Law Practice Today | March 2013 | Young Lawyer Survival Guide
March 2013 | Young Lawyer Survival Guide
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Young Lawyers: Being a Great Lawyer Isn't Enough

By Rich Goldstein

There is a myth that being smart, competent, and skilled are the keys to being a successful lawyer. But if you make a list of the 10 best people in almost any field, and compare it to a list of the 10 highest-paid, you'll notice little correlation. The same holds true for lawyers. Just being a great lawyer isn't enough—especially in the midst of an economic downturn. In fact, "success" is a skill all its own. Beyond just being a good lawyer, the key to having a successful career in law lies in mastering three critical skills.

Similarly, because relationship is the foundation of accomplishment, the key to mastering these skills lies in understanding people. Naturally then, to be accomplished in the legal field, we must understand people—how best to relate to people—to understand how best to serve people in need of legal services, how to acquire new customers interested in the services we provide, and how to effectively guide and collaborate with our law firm colleagues. Forget burying your head in the books, studying cases, statutes, and regulations. The real secret to success lies in understanding people—and using that understanding to master these three critical skills: legal marketing, business development, and law firm leadership.

Legal Marketing

Even the biggest firms, with 40-person marketing teams, miss the mark when seeking to market their firms. Law firm marketing is about discovering a problem that people have for which they are already seeking a solution. The common misconception is to focus on you and not on the consumer. As a result, you attempt to market your services—not the solution they are seeking and that you can provide. The consumer, however, is not seeking ‘litigation attorneys’; the consumer is seeking a solution to a problem: “I’m being sued,” or “someone is infringing my patent.” Communicating that you have the solution they are seeking is the most effective way to market the services you provide that can solve their problem.

Marketing goes beyond just communicating the message; it includes a strategy for determining what would be a good niche for your firm, or for yourself within the firm. The niche can be you (or the firm) as the expert in:

  1. a specific problem (e.g. estate tax, DWI defense, zoning variances, oil well permits)
  2. a specific client (musicians, shipping companies, food growers)
  3. a specific combination of client and problem (single parents with custody issues, start-up ventures needing patent assistance, banks seeking advice on regulatory compliance)
  4. an economic niche (clients willing/able to pay a $1000 flat fee, clients willing to pay a $5000 flat fee, clients willing to pay your hourly rate with no cap)

The key is to find a niche that both defines a pool of clients that is large enough to sustain you and fits your preferences for the type of work you want to do, the type of people you want to work with, and how you would like to get paid. When you are working on a new type of case, when you are talking to other lawyers at a cocktail party, listen for opportunities to niche.

Once you find a potential niche, you must test it and make sure that your marketing message gets to the right people and gets them to take action. Creating the right niche can provide you with steady work that you are good at doing. It can also provide you with job security by making you special—a "non-commodity." The alternative might be to blow whichever way the wind blows—and to end up doing whatever work comes in or whatever work someone else chooses to assign to you.

As a young lawyer you should always have your attention on where the opportunities are to create a niche for yourself. Many people resist niching because they believe that if they define themselves narrowly, they will lose customers. Inevitably though, when they attempt to be for everyone, they end up being for no one!

Business Development

Too many young lawyers get out of law school, join a firm, and ‘put their head down’ to do the work that is assigned to them. Too many lawyers then let 10 or more years go by, just doing work that is assigned to them—doing work for someone else’s clients. At some point, perhaps when they make partner, they wake up and realize they need to bring in clients themselves!

If you are in a small firm, or if you start your own firm, business development is a necessity from the beginning. Some attorneys in small firms describe this as “we eat what we kill.” It seems obvious to those in small practices: "If we don’t bring in business, how are we going to pay the bills? How are we going to pay each other?"

In larger firms, however, associates collect a steady paycheck, as promised to them when they accepted the job. As a result, they are often isolated or naïve to the reality that the business must come from somewhere. The startling wake-up call comes when someone suddenly expects them bring in business, when everyone’s salary gets cut, or when the firm collapses.

It’s never too early to begin business development activities. Here are some practical suggestions:

  1. Stay in touch with your law school and undergraduate classmates. As junior attorneys, and newbies in whatever industry they are in, your former classmates probably have little ability to refer you clients right now. However, in a few years, many of them will be valuable sources of clients and important connections.
  2. Get involved in professional organizations. Don’t just network in these organizations. Get involved in committees, planning activities, and other leadership roles. It's one thing to make friends with other attorneys; it's quite another thing to work side-by-side with them toward a common goal. When you do, they will know what to expect from you—including your work ethic, your attention to detail, your ability to 'get it done.' This will allow them to trust you and refer their most valuable clients to you with confidence.
  3. When you meet new people, resist the urge to talk about yourself. Train yourself to be curious about other people. Express this genuine curiosity by asking questions about them. Listening to people builds more trust and rapport than anything you could tell them about yourself or your abilities. Also, while you're listening, find something you can genuinely appreciate about them: perhaps their passion for their work, their love of their family, or their desire to serve their community. People like people who like them.

Law Firm Leadership

Young associates tend to think that now is a time to be led by others, and that their opportunity for leadership will come later.

In truth, it's never too early to learn, cultivate, and practice leadership skills. (See "Where Have All the Leaders Gone?" (Law Practice Today, July 2012.)

Young lawyers need to understand that they are the future of law firm leadership. By expressing leadership from the very beginning—by showing a sense of ownership of the future of the firm, their value at the firm will be quickly recognized.

They also should know that leadership is not a matter of personality traits. Leadership is a matter of skills that can be learned. Put yourself in a position of leadership. Move toward important decisions and take initiative, and people will naturally listen to you—and follow you.

Once again, being a good lawyer does not guarantee success. With this understanding, now, if you look at the most successful lawyers, you may notice the trait they have in common beyond just being a good lawyer: you will notice that they have invested heavily in people—in understanding people, in building relationships with people, and in leading people. When you are genuinely curious about people, when you listen attentively and allow them to be your teachers, you will naturally and easily master the critical skills you need to build a successful career in the law.

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About the Author

Rich Goldstein is a registered patent attorney and frequent writer and speaker on law practice management.  He can be reached at 212.656.9100.

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