Summary: Learn 10 things that separate successful law firm attorneys from all the rest in this article.
The most successful attorneys in most law firms always show up. It is never enough just to be doing the work you are given. I have spent roughly the past 20 years speaking with attorneys looking for jobs inside of law firms on a daily basis. From a law firm’s review of your resume to their “evaluation” of you once you start working there, people are constantly watching to see if you are “showing up.”
Attorneys who are selected to work in the best law firms and remain in the best law firms consistently do more than their peers—and show up more often. Physically and mentally, they show up more than their peers—and as time goes by they get better and better at showing up. Working in the largest and best firms—and staying there—is all about showing up. This is how the “game” works and understanding this is the key to success at all levels of the profession.
At some point in their careers, most attorneys stop showing up.
Many lose their enthusiasm when they are in law school and start out as an attorney never showing up.
Other attorneys lose their will when they are a year or two into the practice of law.
Other attorneys stop showing up after ten years when they get tired and give up.
The practice of law can be grueling. The hours can be very long, the people unpleasant, and the stresses of getting ahead—getting and keeping business—exhausting for many attorneys. Law school is also tough as well. Moreover, at every stage of the game, most attorneys find that many of their peers are not their allies but are “out to get them”—whether it is fellow associates or partners later in their career. To remain ahead, the attorneys need to show up more than these peers.
The law firm game is about showing up. Law firms have developed all sorts of systems to make sure their attorneys are showing up. Here is how the law firm organism tests its attorneys at every level of the game to make sure they are showing up.
A Preference for Attorneys Who Went to the Best Schools, Got the Best Grades and Got Positions with the Best Law Firms as Summer Associates, Their First Jobs and So Forth
The best law firms hire people in school—and after school—who have a history of consistently doing well. Getting into the best colleges and law schools shows that you can do well and impress others—professors, standardized tests, recommenders, and others. The better you did in college, the more seriously you took it and the more likely it was you showed up and applied yourself. The better you do in law school, the same thing. While employers have no way of knowing it, you presumably studied harder, applied yourself more, and “showed up” more than your peers. The presumption is the longer you have done this (college and law school) the more you will continue to do this over time and the better hire you will be—those who showed up in the past will figure out how to show up in the future.
Law firms also like people who were summer associates in the best firms and had their first jobs with the best law firms. This is a sign that these attorneys have a history of showing up and impressing others—because not everyone they went to school with was able to do so. When an attorney gets a good job in law school, and after law school, the presumption is that they were able to have the presence and sell themselves with more enthusiasm than those who did not.
Grades, schools, and first jobs all show your ability to show up ready to play the game. While this is only the first part of the horse race, those who show up early on have a decided advantage when employers are evaluating who is most likely to win the race early in your career. They want to channel the motivation of those who have shown up in the past to show up in the future.
A Preference for Attorneys Who Bill the Most Hours
Billing hours is the “holy grail” of showing up inside of law firms. Attorneys who bill a lot of hours are typically the most valued inside of law firms—at both the associate and partner levels. Billing hours is a sign that
You have a lot of energy to give. To bill hours, you need a lot of physical and mental energy. It takes a lot of physical energy to stare at a computer for most of your waking hours and do this day in and day out. It also takes a lot of mental stamina to concentrate for long periods of time on work. If you have a “store of energy” within you, then this is considered a good thing by law firms because they can use it. Many people never run out of energy as they get older (at least to bill hours) but others do. If you have the energy to keep billing the law firm will channel this into profits.
You are interested in what you are doing. The more hours an attorney bills, the more likely they are to be interested in what they are doing—but not always. If you are billing a lot of hours and can do this for an extended period, there is a good chance you are in the right profession: Many people get energy from the work they are doing as opposed to getting drained from doing the work. If you are getting energy from work and it keeps you engaged, this is a positive thing.
Those inside the firm view the work you are doing and the energy you are giving as something that merits giving work to. Attorneys who do good work are given more work. Those who do not do good work are not given more work. If you are doing good work, attorneys in the firm will give you more to do because they value what you are doing and it helps their clients. Law firms view your hours as a barometer of the quality of the work you are doing.
