A huge benefit of regular physical proximity with colleagues is the opportunity to build familiarity and communicate often, which leads to connection and meaningful relationship-building. In other words, people at work get to know you and like you, and you get to know and like the people you work with. These relationships are avenues to improved learning of legal skills along with the inner workings and politics of a law firm and are critical in building a professional support system and ultimately true friendships. “Some of my best friends are people that I have met through work and have gotten to know over the last twenty-five years,” said Cramer.
With fewer in-person interactions available organically at law firms because of reduced in-office work expectations, as well as different preferences and changed habits around socializing in the office, associates need to take an expressly active role in creating opportunities to connect with peers and colleagues. To expedite these interactions, use technology to initiate relationships, so that when you do connect in person you can get the most out of those exchanges. Research the experienced people at your firm and identify things that you admire in their experience, background, or practice. Then you can reach out with a note like, “I am very interested in working with (X category of clients/Y type of matters/Z type of extracurriculars), and I see that you have had a lot of success in that area. If you are open to it, I would love to share some of my objectives and strategies around building my practice in that direction and would really appreciate hearing your thoughts. Are you available for a video call next Thursday or Friday?”
If you are working with a partner or a peer who is in the same region you are, suggest meeting in person for lunch/breakfast/drinks so you can get to know them a bit better. If you are attending a professional social event, invite a peer you would like to know better to come with you. Find out if a senior colleague you are working with on something is available to discuss the matter in person the next time they are in the office.
There are plenty of opportunities to connect in routine interactions, too. When you start calls or emails to review client matters, ask the partner about their weekend or their experience at that conference you know they attended. Look for opportunities to connect about something besides the work at hand. Mention the volunteer work or extracurriculars you are participating in, and share things that you care about. Show up to the events the firm puts together. Interactions at these events will be even more successful if you have made those initial introductions via email beforehand. Plus, you never know who you might end up talking to and about what. There are opportunities to connect in person that will start or bolster significant relationships that would not be possible otherwise, so be sure to show up so you can take advantage of them.
Develop Unique Expertise/Knowledge That Makes You Essential
Wurtzel says the best way to ensure that your firm would not consider letting you go is to make yourself indispensable. “Be a critical person on the matter. Know all of the facts of the case—the procedural history, read all the deposition documents. Be on top of deadlines with a clear sense of where the case is going.”
Being of value to partners also means knowing how to effectively and efficiently solve their problems. If you know who internally to go to for help because they are good (paralegals, secretaries, other attorneys) and who it’s best to avoid because they will not be helpful, and where to find templates, and how to utilize and leverage the technology available, you can accurately estimate timelines and will be highly appreciated.
Look for a niche or distinctive expertise you can develop. There are a multitude of reasons why attorneys benefit when they build a niche expertise, and one of them is that when you are the go-to person at a firm for a specific type of matter or issue, it adds value for the firm’s clients and a benefit to the attorneys that will make it more likely they will want to make sure you stay at the firm.
There is science behind the saying “out of sight, out of mind,” with a multitude of studies showing that physical and psychological distance are directly related. Attorneys who have not experienced the benefits that come with regularly working in close physical proximity with peers and colleagues may not recognize that they are losing out on opportunities to grow professionally. It is important to be a highly visible presence if you want to be known, recognized, and valued at your firm.
Building your reputation and visibility may happen by spending time in the office, but it is important to be increasingly intentional to get the most benefit out of now-reduced face time. Many associates report that when they go into the office no one is there, or the few people who are there are working with their doors closed. Associates can get more out of working in the office if they let people know that they are interested in connecting. Maximize your opportunities for face time, and schedule your days in the office around when your colleagues and peers will be there.
Be present and visible in video meetings; that means keeping your camera on, even if not everyone does. Moving to video instead of in-person meetings creates efficiency, but it is wise to treat these meetings with the same intention and objectives you would an in-person meeting. People should see you and hear you. Contribute, ask questions, and use the chat section to connect on a more personal level.
Use your growing niche to get exposure. “People notice when an associate takes the initiative to write or get involved outside of the firm; when it is clear an associate sees themselves as a leader,” said Nair. Nair started her career at a big firm and made a concerted effort to get involved in professional organizations outside of the firm. “Do things collaboratively with the firm, giving the firm exposure. Big firms will allow for that and eventually will encourage it, especially when it yields new or additional revenue. Beyond the short-term value for the firm, it’s vital that associates build their reputations for the long-term benefits to their careers.”
Cramer advises that when work eases up, associates should do things proactively to be visible or to improve themselves. “A dream day for me would be if a competent person came to me and said, ‘I am very interested in working on a class action advertising matter—do you have anything I can work with you on?’ And if I don’t at the moment, they suggest that we collaborate on an article and they take the lead on a draft. We’d get to work on something together, and it could likely lead to another thing… new work, attending a conference together, or another article.” Educate your colleagues on your expertise by sharing articles you’ve written and presentations you are giving on LinkedIn and internal channels, and be sure to bring it up in the conversations you are actively scheduling.
Be Productive and Professional
Treating partners like clients demonstrates your skill and ability to work with actual clients. Be sure to err on the side of being overly professional, especially in your communication. In emails, use greetings and sign-offs, complete sentences, and accurate grammar. Dress professionally if you are going to be on a video call or in-person meeting with colleagues; show up as if a client were going to be there.
Presentation is important, and revenue is essential. When a firm is preparing to make cuts, it is likely they will review hours billed to assess who is pulling their weight and creating economic value for the firm. If your hours are low, leadership will wonder if there is a reason none of the partners want to give this person work, or they may assume that partners are assigning the person work and this person is just not working enough.
Associates today can’t afford to wait for their firms to take the lead in their professional development. If you want to build a successful and fulfilling legal practice, you need to be more proactive and intentional than any associate before you. And as a junior professional interested in optimizing the experience of working at a law firm, you must prove you have what it takes to be a good lawyer and a valuable partner, and you must adapt to the professional expectations of the firm partners and clients. Even if markets don’t shift and demand for legal services continues to increase, when you take the actions mentioned here, you will gain better, more fulfilling work; make valuable connections and friendships; and advance more quickly in your career.