Top Lawyers: Sheila Murphy of Focus Forward Consulting On The 5 Things You Need To Become A Top Lawyer In Your Specific Field of Law
An Interview With Chere Estrin
Lawyers must be able to be strong advocates for themselves, as well as their clients. It will make a tremendous difference in your career if you advocate strongly for yourself when asking for development or business opportunities, as well as in self-evaluations and promotional memos. Remember, why would anyone trust your advocacy skills if you are not excellent at advocating for yourself.
The legal field is known to be extremely competitive. Lawyers are often smart, ambitious, and highly educated. That being said, what does it take to stand out and become a “Top Lawyer” in your specific field of law? In this interview series called “5 Things You Need To Become A Top Lawyer In Your Specific Field of Law”, we are talking to top lawyers who share what it takes to excel and stand out in your industry.
As a part of this interview series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Sheila Muprhy.
For over 20 years, as a former senior legal officer for a Fortune 50 company, Sheila Murphy successfully developed, coached, and transformed talent in corporate America, and law firms. Today, as CEO of Focus Forward Consulting and a certified coach and career consultant, she partners with both inside and outside counsel to build fulfilling and thriving careers, practices and businesses. Sheila helps lawyers take their careers from uncertain and uninspired to unstoppable.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. Before we dig in, our readers would love to get to know you a bit more. What is the “backstory” that brought you to this particular career path in Law? Did you want to be an attorney “when you grew up”?
I have been an old movie buff even as a child and found career inspiration in these films. Movies like Adam’s Rib, Witness for the Prosecution, Anatomy of a Murder, and of course, To Kill a Mocking Bird. I loved how the lawyers in these movies unraveled puzzles and mysteries and zealously advocated for the clients. I wanted to be that person in the courtroom.
However, in law school, my focus switched to corporate law because I was a severe introvert with a fear of public speaking. During my law firm career and the beginning of my time in-house, I feared speaking up and having others discover I was a fraud. Then the fates intervened, and on the first day of work at a law firm, the managing partner came out to tell me they needed me in litigation. My heart sank. This was not the future I envisioned.
While inhouse, I realized that I was just as talented, if not more so than many of my peers- but if I wanted to be the advocate that my clients deserved and have the career I earned, I needed to change my approach.
My AHA moment came when the company promoted a peer whose legal skills were lacking. Despite his misguided advice, I realized that because he had no trouble opening and making the right relationships, he was going to get ahead, and I would not. I imagined the impact for the company and my career if I changed– and I like what I envisioned, so I started to change my career development approach. And it worked. By the time my peer left the company, he had reported to me. I now coach both inside and outside lawyers on their career journeys so they can have the career they deserve.
Can you tell us a bit about the nature of your practice and what you focus on?
As I mentioned above, I started as a litigator in a law firm. When I moved in house to a Fortune 50 financial organization, I continued to advocate for my clients and spearhead investigations and regulatory matters. As an in-house counsel, I also believed that much of the value I provided was identifying and proactively risk-mitigating counseling and developing a talent pipeline.
You are a successful attorney. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? What unique qualities do you have that others may not? Can you please share a story or example for each?
First, I am highly ethical and will raise ethical issues even if they are technically legal or compliant. I believe organizations that embrace ethics have stronger finances and cultures — and will end up being successful. By raising these issues and having thoughtful decisions, the organizations achieved better outcomes and mitigated risk, and created a culture of raising questions and doing the right thing.
Second, I am an incredibly attentive listener. Listening enables us to connect the dots, see around corners, and better strategic recommendations. On several occasions, active listening helped me ask the right questions and better position the case. Listening also enables me to give better advice to my clients. By listening and asking thoughtful follow-up questions, I understand my client’s fundamental objectives and how I can further them. It also helps me better influence them to make the right decision. For example, a client was resisting a new process. I and others did not understand why. While others argued with the client, I asked questions and was able to understand the stumbling block. Knowing the issue, we were able to craft a solution that everyone could get on board with. This same skill also helps motivate and galvanize teams, as well as develop talent.
