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Senior associates: 10 ideas for taking more control of your career

Posted by Gene Turner on 16-Sep-2016 18:30:32

Unhappy Senior Associate.jpgA recent piece of research shows that senior associates really are an unhappy bunch of lawyers. This recent story showed that 40% of them in the United Kingdom even regret having become a lawyer in the first place. Given that senior associates are the best of those remaining after the REALLY unhappy ones have already moved in-house or left the law entirely, that’s a disturbingly high percentage!

It has also been my own experience that senior associates are the least happy group in a law firm, scoring significantly lower in staff satisfaction surveys.

This post looks at some possible reasons for this and offers some suggestions.

Why are senior associates so unhappy?

I’m sure there are many reasons, but among them are likely to be:

  • They work too hard. Senior associates can be the major engine of the firm’s profitability. They can be charged out at high rates, and largely left to their own devices to manage matters and supervise staff. Ideally they can do most of what a partner would otherwise have to do themselves, and it is tempting to load them up as much is possible.
  • It’s a hybrid role. They’re expected to be leading, managing, developing business and staff, but at the same time are still doing a lot of the legal work. It’s really hard to balance finding time to draft a contract, while also being available to review others’ work and answer their questions.
  • They are often either under managed or over managed. There is nothing more annoying for a good senior associate than having their boss continuing to rewrite their work as if they were second or third year lawyer. At the same time, some senior associates are left too much to their own devices. They really could do with more support and training in how to continue to develop new skills that they need to grow and manage a law practice.
  • There is a lack of control over their life. Not only are they at the beck and call of their clients, in the same way that their partners are, but they also told what to do by their partners as well. It can become difficult to plan a life outside work because you never know when work will actually finish.
  • Many senior associates are also at a time in their life when they have a lot of outside pressures. They are trying to buy a house, often getting married and starting families. Their ability to tolerate extra work is lower. Some want to reduce their work hours and work part time.
  • They may feel they have reached the ceiling in terms of how far they can progress within their firm. While a long time ago there was a natural progression from senior associate through to partner, that is no longer the case. Many senior associates may have looked at the lifestyle that partners are leading and decided it is not for them anyway. However, if they do want partnership, that may not be an option.
  • There is a lack of information about the partnership as a business, and their role in it. Partners often don’t proactively share information or initiate discussions, because they don’t think to do it, or they don’t want to do it because it might raise issues they don’t have the answers to.
  • The financial rewards of being a senior associate are not that much greater than being a younger lawyer. While pay progression is rapid in early years, it can flatten out at senior associate level. Although the expectations of the role may appear not that different from the partner, the level of remuneration can be many times lower and this can raise feelings of unfairness. A number of senior associates I know, openly admitted that they had reached a point where they were not prepared to work any harder for the firm because they were already working hard enough for what they were being paid. Although senior associate salaries are very high compared to average earnings, given the talent and hard work of many senior associates they are earning less than people of similar ages in other industries. I only recently came to appreciate, for example, how highly paid some salespeople are. They can be earning much more than senior associates, although they don’t work nearly as hard or have as much ability or responsibility.

So what to do about it?

So far, so unhappy! What can be done about this?

Ultimately of course this is a question for each individual senior associate in the context of their own unique circumstances. The views below are my own, no doubt full of conscious and unconscious bias based on my own fortunate experience. I know I was incredibly lucky in many respects to be in the right place at the right time. In saying that, I think I also made some of my own luck through some of the things below.

The Core Point - Take Control of your own life

Ultimately I believe all of the points below boil down to one core point. If you want to feel happy, you have to feel in control of your own life. You only get one shot at it, and so if you are not happy, don’t keep waiting for the next satisfaction survey to moan about it. Do something different. That might mean looking for a role somewhere else, but there are lots of opportunities to first try and improve the situation in the firm you are in for the benefit of all involved.

Here’s my ten suggestions:

1            Think of yourself as a business, and build it!

Many firms will have a competency framework for senior associates, which will contain a vast array of competencies which the senior associate is expected to develop an order to be able to progress through various pay scales, and ultimately to partnership. The requirements could be more aspirational than realistic, and if you looked at the extent of skills apparently required, and compare them to the skills that many existing partners actually have and demonstrate, you would notice a gap!

You have to work out which ones to focus on. Not all competencies are equal. While there is an emphasis on technical legal skills, you should focus on building skills which are relevant to building and running a modern legal practice. These include leadership, strategy, technology and managing people. More importantly than all, is the ability to sell complex services. I don’t think it is an accident that the salespeople I have met outside of law are earning so much. If they are any good, they are bringing in new value to the organisation. Even if you are only bringing in small amounts to begin with it all has real value to the firm. It is much more valuable than somebody who is great at the technical law sitting at their desk for as many hours as are required doing other people’s work. Yet, in my experience, few senior associates seem to appreciate this or prioritise business development.

These news skills are not only valuable, but also interesting. Even if your efforts don’t work out as you hope, and you don’t make partner or whatever your goal is, you will have learned new and interesting skills, and found out what works for you and what doesn’t, and how you can do it better next time.

