Several years ago, I was in an acting class with a man who was from a small town in Italy. He described how everyone in the town lived in fear of how others thought of them and for that reason lived lives that were conservative and did things based on the fact that they knew others were watching and judging. People sat out on their doorsteps and watched the comings and goings of others. They met in local cafes and talked about each other. Women walked between the homes of other women in the villages and gossiped. The dinner tables of the homes at night revolved around rumors and innuendo about others in the town.
Virtually everything they did in public—and in many cases even in private—would be noted by others and become the subject of gossip if it was interesting enough.
These people lived in fear of doing something wrong and being thought of negatively. People who had done something wrong years, or even decades ago, were often cast as one type of person and were unable to throw off that characterization. Their personal, business and other interactions were defined by an external perception that was cast in stone—often when they were quite young.
This Italian man had come to the United States on scholarship, and at one point during the class—at the end of the first week—he broke down crying because he realized that he was being judged as a new person and not someone who was being defined by his past. His current strengths, in terms of his personality and other characteristics, were being seen for the first time by a new group of people who did not view him with any preconceptions. He was judged as he was and not who he was in the past. Because he was judged in a new way, he was happy. He had the opportunity to start fresh and succeed in a new environment where others did not discriminate against him because of what they believed him to be.
Inside of a small town—such as the one in Italy—every sort of personality has a role to fill that suits others. People feel safe when they can define other people in a way that suits their own needs. If we define someone based on their limitations, it can make us feel more secure and better about ourselves based on our strengths. If we are defined by our skills and strengths, it can make us feel good about our strengths but also make others feel good about their different strengths that do not compete with our own.
Your Colleagues May Try to Taint Your Brand
The social order inside of many law firms and other employment organizations revolves around how people want to feel about themselves. The attorney considered the best writer inside a law firm may not want people competing with them for the title and will find ways to undermine other attorneys who may be challengers to that role. They will find things wrong with their writing, start rumors, or generally find ways to create issues for that person. The attorney who is competing with another attorney to have the most hours may start rumors that another attorney is padding their hours, is unstable, makes careless mistakes and more. Everywhere you turn inside a law firm, when you are attempting to rise and define yourself in a positive way, others inside the law firm are trying to define you negatively. It often becomes too much to handle for many attorneys. They are unpleasant, unhappy and become people that are paranoid around others because every slight—no matter how small—is viewed as an attempt to define them negatively.
This, then, is one of the main and most serious issues of working inside of a law firm: People constantly trying to cast us in a role that is negative, or somehow not positive. You are cast as someone who can never bring in clients; a rainmaker but bad attorney; dishonest; lazy; a drunk; drug user; tyrant; or someone who cheats on your spouse.
The ways that people will try to cast you in a negative light will never cease to amaze you.
In most instances, the negative characterizations attorneys receive from peers inside of law firms are completely inconsequential and about things that have no bearing on their ability to practice law effectively. Nevertheless, these roles are often cast in stone, and everyone in the firm knows the attorney is a certain way—from the secretaries to associates—even people in the mailroom. Like some scripted drama made for the stage, the attorney’s words, actions and more—regardless of what they do and say—are judged according to some way the attorney may have been defined by others months, years, or decades ago—and these definitions are often difficult to throw off.
Attorneys are so eager to define other attorneys that once they have defined another attorney collectively, it is difficult for the pigeon-holed attorney ever to change how others see then. I recently saw a woman attorney get a neurological condition and miss two weeks of work. When she returned, she was cured and able and willing to resume work. Nevertheless, this did not matter. She was told by a partner that her “brand” had been irreparably damaged and she should look for another job. She stopped getting assignments, and the matters she was given were busywork and not serious.
In order to experience any form of meaningful success inside of a law firm, you need to protect your brand and be defined in a way that is positive and not negative. This is a real struggle. If you are defined negatively, then you can never shake this brand.
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Take Control of Your Brand
One of the more interesting conversations I ever had in my life came when I met with my academic advisor after my first semester of law school. At that point in time, I had maybe a 3.4-grade point average, which I thought was pretty good because the grade point average of people graduating from my college was a 2.7—it is probably much higher now, but the school I went to was considered very academically challenging.
I told the advisor I wanted to go to law school and thought this was a worthwhile goal.
“Your grades are not good enough to go to a good law school,” she told me. “If you want to go to a good law school you are going to need at least a 3.5 average—probably closer to a 3.7 if you want to go to a top 5 law school.”