Your work has value to the people outside the firm. As attorneys get more senior, they are expected to generate work from outside the firm. As attorneys generate this work, clients will give them more work to do if they see value for the money they are spending on this work. The better work that you do and the more financial value clients see from this, the more work they will give. Partners without a lot of business often do not have a lot of business because clients do not see value in the work they are doing.
You are making the firm money. Hours translate into money. Law firms keep around, promote, and value the people who are making them the most money—they are businesses.
You are willing to sacrifice your personal life for your work life. For reasons that are likely not much of a surprise, many of the most successful attorneys out there working in law firms have been divorced—much more than a few times. If you are billing a lot of hours and willing to sacrifice your time to do so, you are showing that you have the energy and drive to do so.
You can sell yourself. Getting work and lots of hours are often not just about the ability to do the work you are given, it is about being able to sell yourself to others that you are the right person to do the work as well. This means attorneys need to get work from others both within and outside the firm.
Hours obviously are about “showing up.” The more hours you bill, the more you are showing up.
As an attorney gets more senior, they are only able to bill lots of hours if they can get others both inside and outside the firm (clients) to give them work. That is one reason that attorneys with business are preferred over those that do not have a business—they are given work to do. At every level of the equation, showing up all comes back to the billable hour.
A Preference for Younger, Fresher Attorneys Over Older Ones
Being an attorney in most law firms could be equated with being a professional athlete in a physically demanding sport like football, basketball, or hockey: Most are done by the time they are in their early 30s and very few last much longer than that. They simply no longer have the energy, enthusiasm, stamina, or hope for the future by the time they reach this age.
As attorneys get older and are six or seven years out, unless they have a well of self-confidence and an iron will, most of them become disillusioned. Unless an attorney has a good book of business, most law firms want nothing to do with an attorney who has more than six or seven years of experience, because the presumption is they will no longer “show up” with the same level of enthusiasm they did when younger—and for the most part law firms are right: Most older attorneys are disillusioned by law firms—the hours, demands for business, political games, and so forth—and give as little of themselves as they can to keep their jobs, and are constantly looking for “in house jobs” because they realize their time is likely to be limited in most law firms. If the attorney has business, though, this is a sign they are still “showing up,” and law firms like this and are eager to hire them.
A younger attorney is more likely to abandon themselves with enthusiasm to the law firm and bill lots of hours under the presumption that they might make partner. Law firms will nurture this for some time and tell the attorney “they are on track” and doing well as long as it is worth their while. This is a crazy, dangerous game. I regularly work with attorneys who are nine or ten years out that have been billing 2,500+ hours since they got out of law school and are told they are “on track” and doing well when suddenly—out of nowhere—they are told that they have a few weeks to a few months to find a new position. This happens everywhere and in most law firms.
Law firms want the most enthusiastic attorneys who are going to be aggressively chomping at the bit. At some point the old are sacrificed for the new who will continue to work with abandon for the prospect of advancement—law firms will often let attorneys go before they get cynical and turn it down rather than keep them around.
While it is sad to say, the majority of attorneys with 6+ years of experience in a law firm in major markets (New York, Chicago, Palo Alto, etc.) will be “shown the door” after several years of service to make way for the young as they get more senior. There are reasons for this:
As attorneys get more senior their billing rates increase and become competitive with partners—clients would prefer to have partners do this work, partners make more money when they do their work than when they give it to others.
Law firms need people who are hungry and want to get ahead at the bottom of the food chain—those that realize they cannot get ahead are often considered “dead weight” and will bring the morale down of those who want to bill lots of hours lower on the food chain.
Law firms need people with business who are more senior and not those without business—the system simply cannot function with people without a lot of business who are more senior.
The larger the market, the more efficient this system is likely to be. The larger the firm, the more efficient this system is likely to be as well.
A Preference for Attorneys Who Desperately Want to Get Ahead
As discussed above, law firms like attorneys with the best grades who went to the best schools. This shows that you are motivated and trying to get ahead. It also shows that you want to impress the powers over you and will dedicate yourself to this with a lot of enthusiasm. More importantly, this enthusiasm can be channeled into good work and long hours. While a good number of attorneys are self-motivated, the attorney who has things in their background that show they are likely to be consistently motivated is more likely to be hired than those who do not.