If you do it really well, you could even become your own brand.

2            Focus and plan

Related to the point above, identify a clear focus for your practice and your career, and who you want to work with. What is it you really want to do? Where do you really want to be in five years time? Will you be happy if you are still a senior associate? If you don’t want to be doing the same things that you’re doing now, what are you going to change to get a different outcome?

If you think you would be happier working in-house, you probably should be focusing on building different networks and skill sets than if you want to be a partner in a particularly technical area of law. If you really don’t want to be a lawyer, what’s your plan to make a change?

You should focus on building a practice in the area of law that you are interested in and with clients you want to work with. Just because there is a gap in the firm, doesn’t mean you have to fill it. I once interviewed for a job at a firm where the partner spoke almost entirely about all the crappy property work that he currently had which he needed to get rid of, how much he hated it, and why he thought I would be ideal to take that on. He sold it really well! Needless to say I didn’t take the job. Why should your thinking be any different for the work you do in your current job compared to whether you would take on a new one?

If you are planning a family and would like to work part-time, what type of work and clients will best suit those preferences?

If you don’t have all the answers, that’s ok. You don’t need them on day one but do some things to help start the thinking process. I think Michael Port’s book Book Yourself Solid is really good for helping to get the thought process going.

3            Invest in yourself

Make time to do stuff for yourself. This could be as little as some regular exercise each week, or making time to learn some new skills. You don’t have to sign up for a degree. You could read some articles in HBR, buy a book on your kindle, or watch a course on Lynda. You could also do a course with someone like Stuart van Rij (http://www.theagilenegotiator.com/), which could help you with some of the discussions and negotiations mentioned in subsequent points. He runs courses tailored for professionals who are up against difficult individuals or are under pressure to make some upcoming conversations or negotiations really count.

I was as busy as I have ever been when I was a senior associate and studying for an MBA (with a young family). But the new knowledge I was learning – and able to take back and experiment with at work - was really energising and satisfying. It was something I paid for myself, for me.

Whenever I get really busy this is the first thing I tend to drop, and it really annoys me until I get balance back.

4            Look after number one, and don’t assume anyone else is looking out for you

Many senior associates would like to think that the firm, and particularly the partner that they work with, is actively thinking about how to progress their career, and how they can help them. The reality is that that is often not the case. Firstly you should realise that most people have their own stuff to deal with. Partners are just normal people, working incredibly hard, doing whatever their clients tell them to do, and in many cases just holding it together. They don’t have the time to also worry about managing somebody else’s life for them.

Even if they do have time to think about it, unless you are bringing in increasing amounts of new work, and bringing you into the partnership is going to create additional value for everybody in the medium to long term, or there are succession planning issues that need to be addressed, the rational conclusion is that often the current arrangements work very well for the partner and the firm. You generate lots of profit for them, you make the partner’s life easier than it otherwise would be, and changing that will bring its own pressures. It will be tempting to wait “just one more year”.

Raise the topic explicitly. If the partner is not actively talking to you about partnership, what is required, and how they will help make the case to get you up, I can almost guarantee that they’re not doing anything material to achieve it. These things usually need a strong degree of partner sponsorship, and are socialised among the partners well before any decisions need to be made. Most senior associates will intuitively know this, but would prefer to not make it explicit so there is hope. If you really need to know, ask!

5            Explicitly seek help from others

It follows that if you want or need help, you have to ask for it.

There is no doubt that it can be difficult to build a practice as a non-partner. Clients inevitably will place weight on a partner badge, so when you are competing for work against a partner from another firm, it is like you have one arm tied behind your back.

It can make a great difference then, if you can go out into the market with a partner alongside you to help to open doors. Don’t expect the partner to prioritise this or to organise it off their own bat though. Even if it’s good for the firm, they have their own stuff to deal with. However, I think that if you go to the partner with a plan and a great attitude, and have clearly identified what you are going to do, and how you need them to help you, they will be much more open to working with you. Just don’t expect them to do stuff that you could do for yourself. If they’re not prepared to help after you’ve made that effort, it’s better to have found that out too. You can cut your losses and find someone who will invest in helping you.

It doesn’t need to be the partners either. Other senior associates will be going through the same issues. You can help each other to write and share articles and blogs (in your names, not the partners!), target new clients, go to networking functions together, cross refer clients to each other, and encourage each other.

6            Set some boundaries and stick to them

Just because you can work from anywhere and at any time, doesn’t mean you have to. If the profession is going to make any progress on work-life balance, lawyers are going to have to start setting some personal boundaries and sticking to them.

You can do it. When I decided to do my MBA, I felt like I needed to have a whole day a week that I could dedicate to study if I was going to get the most out of it, so I wanted a genuine 4 day a week job. At the same time I was offered a job at a new firm on that basis. I was paid 80% of what I would have otherwise been paid, and I stuck to it. Occasionally I would need to work on a Friday (my study day) and I would always make sure I took the next available day off instead.