Finally, I don’t have an ego. I understand and appreciate that the best ideas can come from anyone on the team, and only by collaborating on diverse groups do we achieve the best results. I intentionally build coalitions with people more talented than myself to attain better results and leave the company more vital than before. For example, on one diversity initiative I was spearheading, two of the most impactful ideas came not from me but from the team. If I am honest, I had my doubts at first, but they convinced me that it would have a powerful impact, and they were right.
Do you think you have had luck in your success? Can you explain what you mean?
I don’t believe in luck. I think that success occurs when opportunity meets preparedness. You can ready yourself for when an opportunity appears so you can smash it out of the ballpark. And to be successful, you need to appreciate that you control opportunities coming your way. The actions you take, such as building a solid network, creating a robust professional profile, and developing the necessary skills and behaviors, can create opportunities. As Lucille Ball said: “Luck? Luck is hard work and realizing what is opportunity and what isn’t.”
Do you think where you went to school has any bearing on your success? How important is it for a lawyer to go to a top-tier school?
I know many attorneys who have been extraordinarily successful and gotten to the highest positions in the profession without going to a top-tier law school. And I know attorneys who have gone to premier schools that struggle with career development and success.
With that being said, many in the legal profession unfairly have a bias for people from top schools. So people from other schools may need to develop stronger skills and build a more robust professional profile and network to overcome these predispositions. I believe what you do as a lawyer, not where you went to school is a much more accurate indicator of your success.
Based on the lessons you have learned from your experience, if you could go back in time and speak to your twenty-year-old self, what would you say? Would you do anything differently?
I would say that you should invest more in yourself, be bolder, and take more risks. Many lawyers can be risk-averse — law schools and firms train us to be that way. Don’t transfer that approach to your career. Instead, Remember all the skills and talents you have, take chances, and put yourself out there.
This is not easy work. What is your primary motivation and drive behind the work that you do?
When I practiced law — solving problems and driving the business motivated me. I loved being able to make strategies, policies, and processes better and more efficient. After many years of managing and coaching talent, I switched to coaching when I realized I enjoyed helping people navigate the legal field to design a career they want.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?
When in corporate, I loved working on investigations and matters that required proactive strategic thinking to position it for success, especially when analyzing how the business was operating and how it would need to transform. Today, I enjoy helping clients find the clarity and courage for designing their dream careers and practices. Recently two clients attained their dream roles of general counsel, and another landed her first significant matter and client. It is hugely satisfying helping others.
Where do you go from here? Where do you aim to be in the next chapter of your career?
I want to have a more significant impact on the legal profession by helping more people transform their careers and businesses. I plan on launching group programs that make coaching more accessible and have a significant impact on individuals. I am thrilled to have several clients outside of the US and would love to grow my clientele. Of course, the dream is to coach from some glamorous European location where I can travel for a few months a year.
Without sharing anything confidential, can you please share your most successful “war story”? Can you share the funniest?
I will share two quick ones. First, a business partner was struggling with some changes and decisions he had to make. I spent a lot of time working with him through the decision process, and at the end of the time, he made the best decisions for the company. Later, he called me to thank me for how I respected him and helped him work through the process. After that, he had to testify before a regulator. Again, he called to thank me — saying what we had decided had made the whole conversation go much easier than if we had gone in another direction.
In the second one, we tried for a long time to settle a case on a reasonable basis without success. However, once the trial began, the case quickly settled. What happened? First, one of the main witnesses jumped out of the testifying chair, opened a window, and became ill. After that, the lights went out in the courthouse, and it was not sure when it would get power back. I think all parties took this as a sign, and they reached an agreement.
Ok, fantastic. Let’s now shift to discussing some advice for aspiring lawyers. Do you work remotely? Onsite? Or Hybrid? What do you think will be the future of how law offices operate? What do you prefer? Can you please explain what you mean?
I now work remotely, and when I practiced law, I was generally in the office four days a week. I started to work remotely on Fridays. I believe that in the future, most people (including potential clients) will be working on a hybrid schedule and attending more events virtually. I think there are significant advantages to individuals working a hybrid model. However, you must be more intentional with your network, both externally and internally, as well as with your career and business development. As people will be in the office less, time to build relationships and professional reputation will be scarcer. Lawyers should be more strategic and forward-focused in how they use that time and how they make spending time more valuable for the other person who has less time.
