Editor's note from The Legal Intelligencer: This article is the first in a two-part series.
I was staring at the sea of young faces who aspired to be on the team I was about to coach many years ago and wondered not only about who would make the team, but which players would be our stars. I called a coaching mentor that night, who explained that while talent was important, I should focus on a range of other characteristics, too, if I hoped to build a winner.
I recently asked the leader of a major law firm about what separated the highest achievers in his firm from their peers. The memories of that discussion with my coaching mentor came flooding back, as the managing partner reeled off a list of traits that mirrored, in many respects, the qualities my coach had espoused. Despite the passage of time and the markedly different environments, the key components of what constitutes winners were remarkably similar.
Ten traits that often define the most successful lawyers will be discussed. This list has been compiled based on discussions with managing partners, general counsel, individual lawyers, business executives, and my own observations from having worked with lawyers (in the trenches and in a consulting/recruiting capacity). Law firms and corporate law departments make significant investments in their lawyers -- forecasting which ones will emerge as their real winners can be quite chancy -- so hopefully this list will provide some guidance. In this month's column, the first five traits will be discussed; the balance will be assessed in May.
WINNERS ARE GOAL SETTERS
"Goals determine what you're going to be."
-- Julius Erving
I have yet to meet a successful lawyer whose career has been defined by serendipity. Sure, there were undoubtedly moments in which the fates may have smiled on them, but every one of them had set some long-term goals -- such as making partner or becoming a general counsel -- and had further established defined mile markers on the road to achieving those objectives.
When firms or companies presented specific benchmarks (such as billable hour requirements), these lawyers routinely set their own goals, which normally were well in excess of those minimum standards. Similar targets were set as their careers progressed. For example, rather than aspiring to be a rainmaker, most of these lawyers established specific origination numbers and corresponding dates by which they expected to reach those milestones. This habit becomes so deeply ingrained that it becomes second nature.
WINNERS ARE SELF-MOTIVATED
"Motivation is a fire from within. If someone tries to light that fire under you, chances are it will burn very briefly."
-- Stephen R. Covey
Sports is a field in which the motivating influence of coaches ranges from the fabled fire-and-brimstone speeches of Knute Rockne to the Zen-like mysticism of Phil Jackson. However, think for a second about the truly great performers, such as a Michael Jordan or Wayne Gretzky -- can you ever recall them needing to be exhorted by a coach to try just a bit harder to win a particular contest? Jordan, in fact, is legendary, as he refused to lose even in pickup games. The motivation for these stars came from within and burned brightly throughout their careers.
This same internal drive is characteristic of the most successful lawyers I know. Every one seems to have an inner voice that has spurred them throughout their career. One might think that the biggest rainmakers, for example, may relax a bit once they have built a significant practice and are well established. In practice, it has been the opposite, as these lawyers are always concerned about where their next big case or deal is coming from and are relentless in pursuing that work. Interestingly, these lawyers rarely worry about how their peers are doing (such as who spent more time with the CEO last week or who has better performance metrics); rather, their biggest competition is themselves and their quest to meet their goals.
WINNERS ARE STRATEGIC
"Champions aren't made in the gyms. Champions are made from something they have deep inside them -- a desire, a dream, a vision."
-- Muhammad Ali
Successful lawyers do not just show up, do the work that is handed to them, and assume it will continue forever. Rather, they have foresight and think a step ahead of others. I can recall a new general counsel who inherited a law department that had a reputation for being aloof and too "lawyer-like." As the general counsel knew that there were some important initiatives he needed to undertake, he felt it was most important to first gain acceptance of his team from business executives throughout the company.
The general counsel dispersed four of his best lawyers to work at company facilities in different parts of the country and implored them to become fully immersed in daily business activities. This proved to be a terrific strategy, as the legal department began to be perceived as much more in sync with the company, which provided the foundation that the general counsel needed to get buy-in for his key projects.
Strategic thinkers tend to ask questions and do not reflexively accept the "we have always done it this way" answer to inquiries about methodology. They often are interested in trends and will devote time to studying the topic.
