Reporter's Notebook

Time to Be Gettin’ Business: Associates Should Gear Up Inside and Outside Networks

Posted Mar 1, 2012 3:20 AM CDT
By Rachel M. Zahorsky

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Photo of Rachel Zahorsky by Marc Hauser.

THE TIME TO GET ON THE PARTNER TRACK IS SOONER THAN EVER

“You want a story? What happens to fifth- and sixth-year associates that have been told they won’t make partner? Because I might be there soon and I have no clue.”

When New York City-based business consultant Kelly Hoey hears that, she has one thought: “Where have we gone wrong?”

To be clear, Hoey, a former professional development manager at White & Case, means the inclusive “we” of law firms, lawyers, professors and the third-year Am Law 100 associate quoted above.

In today’s upended legal landscape, new law firm associates are expected to be more productive, more business-savvy and more entrepreneurial than ever before. In fact, the timeline for associates to “get it”—to know how to make themselves valuable members of any legal team—has shrunk from a couple of years to a couple of months, according to a panel of senior lawyers and general counsel at the 1L Leadership Council on Legal Diversity scholar’s retreat last summer.

However, even at firms that offer mentor programs and business-skills training, many associates feel too consumed by billable hours and learning how to practice to grab at those tools.

“That’s why you find third-, fourth-, fifth- and sixth-year associates who are at a loss,” Hoey says. “They say, ‘I don’t want to keep doing this,’ but in some ways, they back themselves into a corner.

“There is a mentality when doing professional development of ‘Why should I go to that firm event? It’s just the firm taking more of my time,’ ” Hoey says. “There is a whole investing in themselves piece that has really been lost on associates, and it’s tragic.”

So how do associates, many of whom equate their loan-burdened tenures at firms to indentured servitude, move into a category where they have more control over their careers? Build a professional network in and outside the firm.

“In their first year, associates have to be thinking about whether they want to be on the partner track or not, and they have to be planning for their next steps,” says AppNexus legal counsel Nithya Das. “From my perspective, the best way to do that is to find and build relationships, both inside and outside of your firm, with people who can be mentors and sponsors. Since moving in-house, I’ve continued to leverage my Goodwin Procter network.”

As an associate at Goodwin Procter in New York, Das launched a variety of social media campaigns (which didn’t count toward her billable hours or bonus credit) to engage clients and boost her profile at the firm. Since leaving, she has remained involved with the firm as chair of its entrepreneur advisory board.

With the state of the economy, it’s even more imperative for associates to learn how and why to create connections that could generate business and future opportunities sooner than later. “Ultimately, if you stay at a firm, you don’t want to be perceived as the doer—doing somebody else’s work and relying on somebody else for billable hours,” Das says. “You want to be the rainmaker. And if you leave your firm, you need a network that can help you find your way.”

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