8 Tips for Keeping Your Job in a Law Firm

Debra L. Bruce, JD, PCC.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the legal industry lost 22,300 jobs in the last 12 months, and 2,700 in March 2009. Although more than half of those lost jobs were held by non-lawyers, both partners and associates are getting laid off in unprecedented numbers. What can an associate do to stave off the pink slip?

The only guaranteed strategy is to use a WABAC (or Wayback) machine to erase any of your mistakes or entitled attitude exhibited over the last two years, plus bring in $1 million of business. If those aren’t options for you, try these eight tips. “Results may vary” depending on the culture and financial condition of your law firm, but at least these tips will improve your chances.

1. Be efficient and responsive. Don’t let any projects linger on your desk. Some attorneys are so uncomfortable with having insufficient work to do, that they procrastinate on completing the work they have. Be aware that partners will expect you to get projects done faster than in the past, because they don’t think you have competing demands for your time. Although you will feel pressure to bill more hours, don’t milk your projects or pad your time. Partners feel pressure from clients to keep legal fees down. If there is any fluff, they are more likely to cut your time than their own, so don’t give them an excuse. Write downs don’t look good on your report card.

2. Do perfect work. Don’t let even a typo slip past you. Double check everything. When difficult choices have to be made between two good lawyers, even minor mistakes become conspicuous. Use all the resources available to you to find the answers you need. If you draft a research memo, use proper legal citation. Parallel citation tends to impress the “love the law” and law review types.

3. Be proactive. Don’t sit in your office waiting for the assignment partner to call with work or the Sword of Damocles to fall. Seek out additional projects from partners who still have work to share. If there is a dearth of work in your section, is there work in a related or tangential section? If you have been a securities lawyer up to now, can you help out a securities litigation team? If you are a real estate lawyer, can you bring some additional insight to loan workouts with real property collateral? If you are a corporate lawyer, how will your knowledge of the liabilities and responsibilities of corporate directors benefit your clients in times when their past decisions are coming into question? Will your experience in doing due diligence for mergers and acquisitions be helpful to bankruptcy lawyers trying to assess the assets of a troubled company? How can you repackage and market your experience? If you are a first or second year lawyer with little experience in anything, capitalize on your research skills and your familiarity with blogs and other Internet resources. You have extra time, so put on your thinking cap and get creative. Research your firm’s clients and their industries. What kind of problems are they experiencing or are they likely to experience soon? Do a little proactive legal research on the issues they are facing. Be the associate who knows the most about the client’s industry and feed useful information to the partners who work with them. Make them look good to the clients. You will get a reputation as a go-getter, a team player and someone to count on.

4. Demonstrate your team player attitude. If you don’t have enough work to do, can you offer to do some training or mentoring of newer associates in your area of expertise? Can you design a CLE or other training program that your law firm can offer to in-house attorneys or business people about current issues? Can you offer to research that subject or create the PowerPoint with interesting video clips or animation? Don’t consider any task beneath you, and be caring and considerate of all staff. You don’t know whose ear they have, and most of them are even more worried about layoffs than lawyers are (justifiably, given the statistics).

5. Cultivate face-to-face conversations. So many lawyers have gotten used to communicating by email or text messaging, even when the recipient is just down the hall. Drop into a partner’s office when you have a question. Say more than “hello” at the coffee bar. Invite a partner to lunch. (Gasp!) Face-to-face interactions build stronger relationships. It is easier to lay off an invisible person you don’t have much of a relationship with. Get out of your office and interact.

6. Engage in marketing and bar or civic activities. Create as much of a public profile for yourself and your law firm as you can. Demonstrate that you are not just a fungible technician who becomes a liability when there is not enough work. You are an asset with the potential to be a rainmaker one day. I’m not suggesting you go out and ask for business. I’m recommending that you actively build and maintain relationships. Invite a firm client close to your age and experience level to lunch. Get on the board of a charitable organization. Take on a role in the young lawyer’s division of the bar association, even if it is just as a greeter. Write an article for an industry publication read by your firm’s clients. (If you still get laid off, these relationships and resume builders will also be useful in your job search.) If you know nothing about marketing, learn about it. Currently my favorite books about business development for lawyers are Rainmaking Made Simple by Mark Maraia and Trust-Based Selling by Charles Green.

7. Record your efforts. Turn in the marketing and administrative time that you spend. Provide enough detail to demonstrate the value of your efforts. Give partners something to review besides your meager billables, and some evidence to cite if they go to bat for you.

8. Watch your words (and actions). Don’t say or do anything that can come back to haunt you. Gossip increases in stressful times. Do your best to avoid being the bearer or subject of it. This especially applies to those anonymous blogs, tweets and comments on the Internet and fun photos and status updates on Facebook. Sometimes they turn out to be not so anonymous or fun. Be careful about imbibing one too many “stress reducers.” Loose lips sink ships.

May the Force be with you.

Reprinted with permission from the April 9, 2009 issue of The Legal Intelligencer. © 2009 Incisive Media US Properties, LLC. Further duplication without permission is prohibited. All rights reserved.

Debra L. Bruce is president of Lawyer-Coach (www.lawyer-coach.com), a law practice management coaching and training firm. She practiced law for 18 years before becoming the first Texas lawyer credentialed by the International Coach Federation (ICF). She is Vice-Chair of the Law Practice Management Committee of the State Bar of Texas and a past leader of the Houston chapter of ICF.


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