The first few years of a lawyer’s career might feel like you’re on a conveyor belt. One way to seize control of your career is to become the “go-to person” for something.
If you choose right, you’ll be building your reputation, growing your income and meeting wonderful people – all while enjoying your life more. We’ll get to the What and the How of this in just a minute, but for now we want to sell you on the Why.
One sure sign that this is a smart idea is that it ranks high on Google’s list of “Ten things we know to be true.” The list is all you’ll find on Google’s corporate philosophy page and #2 reads: ”It’s best to do one thing really, really well.”
Well said, Google. And that philosophy serves lawyers well too.
Patricia A. Daly, an executive coach and a principal at WorkBest Legal, says that taking a deep dive into a topic that you find fascinating can lead directly to a greater sense of job fulfillment and sometimes marks the moment a career takes off.
“We like doing what we do well,” Daly said. “I’ve worked with lawyers who are now in top leadership positions at their firm or company and who would tell you that their success began when they found something they wanted to gain an expertise in.”
Daly recounted the story of one lawyer who was working in-house in an industry that did not completely thrill her. “She decided to master all aspects of employment contracts because that interested her – everything from the nuts and bolts of compensation packages to noncompete clauses.” That woman is now general counsel of a Washington DC-based media company.
“You may need to try a few things before you find something that not only grabs your interest, but is sustainable and worth building a segment of your practice around,” Daly said.
To put yourself in the mood to ponder the What part of this equation, watch this famous clip from the 1967 movie “The Graduate” in which Dustin Hoffman plays Benjamin Braddock, a newly minted college grad who is taken aside by a friend of his parents during his graduation party. The man tells Benjamin he has one word for him: plastics.
If they remade “The Graduate” today, that friend would probably try to sell Benjamin on AI.
If you want to become your firm’s go-to person on a topic, you just might choose AI. It appears to be a legal sector game-changer, and so far there’s only a handful of lawyers who understand it deeply enough to be thought of as gurus.
A few years ago, legalized cannabis was the hot topic and a few brave souls created a new legal practice area from scratch. Likewise with privacy and data security just before that. Right now, the Corporate Transparency Act is a regulatory beast of a law that has law firms everywhere wondering how they’ll manage to comply with it.
If you’re a patent lawyer, you’re likely well aware of the America Invents Act and the expedited inter partes review procedure it created for patent disputes. Becoming the go-to person for handling those matters might be especially valuable to your firm and a style of litigating that appeals to you.
Your hunt for What to focus on is highly personal and the universe is large, so let’s pivot now before this becomes a laundry list.
For now, keep an open mind, ask around, and get suggestions from your mentors and anyone you trust. Then be willing to invest the time and effort in taking a topic for a test drive.
If you’ve made it this far, dear reader, this is the practical part of the article where we talk about how to make it work. Think of your go-to area like a car. You already took it for a test drive (see above). Now buy the car. Everyday, you’ll want to unlock it, start it up, map out a route, and drive.
Here’s are the six essential pillars of your plan to become a go-to person:
Your goal here is to be considered an expert. Make an ambitious reading list. Set some Google alerts. Stay on top of the latest developments, case law, legislation, and trends. Attend seminars and conferences. The more you know, the more you’ll want to know.
Don’t view other lawyers in your chosen space only as competitors. They’re in the same club. Cultivate relationships. In a few years, these people will be referring work to you. Who knows? You might become their partner someday.
Connect with more senior lawyers, judges, experts and professionals working in your chosen area. Pick their brains. Read their articles. Join the relevant section of your bar association and attend their programs with an eye toward one day having a seat on the dais or a leadership position.
As soon as possible, starting writing articles and finding speaking engagements. Take on the commitment to write first. Once you have agreed to the deadline and the editor’s word limits, the only things left to do are the research and the writing. Your article can be recycled and repurposed into a talk or a podcast. If your firm does in-house CLE, convert the presentation into a course that gets state-approved credit.
Harnessing Social Media
There’s no excuse for not taking advantage of the modern era’s bountiful opportunities for free publishing to an audience you curate. Learn how to use LinkedIn and other platforms to put your thought leadership out there. Don’t just post and run. Engage. Comment on posts by others in your topic and always, always, always respond to anyone who comments on your posts.
Collaborating with Experts
Develop relationships with subject matter experts who can provide additional insights and perspectives. Collaborating with experts can strengthen your arguments, enhance your reputation, and make you a valuable resource in your chosen area.
Finally, don’t lose sight of internal marketing. The acumen you amass in your chosen area is an asset. It adds value to your firm only if your partners and colleagues know it exists. One way to guarantee that your depth of knowledge is recognized throughout your firm is to include your partners in your social media efforts. LinkedIn isn’t just about connecting with those outside your organization; it’s also a terrific vehicle for establishing your personal brand right at home.