Survivor: Outwit, Outplay, Outlast in the Legal Profession

While we can't guarantee that you'll make a million bucks playing the lawyer game, we do have some tips for standing out from the crowded attorney tribe and for not getting voted off the proverbial island. Follow these career-building suggestions and you'll put Richard, Tina, Elisabeth, Gervase and the rest of them to shame.

1. Find a Niche. While it's tempting to tout yourself as a jack-of-all-trades in the legal profession, the truth is that clients like specialists. We're not saying you need to take the patent bar exam or write the latest hornbook on trusts and estates, but we do recommend finding a niche -- something you do frequently and do well. For example, maybe you're a real estate lawyer. It couldn't hurt to find a sub-specialty -- maybe development work -- so clients will repeatedly turn to you when they have development matters and will similarly recommend you to others. Some lucky lawyers unwittingly develop a niche by virtue of the repeated matters sent to them. However, if you find that your experience is all over the map, pick a few of your favorite projects and try to get more work in that area -- that is, actively develop a targeted niche that you enjoy.

2. Think Outside the Box. It's a New Economy cliché, we know. But the principle applies to the legal profession nonetheless. What do we mean, exactly? We mean take risks. Lawyers are notorious for being too conservative. While in many cases that's what we're hired to do, in other cases we're hired to get something (a deal, a settlement) done -- and sometimes there are unorthodox ways to do that. So experiment and have faith in your abilities. For example, don't just recycle an old brief on the same legal issue -- look for new ways to attack your opponent's arguments. Or don't just draft the same old transaction documents -- can you get the transaction done in a novel way that results in a more lucrative deal for your client?

3. Peasant Cunning. Never heard this expression? Well, start to live by it. Peasant cunning is that indescribable quality that law firm associates must have with partners and all lawyers must have with clients. It means calculatingly knowing your place in the legal profession food chain. It means don't be cocky. It means don't over-take credit for your work and silently accept mis-appropriated blame for mistakes. It means listen instead of talk. It means the customer (a.k.a.: partner, client) is always right. At the same time, however, it means discreetly tooting your own horn when appropriate. (For example, if a client leaves you a complimentary voicemail or e-mail, forward it along to the powers that be with a brief intro ("Thought you might be interested in this message from Big Shot Client.").) It means knowing deep down that someday you'll be able to relinquish peasant cunning and others will be practicing it on you.

4. Work on Client Development All the Time. The most successful attorneys look at business development as an ongoing process, not simply a "project" to do only when they find the time. Lawyers with the biggest books of business regard every contact (even chit chats at a Little League game) as an opportunity to build their client base. They're always working to increase their visibility in the client and legal communities. And they never stop nurturing existing client relationships -- the biggest source of new work.

5. Have a Life. Sound impossible? It's not. In fact, the most successful attorneys we know are those that have significant interests outside the law. Develop a non-legal passion, whether it be scuba diving, running marathons, playing violin, painting or simply spending time with your family. All work and no play, as they say, makes Johnny a dull boy, and your clients and colleagues want to work with multi-dimensional individuals. So when duty isn't calling (or isn't calling so loudly), take advantage of the non-billable time and do something for yourself. You'll be a better and more successful lawyer in the long run.


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