“But what if I want to take hard classes?” I asked her. At the time the calculus class I was in had 30 students, and only 3 of them were getting A's on each exam due to the professor’s curve (which he happily demonstrated after each exam).
“Doesn’t matter. Law schools do not care if you take easy or hard classes. You could go to University of Mississippi and get a 3.8-grade point majoring in communications and come out of here with a 3.2 majoring in physics and, assuming your LSATs are similar, the person from the University of Mississippi will get into a better law school. All things being equal—you might get into a better law school than the person from the University of Mississippi with a 3.6-grade point average—but not all the time. Law schools need to report average grade pointe averages to US News, and they are often more concerned with that than with getting the best-educated students.”
The reason this conversation was so revealing to me was that I understood that all that mattered to law schools is a good grade point average. Law schools did not care where you went to school or how difficult your classes were. They cared about your grades.
Law firms are like that, as well. Your work quality matters, of course, but what really matters is making sure you have the best brand possible. All you need to do is make sure that people think positively and not negatively of you—you need to stay out of trouble as much as possible. If people cannot say negative things about you, then you will be defined in a positive way. If people are saying negative things about you, then you will be defined in a negative way. You want to do everything possible to be defined positively and not negatively—and I will talk more about that in a moment.
There are many issues with being defined negatively. If you get a bad reputation—of any kind—people may avoid working with you. People may not trust you with information. Other attorneys will treat you in a way that reinforces that negative view. If you are reviewed by other attorneys, they will bring that negative view of you into reviews even if that negative behavior is no longer there. You will not be considered someone eligible for advancement and the interactions of others in the law firm with you will be tainted.
People will often not hire former felons because they believe they will offend again. If someone cheats on us in a romantic relationship, we often end the relationship because we are afraid it will happen again. If we buy a car and have a bad experience with it, we avoid buying similar cars in the future because we do not want to have a negative experience with the same car again. My parents drove Chryslers in the late 1970s and had horrible experiences with them—for that reason I will never buy a Chrysler, even 40 years later). If we have heard bad things about visiting, or living in, a certain city we will never live or visit there.
Time and time again, we avoid people, businesses and products that have bad reputations—often when it is no longer logical to do so.
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The best law schools will avoid the person without great grades, not necessarily because it is logical, but because the person without outstanding grades does not have as good of a “numerical reputation” as the person with better grades. Your objective if you want to get into the best law schools, then, is to make sure you have the very best grades possible. It does not matter if you take a bunch of blow-off classes. All that matters is the final number—as stupid and illogical as this sounds.
Protect Your Brand by Avoiding Destructive People
Inside a law firm, protecting your brand is as simple as avoiding people, places and things that are likely to mess with your reputation, so you have the best brand possible. You need to be very calculating in terms of how you protect your brand.
When I was practicing law, I was in a law firm where there was a woman partner who really had no business working in the firm I was in. Nevertheless, she was extremely well connected politically and was the head of several important political organizations in the city. The law firm had hired her because she had so many connections, and it looked impressive to clients.
However, she had a reputation among the associates of being extremely difficult to work with. In fact, one of the women she had worked with before I came to the firm was a Columbia Law School graduate and ended up being so devastated after her interaction with her that she became a waitress. In the short time I was there, I saw two other associates in the law firm leave on bad terms (with no other jobs lined up) after doing an assignment for her. There was something very toxic about the woman, and I did not understand it; I had only heard about her from a distance.
One day, on a Friday afternoon, I got a call that she wanted me to help her with an assignment. I should have avoided working for her but did not.
Without getting into too much detail, the assignment was very difficult, and the partner wanted it done in a few days. It involved issues of international law and over $500,000,000 that was being held hostage by a third-world government. As I was researching the issue, there were protests in the country being broadcast on news channels around the world—it was a big deal and an important issue. The woman had brought in the client because they had seen all her accolades for her public service—none of which had anything to do with her ability to practice law. The government we were working for had researched her and been blown away with her government connections.
As I furiously researched the issue over the next few days, I realized she was too rushed to answer questions, evaluate any of the information I was sending her, or even think about it. She had no interest in the direction of the information and was more concerned with what she was working on outside the office. When she did review the information I was sending her, she did not understand the information and I could not even explain it to her. I saw her becoming extremely angry because she felt I was condescending when I tried to explain it to her in many different ways. I realized right then and there that she was completely in over her head. I also saw what was coming down the pike: Because she could not understand the law, her next move would be to attack me.
About a week into this, the government and several insurance companies all over the world wanted to schedule a telephone conference to discuss the issue and get recommendations. The partner was supposed to be leading the call and answering questions—but she did not understand the issues.
