Survival Guide, Esq.

Early career success can come from developing your 'ownership mindset'

  • Print

Chess illustration


Ownership mindset. Is it the secret to success, or something everyone talks about but no one really knows what it means? Maybe both.

Everyone wants to know: “What makes a great lawyer here?” and “How do I stand out?”

Often, the answer is some variation of “Think like an owner!” “Hone your ownership mindset.” “Act like a partner.”

Most people hear this and smile and nod, not really having a clue as to what any of those phrases means. The purpose of this installment of Survival Guide, Esq. is to demystify the concept of ownership mindset as well as provide a few practical tips on how to cultivate and demonstrate it.

What is ownership mindset?

While the concept (and its execution) can vary among employers depending on the culture, at its core, ownership mindset is being consistently responsible and accountable. You treat every project, assignment, case and client as if it is yours and yours alone. You are proactive when it comes to ideas, suggestions, process and execution. You keep the ball moving forward. You anticipate and react accordingly. You consider how your actions (and the actions of others) may affect subordinates, peers, supervisors, clients and your firm or company. Ownership mindset—or the lack of it—can be demonstrated in nearly every action and interaction; it spans the mundane to the bet-the-company activities. In other words, ownership mindset is shorthand for a lot of expectations—and that’s what can make it seem more complicated than it is.

But beware who you try to emulate when it comes to ownership mindset. Being a good lawyer—excelling at legal research, writing, application of law to facts and having the ability to communicate with clients effectively—is separate and distinct from having an ownership mindset. Not all good lawyers have an ownership mindset. In fact, few do. It’s why it sets you apart.

Survial Guide, Esq. logo

Why is it so important?

Why does taking ownership carry such weight? Because it encompasses all the brass rings partners and executives look for in developing lawyers: trust, judgment, reliability and consistently good work that accounts for the bigger picture. Accumulate these brass rings and cash them in for opportunities, promotions, a book of business, partnership, autonomy over your career—really, all the things.

How can I demonstrate it?

While ownership mindset may not come naturally for most of us—and it is typically not something you learn in law school or as part of your new lawyer training—it is more than some variation of the “it factor.” It is not some elusive concept, characteristic or quality that you know when you see it (though you will definitely know when someone has it). In fact, it is something you must practice, hone and refine over the course of your career. But how? The following are some ways to develop and demonstrate your ownership mindset:

Appreciate the value of (billable) time. Understanding the interplay of time, value and efficiency is essential. For example, if you work at a law firm that tracks billable hours, consistently submit your time accurately and timely. This shows your understanding of the business of law. Law firms generate revenue (the money that pays your salary and keeps the lights on, among other things) by billing their time to clients and clients paying those invoices on time and without material write-offs. Clients appreciate concise, accurate and efficient recording of time; and law firms benefit from consistent, timely invoicing (the quicker an invoice is sent out, the quicker payment is rendered).

On the other side of the billable hour? If you’re in-house looking at vendors and outside counsel’s invoices instead of just reviewing, cutting and approving, consider how you can improve the process, reduce spend and maintain valuable relationships. In-house attorneys are typically cost centers for businesses (not revenue generators); showing your value is different.

Reliably meet deadlines. While things inevitably come up and derail your best-laid plans, missing a deadline or asking for an extension should be the rare exception, not the rule. And if you need an extension, communicate it as early as possible with a proposed plan of action. Showing your client, partner or supervisor that you respect their time, understand the consequences of not meeting a deadline and provide solutions (not just problems) demonstrates an ownership mindset.

Check your ego. Phrases such as “That’s above (or below) my pay grade” should be struck from your vernacular. Don’t make excuses or assume something is someone else’s problem. This can be as simple as picking up a piece of trash on the floor and throwing it away instead of walking past it, expecting someone else to clean it up. Offer to pitch in on a project to which you’re not officially assigned but you know is heating up. Being a team player and having a good attitude during difficult times shows that you care beyond the four walls of your office. Owners think about the greater good, not just what’s good for them.

Consider office morale. Been a long week? Sense that the office is a little lethargic? Just finish a big trial or project on which most of the staff and lawyers worked long hours? Bring in doughnuts. Organize a lunch or happy hour. Anyone, at any level, can build relationships and make a positive impact. Anyone.

Identify solutions. This one bears repeating. Identify solutions, not just problems. Is a legal argument not panning out? Don’t tell the partner that you can’t find anything on point or the argument doesn’t work without proposing an alternative plan. Make a mistake (e.g., send something privileged to a third party because you didn’t check your auto-populated email addresses; miss a discovery deadline; find out the research you provided was not complete)? Own it immediately and offer potential solutions. Your solution may not get implemented, but the fact you thought about it shows that you’re not simply delegating up, passing the buck and making a problem you created someone else’s problem to solve.

Always be learning. Ask questions about how the firm operates; how the law department engages with other departments within the company; what the client intake/engagement process is. What does a billing letter or invoice look like? How are pitch meetings handled? What’s an RFP, and why is it important? (FYI—in the law firm context, it’s a request for proposal from a potential client vetting firms for a specific matter or scope of work.) The practice of law, including the practice of the business of law, is still practice. You’re never done learning, unlearning, relearning how best to do something, learning why something is done a certain way and determining whether there’s a better way. Don’t assume you know everything (you don’t and never will—regardless how many years you practice).

What’s next?

Still don’t understand what it means to “think like an owner” where you work? Find a trusted colleague, mentor or sponsor and ask. Ask her how she would describe ownership mindset. Ask her who excels at demonstrating it. Listen, observe, practice. Finally, remember that developing an ownership mindset doesn’t happen overnight, and it evolves throughout your career. It takes work. Be persistent and patient. And sooner than you think, you’ll be the one telling someone to “think like an owner.”

This story was originally published in the June-July 2024 issue of the ABA Journal under the headline: “Think Like an Owner: Early career success can come from developing your ‘ownership mindset’; here’s how to do that.”

Erin E. Rhinehart is co-managing partner of Faruki in Dayton, Ohio. Her practice focuses on commercial litigation, spanning a variety of issues and industries.

Survival Guide, Esq. offers advice for early-career lawyers through a partnership between the ABA Journal and the ABA Young Lawyers Division. The authors of the column welcome any of your questions. Please send them to [email protected].

This column reflects the opinions of the author and not necessarily the views of the ABA Journal—or the American Bar Association.

Give us feedback, share a story tip or update, or report an error.