When a law firm is considering whom to hire, they will often “approve of” attorneys who have things in their background that indicate they are likely to have a high degree of internal motivation. Law firms tend to show a preference for attorneys (1) with families they need to support, (2) with lots of student loans and mortgages, (3) from backgrounds that have given them a desire to prove something to themselves and others, and (4) who are trying to advance themselves by (a) moving to a firm with more opportunity, (b) that is better than where they are at, and (c) that gets them closer to their personal goals.
An attorney with a family that needs support is more likely to want to get ahead than one with no family. The attorney will (most likely) need to make money and have responsibilities related to this. The attorney will have mounting expenses for children that will increase as the children age. These sorts of demands on the attorney’s finances will make the attorney quite likely to get ahead. The attorney who wants desperately to get ahead is more likely to be enthusiastic when they interview—and when they are on the job. They will take more punishment and keep trying when others get discouraged. They will do their best.
I used to interview and work with attorneys who could not get jobs from top law schools around the country. Believe it or not, there are lots of graduates of the best law schools who often cannot get positions each year. Many of them are quite talented, have good grades and are very smart. These attorneys would go into their interviews with large law firms and have zero enthusiasm. Many were very smart and had gone to good high schools and colleges, but that was all they had. They had very little enthusiasm and drive. They were not trying to get ahead and were just “showing up.”
Attorneys who have something to prove to themselves and others do not just “show up.” When they interview with law firms, they are enthusiastic and want the job. They are “fired up.” Getting the best job they possibly can is important to them. They want to succeed and have reasons for doing so.
The enthusiasm for attorneys who desperately want to get ahead comes across in interviews. These attorneys tend to speak with a lot of enthusiasm and try to look and act the part. They have energy, and it is obvious they want the job. This sort of enthusiasm is something that those hiring these attorneys like to see and want to see. If an attorney is hungry then this can be channeled into good work, hours, and attorneys around these attorneys are likely to be motivated as well.
A Preference for Attorneys Who Have Never Left Law Firm Practice for Another Type of Profession
Law firms do not like it when an attorney has things on their resume that suggest working in law firms is not the most important thing in the world to them. This means taking in-house positions, multiple judicial clerkships after practicing, time off operating an unrelated business, becoming a solo practitioner and the like. Law firms are what they are. They are efficient businesses with their own set of challenges and ways of doing things. If someone is not committed to this, the odds are they will not succeed if hired by a large law firm.
While I should not say this, in my experience, the majority of attorneys who go in-house, come out of long stretches in government, have had multiple judicial clerkships and the like never last long in law firms. Once an attorney has left the game of working in a law firm and comes back, he or she never lasts long and are bad bets. If an attorney was not committed to working in a law firm in the past, the odds are he or she will not be committed to working in a law firm in the future. When someone leaves to do something else, it is for a reason—there was something the person did not like about law firm practice. Once the attorney returns to the practice of law, he or she is most likely not to succeed because the same things that bothered the attorney in the past will bother the attorney in the future. The attorney will not “show up.”
Attorneys who leave the practice of law to start their businesses are some of the most dangerous hires that there are. These sorts of attorneys have an “itch” that a large law firm will almost never satisfy. Hiring people that will be there plotting to do something else and do not want to be there is a bad idea. They will not show up. There is also a real danger that attorneys like this may be plotting to take away the firm’s clients—which happens more often than not if these attorneys continue practicing law.
Hiring an attorney who has gone in-house is also a bad bet. These attorneys typically do this because they want to be free of the billable hour and not have this hanging over them. The billable hour is something that tests whether or not the attorney is showing up—because the attorney has to document all of their time. These attorneys also do not want the responsibility of having to get business as well.
Hiring an attorney who has gone to work for the government is also a bad bet. These attorneys often do so because they are interested in a slower-paced lifestyle and are not concerned with making as much money as possible, or getting clients.
Law firms want people who are going to show up. Once an attorney does something unrelated to law firm practice, there is a real danger that this attorney will no longer show up when they return to a law firm.
