law firm also has a set of expectations for the sort of behavior that is acceptable and not acceptable within the law firm. Attorneys need to understand this. The most adept attorneys know how to influence others, survive in complex social environments, use their body language appropriately, and pick up unacceptable environmental cues. They know when to be seen and not seen.
Attorneys who are adept with their social and emotional intelligence are more likely to survive inside of the most challenging legal environments because they will understand people and how to navigate the political nature of the complex inter-web of relationships in the firm. Attorneys with the best social and emotional skills understand the impression that they are making on others. They also know how to feel comfortable around different types of people and how to act around different types of people so that those people like them. They understand how to dress when they are around other attorneys and their law firm. They understand how to speak, what to speak about, and even the tone of voice that they use in their interactions with different types of attorneys inside of their law firm. They also have the ability to listen to what others have to say and understand where those people are coming from so that they can tailor their statements and actions in a way that is pleasing to those types of people. Attorneys with the most social intelligence typically are also the best listeners. Their ability to listen enables them to better hear what their supervisors are asking for, what their clients are asking for, and what the environment they are working in expects out of them.
Different types of legal jobs will require different levels of social and emotional intelligence. Large law firms, for example, are very competitive places. Inside of a large law firm, the attorney will need to worry about pleasing different superiors and getting superiors to give the attorney work. In order to experience success, the attorney will also need to avoid getting fired by upsetting clients, peers, or superiors and making sure that the attorney is always on the best side of the people in power.
Just understanding something as simple as who has influence over their careers and who does not can be the difference between life and death for attorneys inside of a law firm. Having a large stable of supporters may prevent them from getting laid off during a slowdown and may enable them to get promoted when they are up for consideration for promotion. The attorneys with social intelligence may also be able to earn more money regardless of the stages of their careers because of the goodwill they have built up both within and outside the firm. Furthermore, attorneys with social intelligence also will understand the profound importance of getting clients inside of a large law firm and in generating work that will support them and give them job security throughout their legal careers. Attorneys with a lot of social intelligence often are quite easy to spot in social situations. They are able to speak with a lot of different types of people and say the appropriate things. They are also able to leave the right impression with each type of person they speak with.
Attorneys must have social intelligence if they want to succeed in many of the most competitive law firm environments. If an attorney does not have social intelligence and is not able to be thought of positively by the group, the attorney may be better off in a position where social intelligence is not as important. There are plenty of positions for attorneys where individual social intelligence may not be as highly valued. For example, many academic attorneys working inside of law schools as professors do not always need social intelligence. Inside of certain types of law firms, there is often work that can be done that does not require a lot of interaction with other attorneys for an attorney to be successful, such as certain types of tax law, ERISA work, patent work, brief-writing, and others. This is not always the case for each of these practice areas, but there are jobs for people who do not have high levels of social intelligence.
Social intelligence is something I have seen take the careers of certain attorneys to great heights and other attorneys to very low depths. Something as simple as getting too drunk at a law firm party has ended the careers of more partners and associates at certain law firms than I can count—I have seen this sort of thing happen many times. The inability to get along with others inside of a law firm is also something that frequently ends the careers of attorneys inside of law firms. Whether it is narcissism, an inability to empathize with others, a predisposition to making inappropriate comments, men who are overly sexually suggestive or aggressive towards female colleagues, people inside of law firms who find trouble and make trouble unnecessarily about inconsequential matters, attorneys who criticize management and fellow attorneys, attorneys who overreact to criticism, or attorneys who unnecessarily isolate themselves and do not communicate and make friends with other attorneys—all often end up in trouble inside of law firms. All of these things are related to social intelligence. Attorneys need to have this in order to survive in many large law firms.
If you do not have social intelligence, you are going to be coming up against unnecessary resistance in any position you take inside of the law firms that require the most social intelligence. In most instances, when an attorney is failing inside of a major law firm—or in any legal environment—it is because the attorney lacks the sort of social intelligence that the attorney needs to survive in that sort of environment.
Attorneys need to work around others who value the sort of social intelligence that they have and avoid working in environments that do not value their brand of social intelligence. I have seen many attorneys succeed at a very high level once moved to different settings. For example, someone who does not succeed in a major law firm may experience great success as a solo practitioner, or working with a group of a few like-minded attorneys, where the attorney can be his or herself and where his or her individual nature is valued and where he or she is less likely to get into social trouble. There is no sense for someone without the ability to succeed on a social and emotional intelligence front to try and work with large groups of attorneys where this is highly valued. An attorney in this situation will continually come up against resistance, which will drastically limit the attorney’s happiness and future career prospects.
How has your level of social intelligence changed throughout your legal career? What impact has it had on your career?
Our happiness depends on making the best use of our skills, talents, and motivations more than it does on doing the things that we think we should do. The large law firm is the perfect vehicle for happiness and success for many attorneys, but for others, it is the opposite. You will succeed and be happy in the largest law firms to the extent you are intelligent, have a strong work ethic, have perseverance, and are socially and emotionally intelligent. If you do not have these qualities or are severely lacking in any of them, you are most often going to be better off in a different legal environment. You can certainly change things about yourself that you are not happy with—but why should you become a different person than you are? There is nothing wrong with resistance, but you are simply not going to succeed if you do not have real talent in at least a few of these four areas.
Which of the four qualities needed to succeed in a large law firm are you strongest in? Which of these four qualities are you weakest in? What is your advice to other attorneys looking to strengthen themselves in any of these four areas?
Share your responses to the above questions and any other thoughts about this topic in the comments below. We want to hear from you!
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