Skip to main content area Skip to main content area Skip to institutional navigation Skip to search Skip to section navigation

What Associates Can Do to Get Ahead—Right Now

August 28, 2014

Plan ahead! Hear from experts in the legal industry about what associates can do to advance their careers in Ross Todd’s article in the American Lawyer:

 

What’s the single biggest mistake that midlevel associates tend to make in terms of career development?

Not seeking out constructive feedback early and often, and listening and learning from it.

—Van Beckwith, 
Baker Botts hiring partner

They wait for good things to happen to them—for partners to bring them interesting work, for the firm to provide training and for a mentor to appear at their doorstep like a knight in shining armor. The best career development strategy is to take control of your own fate. 

—Caren Ulrich Stacy, founder, Legal Talent Lab and OnRamp Fellowship

Actually listening to that well-intentioned but out-of-touch partner who advises, “Just keep up your hours and don’t worry about business development.”

—Dan Binstock, legal recruiter at 
Garrison & Sisson in Washington, D.C.

What one, specific thing can a midlevel associate do to bolster his or her market value?

Assess who you are working with and how that is affecting your career. Associates who make partner or move to other high-level legal roles typically work with partners who provide incredible training through complex assignments that stretch their abilities, direct client contact, feedback on how to improve their skills and public recognition for their great work.

—Caren Ulrich Stacy

A midlevel should hitch his/her star to a powerful partner. The sponsor must be a partner the associate has worked with on significant matters and who has power in the firm. The midlevel should treat that partner as a client.

—Eve Birnbaum, professional development coordinator

What’s that most important single thing a midlevel can do to develop a client base?

Take the time to network with your peers. Midlevel associates should be actively in touch with local members of their law school class, and involved with friends and acquaintances in the corporate arena. Those friends/acquaintances you are grabbing a beer with now will be GCs and executives in five to 10 years.

—Barbara Kott, legal recruiter at Major, Lindsey & Africa

Hire a business development coach. I’ve spoken with countless partners and associates—many who were skeptical—who felt it was a worthwhile investment and resulted in additional work from existing clients as well as new clients. It’s never too early to start.

—Dan Binstock

What nonlegal skill should a midlevel develop in order to be better prepared for the future of the market?

Public speaking, assuming that’s a nonlegal skill. We all need to hone the craft of public speaking—whether simply in a partner’s office presenting the results of a project or in a room full of people.

—Van Beckwith

Exuding confidence is the crucial nonlegal skill for success. For some associates, it’s natural, while others need coaching on their presentation skills. I use the word “exuding” because an associate can learn to present confidently even if he or she doesn’t feel confident.

—Eve Birnbaum

Has the market value of a three-to-five-year stint at a big law firm increased or decreased in value over the past five years? Why?

It depends on who an associate has worked for, what type of work the associate did, and the amount of transferrable experience the associate accumulated. A midlevel who spent three years handling document review projects is likely not as valuable to future employers as someone who assisted with counseling clients on trademark issues or contract negotiations.

—Caren Ulrich Stacy

It’s increasing. As business picks up, midlevels who have been trained well and are focused on building a practice will find they bring value to themselves and their firms.

—Van Beckwith

What are the signals that an associate should look for that partnership might not be an option?

If an associate is not hearing the words “on track” in every one of his or her reviews, then he or she isn’t! Even if an associate hears does hear the words, not getting staffed on the big-ticket matters is a red flag.

—Eve Birnbaum

Statistics show that the chances of making partner at a firm are slim. Instead of looking for signals that you won’t make it, look for signals that you might be in the running. Some of those “green flags” include ever-increasing responsibility, direct client contact, and flying solo on matters without a high level of partner supervision.

—Caren Ulrich Stacy

I find that partners often provide unsolicited feedback to associates who are on the path to make partner. If you are not receiving that type of feedback by your fifth year, it’s time to start asking questions.

—Barbara Kott

An associate realizes partnership isn’t in the cards: What should his or her next step be?

Start an open dialogue with mentors and partners and ask for their help in mapping out his/her next career move.

—Van Beckwith

Evaluate why it’s not in the cards. If you have the wrong business platform, find another firm. If you are not interested in or good at business development, find an in-house gig. And again, start with the premise that you won’t make partner. Most associates don’t.

—Caren Ulrich Stacy