During that time we started to pick up some private equity financing work. It was interesting and high profile work, but it was highly time pressured, the clients were based in Australia and always seemed to want to have conference calls late on Friday or Saturday nights New Zealand time. I spoke the partner I was working with, and said that I could understand why the work was attractive, but it was completely inconsistent with our arrangement and if he wanted to keep chasing it, he’d have to find someone else to work on it.

I think the fact that I was doing something “worthy” like study helped people accept it, but it really shouldn’t have been any different if I wanted to spend the whole day with my family. I was still able to make partner under this arrangement, which is a credit to the firm and the partners I was working with who helped me to make it work.

7            Show some leadership

No doubt there are many areas where your firm could make some improvements – and will need to if the job is going to be as satisfying and financially rewarding as you need it to be. I would guess that technology and training are two of them. You have your whole career in front of you, and should be planning how you want to work and the skills you will need to succeed. This will involve using a new range of technologies and disciplines that many partners will not have heard of, thought about, or care to use themselves. You can take the lead in investigating these options, planning how they can be delivered, and recommending changes. If you don’t, who will?

8            Get online

Something you can do that doesn’t require a partners help, and which you can start long before even becoming a senior associate, is building your own social media presence. Unlike the firm’s website, which is an asset of the firm and which you have limited control over, you can build your own profile on LinkedIn, Twitter and even Facebook. You can write your own posts, and build your own network of connections and followers. In my view, that is your asset, which you can use for the benefit of yourself and the firm while you are there, but it is also portable and means that if you choose to move on, you can take that with you. For an interesting alternative view on this see this blog by Mark Donovan (Does Your Employer Own Your LinkedIn Connections?).  While technically an employer may be able to ask you to delete LinkedIn connections during the period of a restraint, I think it would be pretty pointless to do so because anyone who wants to can find you again in 30 seconds and (I think) would take a pretty dim view of the employer trying to control who they can be connected with on LinkedIn.  The earlier you start, and the deeper the relationships you build, the better.

You have a natural advantage over many older partners, who are deeply uncomfortable with social media, in that you are probably more used to it. They have yet to realise that your clients are normal people who use social media in the same way that you do when researching other services, and can therefore be reached by writing about things that they are interested in and care about.

Each post you write could be generating leads for you for years to come. Start now!

9            Have a ‘BATNA’

If you need to make changes, you’ll often need to come to some form of agreement with the partners. This is not always easy, and I recently spoke to a senior associate who is incredibly frustrated because her partner is flat out refusing to make any changes to help her expand the amount of work she is doing and grow her practice. I don’t think he has any idea how annoyed she is and that she is now actively exploring and developing other options.

Assuming that the partner and the firm are not racing to find ways to make things better for you, you need to negotiate a better outcome. However, you need to do that from a position of strength. You need a BATNA (best alternative to a negotiated agreement).   If you haven’t got a BATNA, things will be done to you, rather than by or with you.

The mere fact of you leaving the firm itself creates a cost for the firm. It could be $50,000 or more, taking into account the disruption, the costs of recruiting and training somebody new.

However, if you have built your own profile and practice, you have your own stream of work which will follow you, and you have been providing value to the firm over and above your chargeable hours through leadership, training, supervision of others etc, then your position is stronger. You will find that you have more options available to you, because those extra skills are not so common and will be attractive to a range of other firms. They will also support you if you choose to set up on your own account, which is becoming an easier thing to do.

I recently spoke to a barrister who had left a firm to set up by himself at a relatively young age. I said that it must’ve been a pretty big call at that stage of his career. He agreed that it was, on one level, but at the same time he had also calculated that he only needed to do about two hours work a day to be able to earn as much as he was previously being paid. He had worked out his plan, and that didn’t seem too daunting a prospect, so the downside was limited while the upside was substantial.

You have choices! Another good option is to talk to an expert about what those choices are and whether you are being undervalued. A legal recruitment expert like Jennifer Little, who has an in-depth knowledge of the New Zealand legal market, will likely be able to give you a confidential indication of where you sit in the market, and what your opportunities might be.

10         Try making at least some of the changes first

It’s all good to have a plan, but talk really is cheap. They say that to be an All Black, you have to play like an All Black, and that applies in life as much as in sport. There’s no guarantee that it will result in the desired outcome, but if people can see the effort you are actually making to implement your plan and the results you are getting, it is much more powerful. If nothing else, you’ll be learning new skills and getting experience in the school of life while being paid for it, and it will strengthen your BATNA.

Time to take more control?

This is way more than I intended to write, and not all of it will be relevant to your circumstances, but I hope at least some of it is.

I genuinely believe that the key to feeling more satisfied is claiming more control over your life and career. If you can think about what you really want to achieve, make and implement a plan for how you will do it in a way that is more within your control, is adding value to you and giving you valuable options, you’ll be on the way. Good luck!

One of the key things you can start to change now is the technology you are using. For 50+ ideas of technology you could start using, download this free e-book.

Topics: Practise of Law

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