How has the legal world changed since COVID? How do you think it might change in the near future? Can you explain what you mean?
As we discussed before, the hybrid model is new to the practice of law, as is having clients or potential clients operating remotely. The hybrid model will force attorneys to be more innovative concerning their networking and profile building. Additionally, the pandemic has impacted many industries both negatively (i.e., travel and hospitality) and positively (technology and manufacturing), as well as how they operate (how much they use inside counsel, technology use, and expectations of their lawyers). Lawyers need to understand how these changes impact their clients, practice, and careers and make the necessary changes.
We often hear about the importance of networking and getting referrals. Is this still true today? Has the nature of networking changed or has its importance changed? Can you explain what you mean?
The number one indicator of success for both inside and outside lawyers is a robust network. For those inside corporations, connections can mean hearing about career opportunities they would not otherwise, including new positions and speaking engagements. Law firm lawyers need both a solid network and the ability to convert contacts into clients to be successful. While referrals may be one way to build a book of business, lawyers cannot rely on that alone to build a business.
People believe that networking stalled during the pandemic because conferences and other gatherings were canceled and postponed. However, networking was never about going to a conference. It was and is about relationship building. While initial meetings can be a little more tricky with many events still being held remote, you can still accomplish it if you think strategically. And the relationship-building possibilities are still there.
As people will be spending less time in the office, there will be more pulls on their time when they are there. For this reason, attorneys will need to be more strategic in their networking and relationship-building strategies.
Based on your experience, how can attorneys effectively leverage social media to build their practice?
Most lawyers are not using social media effectively. At the very least, they need to have a compelling LinkedIn profile. A robust profile creates a trail so recruiters, potential clients, and people seeking speakers can find you.
You should also be posting content to create a brand. Your postings should include any of your law firm newsletters that are relevant to your ideal clients. Ideally, you want to make an introduction to that type of post. You should do this even if the firm sends the newsletter out via email because many newsletters end up in spam folders, and clients do not receive them. You also want them to associate the content and thought leadership with you.
In-house lawyers also need to engage in social media when developing a brand. You can post about the organizations you belong to and the events where you are speaking.
Social media also allows people to do light touch networking by engaging with people’s content and changes of circumstances. I know many people, including myself, who have started relationships on LinkedIn, Twitter, and Clubhouse that have been both personally and professionally beneficial.
Excellent. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 Things You Need To Become A Top Lawyer In Your Specific Field of Law?” Please share a story or an example for each.
Lawyers often believe that if they have excellent legal skills that they will have career success. Now, those skills are essential, but they are what I would call “table stakes.” They get you into the game- but they don’t guarantee a winning hand. To have a remarkable career, lawyers (both at companies and law firms) need to develop additional skills.
The first one, networking, we touched upon already. As we discussed earlier, networking is really about relationship building, and that does not happen overnight. It takes time and giving to the people in your network. You also want your network to have mentors who can guide you, and if you earn, it sponsors who are willing to leverage their political capital to open opportunities for you. I know of many attorneys who go to events and think they are networking. They are not.
I attended a conference back in the times when we saw people in person. “Jan,” a vendor, kept chasing down people — to hand them her business card. Jan was shuffling and dealing those cards as if she was a card dealer in a casino. And Jan never engaged in meaningful conversation with anyone she forced her card upon, and people began to avoid her.
I am sure Jan went back to her office and bragged about all of her new great connections. Yet, in truth, she made not one. Don’t be like Jan — take the time to develop authentic relationships.
As networking is a significant investment of time, attorneys should be strategic about where and how they cultivate relationships. I cannot think of a career opportunity that did not come to me because of my network.
I have two in-house clients who are highly senior and with almost identical backgrounds seeking to be General Counsels. One invested time and efforts in not only attending events but cultivating relationships. The other was not as focused on strengthening connections. The one who invested the time is now a General Counsel. The other is not.
