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Success is a Journey: Paths for New Attorneys

by Ed Poll

Successful lawyers tend to work long hours and are focused and passionate about what they do. But in the effort to excel, made more intense by the pressure of economics, trying too much to succeed can cause problems for lawyers. Those who don't have the right perspective can see their striving for success become counterproductive.

Certainly I have my own experience with such feelings. For many years, I thought "success" was how much money one earned each year. As a practicing lawyer handling divorces, I wondered how my clients could earn more than I, be perceived as "successful," yet have a net worth less than mine. Then, as a coach and consultant to lawyers and law firms, I thought that lawyers in large firms, especially equity partners, were more "successful" than I who, as a sole practitioner, both earned less than they and didn't have the power of a large organization to help achieve my goals. Eventually I got beyond these feelings by recognizing and accepting the success that I had built in my life and career, success that met my own definitions.

Lawyers work hard; the thought of 2,500 or more billable hours proves that. But the billable hour is only a method of accounting; it is not the reason for working long hours. Our success motivation comes from loving what we do, from wanting to help people and from needing to take care of our families and ourselves. So, in this context, how can an associate become a successful lawyer? The answer lies, not in earning more money or racking up more billable hours, but in moving your professional life down as many of these paths as possible.

  • Do what you love. Passionate, satisfied attorneys perform better, deliver higher quality legal services and gets better results for their clients. They feel better about their career and themselves. Attorneys who are not happy need to refocus.

  • Put the client first. In any successful business, the customer is number one. For lawyers, this means treating every client like your only client. Clients are primarily concerned about the commitment of their attorney to their matter and their relationship with their attorney. Grateful and appreciative clients will always be there when this attitude is genuinely felt.

  • Think like an owner. With this mindset, everything that occurs in the firm's day-to-day operation is your responsibility. Coupled with putting the client first, your actions are now based on keeping clients and increasing the firm's revenues and profits, a sure recipe for personal success.

  • Be a problem-solver. Instead of just reacting, look ahead for solutions. Too many good attorneys are so busy with immediate concerns that they cannot look forward for ways to solve future problems.

  • Never stop learning. Successful attorneys always continue their education and take more than the minimum CLE requirements. It is impossible to know everything in any one field of endeavor, but you should continue to learn new trends and update old thinking.

  • Develop business competency. It's important to speak the language of business clients, not offer just shallow chit-chat about the family or golf. Advice from a lawyer who knows the client's business and industry builds the client's trust and confidence.

  • Treat colleagues as clients and integrate your practice with others in the firm. An outstanding and underused source of new business is your own colleagues and the variety of relationships that they have with the outside world. The more people who have a stake in your success, the greater it will be.

  • Make yourself invaluable by going the extra mile and providing a service that clients feel they must have. Know your clients' business and anticipate their future problems. Suggest articles or webinars on new business trends and don't charge for it. When you become truly invaluable to a client, you will always compete successfully for their business.

A final thought is implicit in traveling each path. Treat everyone - clients, colleagues and contacts alike - with the same civility and respect you wish to receive. The truly successful person never has to worry about the comments made by others when out of earshot.

© Copyright 2011. Edward Poll. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission from Edward Poll.

About The Author

Ed Poll, principal of LawBiz Management Company, is a nationally recognized coach, law firm management consultant, and author who has coached and consulted with lawyers and law firms in strategic planning, profitability analysis, and practice development. Mr. Poll has practiced law on all sides of the table for 25 years-- as a corporate general counsel, government prosecutor, sole practitioner, partner, and law firm chief operating officer and been a consultant to small and large law firms for 20 years.

The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the opinion of ILW.COM.

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