YourABA: June 2013
YourABA June 2013 Masthead

Building your ladder to success

Marian Lee

Marian Lee

Many law firm associates fall into the trap of believing that making partner is the reward for years of hard work and sacrifice, according to Marian Lee, author of Building Your Ladder: An Associate’s Guide to Success Beyond Partnership. Rather than a reward, partnership instead is a leap of faith by the law firm; young partners who don’t live up to expectations can quickly lose ground in their careers and stagnate professionally, she said.

The author of this new book from ABA Publishing addressed the skills new partners need to possess to thrive and offered advice for associates of all skill levels.

Why are newer partners a vulnerable group?

It is helpful for new lawyers to understand what it will take to be successful in the long term.

Newer partners are vulnerable because typically they are promoted based on their potential value to the firm in the long run rather than their immediate value as a partner. While they may have proven their skills as a lawyer, they still have to develop additional skills in generating business, managing clients, leading client service teams and serving leadership roles within the firm. If they make partner but don’t continue to demonstrate steady growth, they may stagnate and never fulfill their potential value. They may become some of the less profitable attorneys in the firm because they are paid like partners but perform like associates, i.e., their main contribution is billable hours.

How does the advice in your book apply to all skill levels, not just the new partner?

It is helpful for new lawyers to understand what it will take to be successful in the long term. Historically, associates have focused on “making partner” rather than on what it will take to be successful after they become a partner. New lawyers can better plan their careers when they look ahead and seek out experiences and knowledge that will help them to start building partner-level skills while they are still in their midlevel to senior associate years. For example, it takes years to build relationships through networking. You can’t start this process after you become a partner and expect to see results immediately — it may take many years for the contacts you develop to actually come to you with opportunities. The sooner in your career you start planting the seeds, the better off you will be in the long run.

What makes a “good partner”?

A “good” partner is one who adds value to the firm in a variety of ways and does so consistently. That includes developing new business, enhancing the reputation of the firm, managing clients well, contributing to the internal management of the firm, developing the firm’s talent and showing support for other partners in the firm, among other things.

Why is “taking ownership” important? How does an associate do so?

Taking ownership means taking responsibility for your own success and career growth. It means not waiting for partners to hand you assignments, not waiting for opportunities to come along, but actively seeking them out. It is the difference between the mentality of a student, who is “fed” assignments and simply does what he or she is told to do, and that of an entrepreneur, who goes beyond the four corners of a problem or an assignment and looks for additional ways to help the client (whether internal or external), and focuses on building relationships in addition to delivering an excellent product.

What is the importance of self-evaluation?

You can’t effectively plan your own career growth without understanding what your strengths and weaknesses are and what you bring to the table. If you’re receiving feedback that suggests you need to improve in some area, you need to pay attention to it and actively seek resources to help you improve. If you are particularly good at something, e.g., writing, you can capitalize on that by writing articles to gain visibility. Consider feedback you’ve received in formal evaluations, informal feedback given to you by partners and peers, upward feedback from your staff and outside assessment tools as possible sources of valuable information.

What is your advice on networking?

Develop a discipline around networking rather than attending random events and making sporadic contacts. Attend events regularly. Before you go to an event, find out who will be there and decide who you’ll want to talk to, as well as what you’ll talk to them about. Always bring business cards. And after meeting a new contact, find a way to follow up with them, whether it’s sharing information that will be of interest, learning more about their business or finding some way to help them. Remember that it’s a long-term process and that success comes with focusing on ways to help people in your network rather than on what you can get out of them.

Any other crucial tips you’d like to share from your book?

The more you focus on developing yourself, creating a great experience for your internal and external clients, and helping others to be successful, the more successful you will be.

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