Second, lawyers must be able to be strong advocates for themselves, as well as their clients. It will make a tremendous difference in your career if you advocate strongly for yourself when asking for development or business opportunities, as well as in self-evaluations and promotional memos. Remember, why would anyone trust your advocacy skills if you are not excellent at advocating for yourself.
At a recent workshop, I held a woman disclosed that she had been offered a new position and was afraid to ask for the title and salary she wanted. We worked through what was holding her back and what those things would mean to her. After the workshop, she asked and got what she wanted.
If you don’t ask for something — you will get precisely what you ask for. And if the answer is no- ask why. That will give you information to use in making career decisions.
Attorneys also need to develop a solid professional profile, “tooting their own horn” and asking for what they want. Companies will not hire you as their counsel unless they know what you do and how you do it.
Developing a solid professional profile is established through “brand channels.” Brand channels include: you handle yourself at a meeting, what you speak about, what committees or organizations you belong to, the stories you tell at a cocktail party, and your career documents, such as your resume and LinkedIn profile.
When in-house, I met with an individual at a different company about a potential position. That person said to me, “I know exactly who you are, how you handle yourself, and what is important to you.” He preceded to elaborate, and he was pretty darn close to perfect. By Googling me and talking to my network, he was able to understand me as a candidate. Yes, your network can also be a brand channel.
Attorneys also need deep knowledge of the industry or businesses that they represent. Providing insights into a particular sector and applying the law to your client’s operations or circumstances makes you a more valued partner. This knowledge also helps you deliver more innovative and commercial solutions to your clients. While no client wants to run afoul of the law, they want partners who can help them drive business ethically and creatively.
Finally, attorneys should have excellent communication skills, and I do not mean legal document drafting. The most important of these skills is active listening. That is understanding what the client is saying and appreciating the business objectives. Knowing what is critical allows the lawyer to craft the most effective advice or arguments.
Lawyers also need to communicate effectively with people at all levels of organizations and with juries if you are a litigator. Attorneys should be able to translate complicated legal and business concepts into plain English that everyone can understand. Business partners want to be able to quickly distill the advice so they can make the appropriate decision. They are unable to do this if you weigh your advice down in legalese.
Another communication skill that attorneys need to how to influence people. Lawyers should rarely have to come in and say “no.” Instead, they should be able to guide their clients to the right decision or provide alternatives. Lawyers cannot influence others if they do not have the excellent listening skills we discussed before. But they also need to read the room, ask the right open-ended questions, and engage the business in conversation to influence others effectively.
One of my compliance partners used to come in and just tell the business no and yell at them. He was always frustrated when I would ask questions and explore alternatives. He thought I was siding with the clients against him. But when we handled a meeting in his style, it ended in an explosion and took several more sessions to get it on track. And most importantly, the business never took ownership of the decision. When we handled it my way, clients thanked me for how I approached the issue, and they now understood where we needed to go. Also, in taking this approach, I was able to re-craft possibilities and solutions that better met the business’s needs.
We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might see this. :-)
I would love to have a private meeting with Melinda Gates to discuss the work that she has done to advance women worldwide and how we as individuals can have a larger impact. I also would love to have meetings with some the heads of major law firms to have discussions how we can make law firm environments more inclusive for under-represented populations and more customer focused.
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success and good health!
About the interviewer: Chere Estrin is the CEO of Estrin Legal Staffing, a top national and international staffing organization and MediSums, medical records summarizing. She is the Co-Founding Member and Vice-President of the Organization Legal Professionals providing online legal technology training. Chere has written 10 books on legal careers, hundreds of articles and has been written up in publications such as the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Trib, Newsweek, Entrepreneur, Above the Law and others. Chere is a recipient of the Los Angeles/Century City Women of Achievement Award, a finalist for the Inc. Magazine Entrepreneur of the Year award and a Los Angeles Paralegal Association Lifetime Achievement Award Recipient She is a former administrator at an AmLaw 100 firm and Sr. Vice President in a $5 billion company. Reach out at: email@example.com.