So you want to be a law firm superstar and live large? It can be difficult to set yourself apart from a pack of your peers who are just as hardworking and as smart as you are.
Regardless of knowledge or talent, not everyone succeeds in a law firm environment. What is it that makes some associates shine and others fade away?
“If you want to succeed, you should strive to be the go-to person for a partner or a number of partners,” says Kenneth Warren, a partner at Gowling Lafleur Henderson LLP’s Calgary office.
“When a partner’s in a bind and they’ve got something that needs to be done and they can’t do it, and they need it done right and they may need someone to exercise some judgment on it and they don’t want to spend a lot of time supervising . . . you want to be that person that they go to.”
Exercise sound judgment, get things done right, get them done on time, and you’ll gain the confidence of the lawyers in your firm and clients and you’ll make yourself indispensable.
“If you are that person as an associate, you’ll be busy and you’ll be successful.”
So how do you get those offers in the first place?
Robert Hosking, a vice-president with Robert Half Legal in Toronto, says you need to make yourself known around the firm to as many partners as possible — without spreading yourself too thin — through volunteering on a project or file. “Raise your hand often,” he says. Once you’ve volunteered for a file, “over deliver to the client, which is a good way to gain word of mouth.”
William Osler, a partner at Bennett Jones LLP in Calgary, says the secret to success for associates is hard to pinpoint. It can be a mixture of things, and a secret to a firm’s success may be that variety of personalities and strengths.
“Some people make it to partnership because that gold medal in law school was no fluke and they have been doing superior quality work,” he says. “Others are noted for high quality work, but they’ve also been able to develop at a relatively early stage of their career the ability to attract clients. On the business-side of this profession that’s important.”
Sometimes it can be a mixture of both.
He says law is a profession that attracts and encourages driven successful people and partnership is certainly one measure of some success, but it doesn’t have to become the be all and end all, and certainly shouldn’t constantly occupy the thoughts of junior associates.
“The last thing we want is for lawyers at a junior level to get hung up on these things. There are enough other things to concern yourself with as a junior mid-level associate without something that may happen in four years.” he says. “It’ll just end up being a distraction, and it will distract you from doing the things that will keep you on the partnership track.
“Be as good as you can be at what you’re doing at that time, enjoying it as much as you can, and the rest of this stuff will take care of itself.”
Attitude can also play a big part in the success of an associate, say the lawyers interviewed.
Jonathan P. Rossall, a partner at McLellan Ross LLP in Edmonton, says attitude and personality play a large part in the interview process for lateral hires. The firm already has a good idea of your professional track record at that stage, so the way an associate presents himself or herself is crucial.
“It’s one of things that you know it when you can feel it,” he says. “if someone’s comfortable and they communicate well, I try to envisage that person in a situation in our firm, maybe standing in our lounge talking to one of our senior partners and whether it would seem that they could carry on that conversation comfortably.
“Or sitting in a meeting with one of our clients . . . could I see this person doing that? And the ones that don’t seem to have that ability, it sticks out pretty quickly. They don’t make eye contact, they don’t phrase their words very well.
“We’re not a big firm, so we’re still small enough that we all know each other and you can’t just sort of hide somewhere in the office. It’s important we have a comfort level with the person.”
Susan Kennedy, managing consultant with ZSA Legal Recruitment, says how well a lateral candidate interviews can make all the difference between several qualified candidates.
“We’ve had people who will go to interviews and not show up in a suit or show up extremely casual. If you want to put across a certain image, you’re going to have to look the part. You have to look professional and you have to conduct yourself professionally in an interview.”
Osler says that a successful associate also won’t necessarily be all work and no play.
“Somebody who is interested in other things shows leadership qualities and those are things that we value equally. If you’re not one of those people who has always been active in the community, it doesn’t mean you don’t have those leadership qualities but we’ll find that out in other ways.”
Dr. Patricia Hughes, executive director of education at Bennett Jones LLP in Calgary, says her firm looks for an associate who can take initiative but also has the understanding that things aren’t done in isolation.
As well, a successful associate has “this notion that you should want to develop yourself, and not only develop yourself but help others develop . . . you always want to improve.”
Warren says enthusiasm for practise and the willingness to work hard is key, but sometimes that isn’t enough to set yourself apart from a pack of associates who are also fun to work with and who produce good work.
“It’s hard to get into law school, so most people who get into law school are smart kids. It goes without saying that if you are an associate lawyer, particularly at one of the big firms, you’re smart.”
He says the difference is the ability to think creatively.
“There are lots of really sound lawyers that can go through the steps and dot the Is and cross the Ts, but I think in any area of practice, whether it’s advocacy or business, what sets apart the truly outstanding lawyers is the ability to be creative.
“If a situation arises that’s novel, create a solution, an argument, or a tactic — anything to get a resolution. And don’t be afraid to voice these ideas, he adds.
“It’s creative thinking that truly sets apart the outstanding lawyers. So if you find an associate who demonstrates the ability to be creative and have the confidence to say ‘listen, I’ve got a different way of looking at this that I think will be great for our client,’ that really sets someone apart.”