Incredibly, on the morning of the call the partner did not show up for work-she claimed she was stuck in traffic—and as a third-year associate I was tasked with leading the call with a United States Ambassador, an officer from the Prime Minister’s Office of the country and several high ranking executives of various insurance companies. Meanwhile, there was an international crisis being reported on the front page of the New York Times.
This woman had recently been made a contract partner and not a full partner in the law firm and had all sorts of other issues going on. I did very well in the teleconference; however, what I quickly realized was that the partner was extremely mad at me. She was very connected inside of the law firm, and I started to sense the rest of the firm having issues with me too. They looked at me differently in the halls. Assignments I had been working on for them were suddenly reassigned to other attorneys, and a few other things happened that made me realize this partner was messing with my brand publicly. She was a toxic person to work with and in over her head. When others realized she was not competent, she would set out destroying them, so they did not further tarnish her own brand. I was learning how law firms worked.
At that point I had already made plans to leave the law firm I was in, and did so within the next month or so, but I understood right then and there the reason others had experienced so many problems working with the woman: She was like a praying mantis and killed everyone she worked with because she did not want them around to give her bad reviews. It was kill or be killed.
Inside of a law firm, your job is to avoid people, places and things that can taint your brand. This woman was someone capable of destroying a brand.
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Maintain Your Brand Through Positive Action
The point is: Your past will generally follow you inside of organizations. You can shape your future by taking new actions and defining yourself in new ways—but not always.
If your objective is to maintain a 3.6-grade point average or above, you take the classes you are likely to do the best at and arrange your schedule accordingly. If your objective is to survive and thrive in a law firm, you need to take similar actions as well.
For example, you are more likely to be successful if you avoid partners and others who have a reputation for hurting—rather than helping—careers. You should take assignments you are likely to excel at and not those you are not likely to do well at. You should work with people who share your personality traits and who you get along with. You should seek out people who are likely to help and not hurt you. This will help you maintain a good brand.
Your brand inside a law firms is further defined by things such as:
- The number of hours you bill. The more hours you bill, the better. That is why it is important to do the work you enjoy—and not the other way around.
- People not saying negative things about you. You should work with people that you are likely to get along with and not have issues with. In many cases, this could be just one person or a small handful. You should protect yourself and avoid those likely to make trouble for you.
- You are not having issues with your social life that pollute your reputation in the firm. If your social life bleeds over into the firm and people know unflattering things about you, this can hurt you. Better to maintain an air of mystery and not the other way around. Dating colleagues is never a great idea, for example.
- People saying positive things about you. Better to have a few people saying positive things about you than some saying good things and others bad. People will remember the bad but not necessarily the good.
- Your ability to stay professional. Some people do not stay professional around their colleagues and incorrectly start to believe people at work are their friends. This is often not a good idea because your professional life will always impact your professional life.
- Your ability to bring in business. If you are able to bring in business, people will often overlook the issues with your personal life—but not always.
If you do a good job maintaining your brand, you should keep in mind that other attorneys in your firm are always going to be looking for ways to find fault with you and taint your brand—regardless. A good reputation is one that is always going to be at risk because other attorneys will want to take you down. Therefore, you should always be somewhat on guard when you are encountering other attorneys in your firm, either socially or in joint projects.
You never want to tell others your weaknesses or problems because they will use these things against you. The more positive and less negative things people have to say about you, the better.
Several years ago, I was speaking with a woman who had been recently divorced. I asked her why she had gotten divorced, and her answer surprised me. She said that she and her ex-husband had been together for too long and loved each other, but had “too much negative history”. Fights, negative interactions and other problems had accumulated over the years and made it impossible for them to stay together any longer. Every time they saw each other, they would inevitably be reminded of some past gripe or disagreement, and they could not overcome the negative feelings that were left over from this. Too much negativity built up over time.
Find a Law Firm That Fits Your Brand
Most attorneys leave law firms not necessarily because of the hours, or a dislike of the work, but because the people around them—people that should be supporting them—now see them in a less positive light than they would like to be seen. There is something negative that is tainting how the law firm sees them and how their peers see them. The reasons these issues arise vary from one firm to another; however, once people feel they are viewed in a way that they do not want to be, they often move firms—they may move within a city, or even to a different state. Honestly, this is often a great idea because it can save careers.