A products liability partner comes to mind, who was immersed in work and was keeping a team of 10 lawyers fully occupied. The partner knew that sales of the products that were at the heart of his cases were declining; as such, even though the litigation was still likely to be heavy for a few more years, it inevitably would decline. Rather than wait for that day to come, the partner invested a few days of his (unbilled) time at the client's site, to talk with R&D, marketing and operations staff, who provided a forecast of what the next generation of products would be. The partner then spent time educating himself and a few others about those products and their scientific underpinnings, so that they would be poised to handle new cases that potentially could be filed after the products hit the market in the future.
WINNERS ARE RISK TAKERS
"Progress always involves risks. You can't steal second base and keep your foot on first."
-- Frederick B. Wilcox
The legal profession is populated by legions of lawyers who are risk-averse. At one extreme is a former co-worker who used to wear galoshes over his duck boots on bad weather days -- I used to jest that I expected him to next wear plastic over his rain coat on especially foul days. Being careful, and fully assessing the pros and cons associated with important decisions, are attributes embodied by good lawyers, as those approaches help to minimize foolish risks. Nevertheless, at some point, it is necessary to actually pull the trigger and move forward, even if there is a risk of failure. What is often lost on those whose middle name is "trepidation" is that choosing not to act is itself a decision, and often can entail as much risk as actually taking action.
In some cases, a fear of success -- and not the fear of failure -- is the core obstacle that stops lawyers from taking a step that may be considered risky. This may seem counterintuitive, as one would think that some of the spoils that are associated with success -- acclaim, higher compensation and the emotional reward of achievement -- are desired by all. In reality, some people consciously or subconsciously realize that because success may mean working harder, being in the spotlight (which is anathema to a private person), making change, and dealing with heightened expectations (if you succeed once, can you do it again?) they don't take the risk because those perceived negatives outweigh the benefits for them.
This phenomenon is not limited to individuals, as it can permeate entire firms and companies. Some law firms, for example, find a comfort zone and are reticent to break out of it, as it may entail greater investment, greater risk associated with expansion, and increased attention if the firm really grows. It is not a fear of failure that stops them, as they have good clients and lawyers who can prevent that; rather, it just may be a fear of success and some of the factors that accomplishing the objective may trigger.
WINNERS ARE WELL NETWORKED
"If you want to be a winner, hang around with winners."
-- Christopher D. Furman
The days in which a law firm or corporate law department can afford to have a team of reclusive, but brilliant, client-shy lawyers tucked away in the library who can crank out winning briefs or incisive memoranda are long gone -- I am not sure if there is even a library where such a person could be hidden today!
High achievers are at the opposite end of the spectrum, as most are comfortable in any setting and have a dizzying matrix of relationships inside and outside of their organizations. These pervasive networks often are the backbone of their careers, as they can be an endless font of work, support and information that are crucial to their success. The lawyers who are not joiners, do not get out of the office, and have limited contacts are not likely to be future stars.
As the quote above notes, winners really do tend to associate with other achievers. Every firm and organization has its pack of naysayers, who would complain and find fault with virtually any action, even if, for example, a managing partner handed out an unplanned, spot $5,000 bonus to every lawyer. The nitpickers would likely question why they received the same bonus as someone else (even though the money fell out of heaven) -- as, after all, there surely are (in their minds) 57 reasons why they're better than the other lawyers.
Winners learn to break free from the packs of doomsayers who find joy in complaining about the developments of the day. This behavior and the mindset that defines it are wearing -- the legal profession is challenging enough without adding this layer of negativity on top of it. If senior management in an organization want to forecast who their super achievers will be some day, they likely will not be found among the cynics; rather, the future stars will be those who are out trying to make it happen.
Frank Michael D'Amore is the founder of Attorney Career Catalysts, www.attycareers.com, a Pennsylvania-based legal recruiting and consulting firm that focuses on law firm mergers and partner placements. He is a former partner in an Am Law 200 firm, general counsel in privately held and publicly traded companies, and vice president of business development. He can be reached at email@example.com.