Countless biglaw attorneys have been on the receiving end of this bitter rejection: “Sorry, at this time there’s simply no business case for your partnership candidacy.” In many instances, they have no one to blame but themselves; after all, they opted to punch a ticket on a train that only delivers a small percentage of its passengers to their desired destination: partnership.
To succeed in today’s rapidly changing legal landscape, biglaw attorneys need to decisively cast away the traditionally narrow focus on plain lawyering and immediately focus on and strategize around becoming a hybrid — a lawyer-cum-business-person capable of generating and servicing his/her own clients. Why? The best defense against the “business case” justification is the ability and desire to actually generate business. Sadly, most attorneys are dramatically underprepared to do so.
Post-“Great Recession,” the business of biglaw is in the midst of significant change. Biglaw’s biggest core constituency — large corporate clients — are increasingly focused on keeping legal services in-house. To the extent these clients do outsource to biglaw, they’re spreading out their work and pushing back on the extent of services rendered, by whom, at what price and pursuant to which metric (e.g., hourly or by project). This level of scrutiny and price compression affects firm profitability and, as recent history demonstrates, there are no law firms that are too big to fail on account of business pressures. There are no law firm bailouts. And they are failing.
Biglaw firms are responding. Many have undertaken necessary operational restructurings that, among other things, stream-line and economize back-office functions; implement different billing and/or collection practices; postpone partnership elections (the proverbial moving of the cheese); or, quietly (or, in some cases, not so quietly) “RIF” staff — including partners and, in particular, the “service partner” (i.e., partners who actually do the legal work for client relationships cultivated by their “rainmaker” partners). This is all part of an adaptive process sparked by what’s been dubbed the new normal. Are biglaw attorneys undertaking a similar transformation?
The biglaw associate path has always been murky and uncertain and the reward — partnership — suspect. Prior to the downturn, the partner trajectory could take upwards of eight years; now, though, it appears to be closer to ten. And, conceivably, those ten years could equate to a personally unsustainable 30,000 hours. The fact that biglaw shops are slowly addressing service partnership in new ways merely compounds this misery. More and more, associates and non-equity service partners are going to run headfirst into the “business case” brick wall.
Unfortunately, in contrast to their peers in MBA programs, most aspiring lawyers hear next-to-nothing about business development and networking in law school. Remarkably, the first several years in biglaw tend to be no different. Rather, at most biglaw shops, fledgling attorneys are encouraged to focus exclusively on lawyering. After all, that’s what better suits the biglaw model: the more hours these associates crank out, the more revenue firms generate. Yes, lawyering is critical: if you’re a bad lawyer, nobody is going to seek your advice and pay you for your time regardless of the breadth of your network. But the buck shouldn’t stop there.
As early in their careers as possible, attorneys must commit to a system of maximizing time, prioritizing efficiency and learning, and networking effectively and responsibly. They should self-impose an entrepreneur’s patience for trial-and-error, an optimal efficiency/lifehack system, and tremendous discipline. Lawyering alone is not the path to a successful legal career. It’s a path to nowhere.