Not too long ago, I was working with an attorney that was a partner in a law firm in a conservative part of the United States. He wore jeans to work one day that, unbeknownst to him apparently, had a rip in the crotch that exposed his underwear. Two females in the firm complained to management, and he was close to being asked to leave the firm when he decided to take his practice to another law firm. His reputation in the firm was ruined over an incident that might not have mattered in a less conservative part of the country—or even in another law firm in his city—but it mattered there.
The reasons you could be viewed negatively in your own law firm could be numerous. Some of these reasons could be within your control and others could be outside of your control. Your objective in any law firm is to constantly work to cultivate a positive image in the eyes of other attorneys in the law firm. If others are not viewing you positively, it makes sense for you to leave and go to a different firm where you believe you will have a better chance of developing a good brand and controlling how your brand is received.
The funny thing about brands is that what is valued in one law firm may not be valued in another firm. You need to find your tribe and the sorts of attorneys you are most likely to click with and vice versa. Your brand and way of doing things are likely to work in some environments and not others. Different types of personalities, skills, work styles, and so forth are valued in some firms and not others.
To succeed in a law firm, you need to maintain a good brand. If a good brand is impossible or unlikely in your current firm, this is often the best reason to move law firms. Wanting better hours, a more prestigious law firm, or a smaller law firm are all valid reasons to switch law firms. But being viewed negatively by your peers and wanting to change that perception is the biggest reason for switching firms.
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Years ago, I read a news story about Brittany Spears that was somewhat humorous. Someone that was on her staff had told a bunch of reporters that all she did was sit in a room eating salty snacks, watching television. Apparently the room she was in always smelled like bad body odor and her gas. He implied that he was disgusted by her and did not think too highly of her. That is different from the common media image everyone has of her as a cute Southern girl who is friendly, chipper and clean cut. If you were her publicist, you would not want her to be defined by what her unflattering staff sees of her. Instead, you would want her defined as the public views her—that image is extremely valuable.
Whether it is Brittany Spears, the Jenners, or the Kardashians, controlling your image is something that is extremely important and can make or break people. You’ve seen how many men have fallen due to the Me Too Movement, for example, and how an image can change overnight. In a law firm, an image can change in an instant (like it did for the attorney with a ripped crotch in his jeans), or it can be developed over time. Regardless, a good image is what is necessary.
If you have a great image at your existing law firm, you should almost never move. That means you have a lot of political capital that you may have worked a decade or longer to develop. If you move to a new employer, you will suddenly need to build a new image, and it may not go as well. A solid image at an existing employer is something that you should always work to maintain and build upon. If your image is not what you want, you need to fix it—which is difficult—or move firms.
When you switch law firms, you will have the ability to rebuild a new brand and avoid the mistakes you may have made in the past. You can frame your brand in the new firm around being seen the way you want to be seen. You can often do this in the city you are in, or you may want to move to another part of the country where you can start 100% fresh again.
Your reputation in your law firm is extremely important and something you can protect by moving firms, or staying where you are. How you are seen by others in your law firm will determine how far you can rise there and often how happy you are there as well.
About Harrison Barnes
Harrison Barnes is the founder of BCG Attorney Search and a successful legal recruiter. His most recent contribution to the legal community is Outplacement Attorney Resources (OAR.com), which directly teaches attorneys and law students the best ways to find legal jobs. Harrison is extremely committed to and passionate about the profession of legal placement. His firm BCG Attorney Search has placed thousands of attorneys. BCG Attorney Search works with attorneys to dramatically improve their careers by leaving no stone unturned in job searches and bringing out the very best in them. Harrison has placed the leaders of the nation’s top law firms, and countless associates who have gone on to lead the nation’s top law firms. There are very few firms Harrison has not made placements with. Harrison’s writings about attorney careers and placements attract millions of reads each year. He coaches and consults with law firms about how to dramatically improve their recruiting and retention efforts. His company LawCrossing has been ranked on the Inc. 500 twice. For more information, please visit Harrison Barnes’ bio.
About BCG Attorney Search
BCG Attorney Search matches attorneys and law firms with unparalleled expertise and drive, while achieving results. Known globally for its success in locating and placing attorneys in law firms of all sizes, BCG Attorney Search has placed thousands of attorneys in law firms in thousands of different law firms around the country. Unlike other legal placement firms, BCG Attorney Search brings massive resources of over 150 employees to its placement efforts locating positions and opportunities its competitors simply cannot. Every legal recruiter at BCG Attorney Search is a former successful attorney who attended a top law school, worked in top law firms and brought massive drive and commitment to their work. BCG Attorney Search legal recruiters take your legal career seriously and understand attorneys. For more information, please visit www.BCGSearch.com.