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Lessons for a Fifth-Year Associate

By Linda Green Pierce

This month we hear from the fifth years, those senior associates who are glimpsing the light at the end of the tunnel. Fifth year is a great time to shine. You finally have competent legal skills for the most part and you can start leaving your desk without raising suspicions that you're not a hard worker. What has a fifth year done to make it this far, and what does a fifth year need to do to make it across the finish line and be asked into The Partnership?

Think and act like an owner every day. Businesses don’t survive if they don’t bring in new business, so you must cultivate new customers. Thus, when a fifth year speaks of developing your own book of business as being essential to becoming a partner, it’s because it’s essential to being an owner. Doing marketing tasks makes it easier because the partners understand that you recognize the qualities of an owner. But beware the marketing does need to result in actual business, not just warm fuzzies marketing actions without getting actual customers.

Yet don’t market too much. You don’t want to be seen as too marketing oriented. Yes, there are a few tremendous rainmakers out there who rely upon their little black books above their legal skills, but those are the rare exceptions. Moreover, they’re 20th-year partners, not fifth-year associates. The key cherished value in law firms is still knock-down work product. Violators of this ethic are secretly punished.

Stare at the bottom line. An internal facet of thinking like an owner is to focus on financial performance. Beyond billable hours lies an area called “collection rates.” It can be an unpleasant task, but you must collect what you’ve billed.

Expose yourself. At the big firms, it’s probably not the size of your book that matters as a fifth year, but the depth of your impact. Even at medium-sized and smaller firms, exposure can be a proxy for developing your own new clients. Start establishing your name in the community: Give talks at CLEs, write industry articles, actively participate in an association within your area of interest, help present a firm seminar to clients and prospects, and attend industry events. You want to legitimately position yourself as an expert in a fairly discrete field.

Get closer to clients. The key to building business has always been developing good relationships with clients and building a reputation as an excellent lawyer. Those good relationships can come as easily as being in the office to answer the phone when the partner is out. If so, that queues you up to be the primary contact for the client. So instead of getting anxious about “marketing,” focus on visibility to clients, top partners, and industry people.

Take a junior associate under your wing. One of the primary requirements for becoming a partner is being able to push work down to younger associates as appropriate. This can be challenging because you’re used to having things done your way, or having a partner direct you as to what to do. Owners supervise others, and you’re showing the partners that you act like an owner. It’s also your opportunity to learn how to give good directions. Recall those partners who you felt gave you incomplete information and vow now to instruct younger associates properly.

Think about going in house. It’s a rare associate who started law practice after you who has not dreamed of going in house, as if that would cure the billable-hour blues. But as I pointed out in a prior article, corporations are looking for the kind of experience a fifth- or sixth-year associate can bring to the game. You are at the point in your career where you have the experience, you have the legal and personal skills to make a career commitment, and you are consciously eschewing a chance at grabbing the golden ring of partnership in order to serve but one master. You’ve used your time at a law firm to get the seasoning you’ll need to make you a valuable Associate General Counsel candidate, so why not cash in if you want to?

Fish or cut bait. At the end of the day you have to ask yourself: Is this the firm I want to be a partner in? This is the year to decide because this is the year the beauty contest gets underway in earnest. Fifth year is when you are the most mobile, and portability of your book is a second-tier issue. You have the talents and skills to do whatever you want, but where do you want to do it?