Bad news in the legal job market…

Anyone who hasn’t been living underneath a rock for the last few months is aware that the legal market is down for new hires and that law firms are cutting lawyers.  Proof?  The lateral market is “officially flooded,” and legal recruiters and law students are being hit hard.  Where’s the good news?  Some IP firms are hiring, and lawyers are hoping that new regulations (and billable work) will spring from the Obama administration.  Oh, and helpful articles suggest signs that perhaps you’re about to be laid off, so perhaps you can avoid the shock and get a head start on updating your resume.

Aspirin, anyone?  Or antacid?

What’s a bright lawyer to do under these circumstances?  Here are my top 3 suggestions.

1.  Focus on building relationships.  Building relationships both inside and outside your firm will help in several directions.  You’ll be known and you’ll build a reputation, and you may put yourself in a position to receive assignments you might not otherwise.  Because relationships are the key to rainmaking, you’ll be laying groundwork there.  And you’ll develop your network, which you’ll almost certainly need at some point.

2.  Build your skills, especially in business development.  If you’re slow now at work, take the opportunity to invest in yourself.  Attend CLE programs or read up on your area of practice, your clients’ industries, and business generally.  Write articles.  Seek out opportunities for business development training.  Get a mentor and get personalized advice on what you should be doing, given your level of seniority, your area of practice, your goals, etc.  While brief slowdowns are great for taking vacation, this slowdown is a different animal and should be taken as an opportunity to develop yourself.

3.  Keep your resume up-to-date.  We should all do this at all times, because there’s no telling when that “perfect opportunity” will arise.  Realistically, we’re usually caught up in other pursuits and have to scramble when it’s time to submit a resume.  In this environment, although many more lawyers will keep their jobs than be laid off, it’s wise to have a resume ready to go.

For most lawyers, I’d put rainmaking training and activities at the top of the list right now.  Relationship-building and reputation enhancement takes time, and regardless of whether you’re a first-year who’s never even thought about how to bring in business or you’re a sixth-year wondering if your skills will be adequate to permit you to make partner, rainmaking is a key skill you should begin working on NOW.

Get satisfied… Or get out.

Monica Parker (author of The Unhappy Lawyer) and I recently hosted a teleclass entitled, Should I Stay [in the Law] or Should I Go?  Nearly 100 people registered for the free preview call, and we ended with a lively discussion. We named the call  Should I Stay or Should I Go? because that’s the question that we both hear all too often from clients, potential clients, and lawyers who just want to release a burden by talking for a few minutes.  And all too often, the answer becomes, “I really want to leave practice but I can’t because…

This morning, I read a story  on the ABA Journal website, in which a former Baker Botts associate left practice and became (after a few interim steps) a Dunkin Donuts franchisee.  His turning point came after several years of frustration when he asked a colleague about to make partner whether it’s true that practice gets better with time:

“The colleague responded, ‘No, it doesn’t really get better. You just resign yourself to [the notion that] this is what you do, you resign yourself that this is an easy, safe way to make a living,’ ” [Michael] Weinberg recalled in an interview with Texas Lawyer.

Weinberg said the advice “was just one of the most depressing things I’d ever heard. And I remember thinking, ‘I gotta get out of here.’ “

Talk about a turning point.  Here’s what I’d like to remind dissatisfied lawyers: law isn’t for everyone, and choosing to remain in a career in which you experience only minimal satisfaction is a waste.  Many frustrated lawyers can improve how they feel about practice by making changes that range from small tweaks  (learning to use time more effectively, for example) to seismic shifts (such as changing areas of practice).  I specialize in working with lawyers to develop successful, satisfying, sustainable practices, and there are two moments I especially relish in my work: when a lawyer finds satisfaction and chooses to stay in practice, and when a lawyer decides that law really can’t be the right fit and chooses another career instead.  Get satisfied or get out: life’s too short to tarry in misery.

The next two or three posts here will focus on how to make the decision of whether to stay or to go, along with the changes that may improve your satisfaction.

Survey says: increase intimacy, not fees.

It isn’t news to anyone that we’re in a tough and uncertain economy.  Nor is it news that business is slow.  The real question is, what can lawyers do today to weather this economy?  Summarized in yesterday’s AmLaw Daily, the answer is to develop client relationships.  The Advisory concluded that the substantial growth in law firm business over the last six years (growth that Hildebrandt called unprecedented) is due primarily to 6-8% annual fee increases.  So now what?  From the AmLaw Daily article:

Over the next 45 days, 10 percent of firms will announce rate increases, and 10 percent will announce no change. The other 80 percent will wait and see. Clients will aggressively push back on the increases, and many might be rolled back, either explicitly or via discounting. Those 80 percent who’ll be watching from the sidelines will take their cue from the no-changers, leaving those making increases adrift on a fast-melting ice floe. Even if they roll back, those increasing rates will have sent a clear message that they are out of touch with client reality in a way that will preclude any efforts to improve intimacy….

Seeking to improve client intimacy is both safer and easier than sticking to a diet of price increases. Until the last decade or two, any business school discussion of customer intimacy would have started with law firm business practices. Web 2.0 technologies make intimacy easier, but why not just start by inviting retired partners, especially the name partners who built the firm in the first place, to talk about how they did it ‘back in the day’? Reflecting on best practices, requiring every partner to talk to their top ten clients, sending senior management on the road to meet with clients and to discuss how to work together better is all pretty basic stuff.

In other words, talk with your clients.  Get to know them as individuals.  Go to their offices, ask what their concerns are, and offer to help where appropriate.  Building relationships doesn’t have to be difficult, and when approached authentically (in other words, not by faking sincerity), you will be on the road to becoming a trusted advisor.