A Preference for Attorneys Who Do Not Have Gaps in Employment on Their Resumes
Law firms do not like it when there are gaps on an attorney’s resume. A gap of nonemployment suggests many things—none of them positive. In my experience, many attorneys who have gaps on their resumes never stay long inside of law firms once they are hired. A gap can mean many things:
The attorney was fired. Being fired means that you were not “showing up” for the people you were working for or did something wrong to get fired (“a bad show up”). Regardless of the issue, this suggests that you are unlikely to show up in the future.
You wanted time off to do something else, rest and so forth. Once an attorney takes any appreciable amount of time off from work (a few months or longer), they often do not come back with the same level of enthusiasm—or realize during their time off that there is life besides work in a fluorescently lit office.
Law firms do not like gaps. While I hate to say it, showing up means always showing up. You are expected never to quit showing up once you start.
A Preference for the Better Dressed, Physically Fit and Well-Kempt
Law firms want their representatives to be impressive looking—the more impressive, the better. The more impressive the attorney looks, the more they are considered to be showing up effectively. Law firms have nice offices because they want to impress their clients. The best law firms also have their pick of attorneys. If you look and act the part of a successful attorney you will be much better off than if you do not.
While it seems almost contradictory, in addition to expecting you to work crazy hours, law firms prefer those who look and act the most impressive while doing so. It is the quality of how you show up as well as just showing up.
A Preference for Those Who Make the People for Whom They Are Working Feel Good about Themselves
Showing up is also about making the people for whom you are working feel good about themselves. Making your superiors and clients feel important is a large part of the game. If you do not make those for whom you are working feel important (you are not enthusiastic about the work, make them feel you do not respect them, do not make them feel their work is a priority for you and so forth), they will not want to give you more work. Your job is always to make others feel important and good about themselves if they are giving you work to do.
Many people think they are just there to do work, but it is much more than that. They are there to make the people who are giving them work feel valued for giving them the work to begin with. Many attorneys get fired by their law firms and clients when they do not make the people they are doing work for feel good. You need to make sure that everyone for whom you are doing work feels valued and good about giving you work. Clients and those giving you work always have multiple choices of others to whom they can give work.
A Preference for Attorneys Who Have Had the Fewest Jobs
Attorneys who have had the fewest jobs typically are likely to show up consistently and keep doing so in their next job. If an attorney has had several jobs, the odds are good they will never show up and commit to any employer—they are not committed and not showing up wherever they go.
As a general rule, the attorneys who demonstrate the most stability in their careers are those who are most successful in the long run. Law firms are all different to some extent, but future employers will only hire an attorney if they believe the attorney is likely to stick around over the long term. Your ability to commit to a law firm and stay there over the long run shows that you can tolerate different people, different working conditions, and do sufficiently valuable work that you will not lose your job.
A Preference for Those Who Have Confidence in the Work They Are Doing Versus Those Who Do Not
Law firms—and law firm clients—want those who have confidence in the work they are doing. They do whatever is asked of them without complaint and without question. They do not say they are not capable of doing something, need help, or afraid. They simply get it done.
If you have not read A Message to Garcia, you should. This discusses the difference between those who succeed in the most competitive legal environments (and life) from those who do not. The powerful message is that you must do whatever is asked of you. See A Message to Garcia and Your Career for more information.
Many attorneys (young and old alike) express reservations about doing various projects and types of work. The attorneys who can succeed at the highest levels will get done whatever needs to get done. The ones who get things done always get the best results in transactions, in litigation, and other projects—they win, and do not lose. It is important that you constantly get things done and show up. A warrior shows up ready to fight and win. Showing up is about doing more than is asked of you. Showing up is about being committed to whatever you are asked to do. Showing up is about not getting distracted.
Attorneys who do not reach their full potential “do not show up.” One of the primary misconceptions among attorneys—and something that many never learn—is that it is never enough just to be capable of doing the work, or to just do the work you are given. Attorneys who are selected to work in the best law firms and remain in the best law firms consistently do more than their peers. Physically and mentally, they show up more than their peers—and those who advance and go the furthest never stop showing up. Working in the largest and best firms—and staying there—is all about showing up. This is how the “game” works. Understanding this is the key to success at all levels of the profession. If you are not fit for showing up in the law firm game, the key is to find an environment (in-house, the government, being a law professor—etc.) where you are not expected to show up in the same way.