I’m pleased to welcome Jay Harrington as a guest contributor this week. Ever since I stumbled across his eponymous blog, I’ve loved his insight and superb writing. Today’s post features ideas from his new book, The Essential Associate: Step Up, Stand Out, and Rise to the Top as a Young Lawyer, which hits the market today. It’s a step-by-step guide to help young lawyers not just survive, but thrive in today’s competitive law firm environment. It includes insights and inspiration from dozens of successful lawyers and consultants to the legal industry.

Mike O’Horo

Autonomy or dependence?

Your success (and happiness) as a lawyer rides on which path you choose


There are seasons to every lawyer’s career. The first involves gaining basic competence. As the lawyer progresses, she gains wisdom and good judgment. The basics become instinctual, and she can jump right to contextualizing and analyzing situations on a deeper level through the lens of her experience. As her skills increase, her value to clients does as well. Her rates go up. Her stature rises. This is the progression toward mastery as a lawyer.

But a lawyer who gains mastery over the practice of law isn’t necessarily guaranteed great success as a lawyer. Indeed, it depends what “success” means in this context. For many, success is measured by compensation. And as skilled as you may be as a lawyer, if you don’t generate significant amounts of business for yourself and other lawyers in your firm, then your earning potential is capped.

While compensation is undoubtedly important, it’s not only measure of success. It may not even be the most important one. According to a report by The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, “autonomy,” defined as "the feeling that your life—its activities and habits—are self-chosen and self-endorsed,” is the highest predictor of happiness among people. Money? Popularity? Good looks? Nope. Autonomy trumps them all. One of the few ways to have relative autonomy in a law firm is to have clients of your own. Therefore, if you buy into the social science, success and happiness as a lawyer comes down, to a large extent, to your ability to generate business of your own.

If a lawyer desires more control over his life and career, one of the worst positions in which he can find himself is to be dependent on others for billable hours. Without clients a lawyer’s time and compensation is reliant upon, and subject to the whims of, his colleagues with books of business. On the other hand, if you have your own clients, you’ll make more money, have more options, and have more autonomy over your career destiny.

Which Path Will You Choose?

This begs the question: If building a profitable book of business is so important, then how come so few lawyers, young and old, prioritize it, let alone accomplish it? The problem is not one of knowledge; most of us know what we need to be doing. It’s not one of desire; most lawyers want the benefits that come with building a book of business. The problem is one of action. We equivocate and procrastinate despite knowing how important it is for us to act.

Because it’s easier to procrastinate than it is to take action, we grasp onto things we have heard, read, and come to believe, that lead us to put off the hard work that we should be doing today until some undetermined point in the future.

"When it comes to building a practice, we tell ourselves: I can start later."

As I discuss in my new book, The Essential Associate: Step Up, Stand Out, and Rise to the Top as a Young Lawyer, there is a systemic lack of business development urgency exhibited by young lawyers, in particular. Some of this stems from bad advice, and residual conventional wisdom from a time when things were different.  

For example, if you’re a young associate at a law firm, it’s likely been drilled into your head that your most important responsibilities are to work hard, bill lots of hours, and do high quality work. This is true. These things must be your focus.

This only becomes a problem if you focus on nothing else, like laying a foundation for future business development. Therefore, old school advice that suggests that all you need to worry about now is becoming a good lawyer, and business development will take care of itself later, can serve as what author Jon Acuff calls a “noble obstacle.” A noble obstacle is something you do, or tell yourself, that seems important and productive, but in reality is impeding you from achieving your priorities.

This type of thinking gets young lawyers into trouble a few years down the road. The day you make partner is not the time to start thinking about business development. In fact, that day will likely never come if this is your approach. Nor is it when you reach the midpoint in your progression as an associate, when you start hearing the phrase “partnership track” used during annual reviews. It’s now. If you want to build a book of business and make partner at a law firm someday, you need to starting acting with alacrity from the start.

Focused, Urgent Action from Day One

If you plan to make this your profession, know this: At some point you’ll wake up and realize that you need to build a practice and wish you had started sooner. Business development is not a faucet that you can turn on and off when you please. There’s an old Chinese proverb that says, “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The next best time is today.” When it comes to building a practice, start today.

As a young associate at a law firm, however, it’s unrealistic to think that you’ll be bringing in much, if any, actual client work until you’ve gained more experience and expertise. But it’s even more unrealistic to think that you’ll bring in work later if you don’t plant the seeds of business development—things like building a network, building a brand, and building a platform to share your ideas—if you don’t begin right now.

So how do you take control of your career and become an associate on the fast track? Instead of simply being a lawyer, focus from day one on building a practice. You may not have the ability or opportunity to bring in clients at this stage of your career, but nothing is stopping you from taking the necessary steps now to put yourself in the best position possible to develop business later.

It’s almost always ideal to work on one thing at a time with undivided focus. But you’re operating in the real world, not an ideal one, and you have to play the hand you’re dealt. In this game, in order to excel and gain autonomy, you need to master both the practice and the business of law. And you have no choice but to focus on both essential priorities in unison.

Jay Harrington

Jay is a legal marketing consultant and business development coach for lawyers and law firms across the country. He is a graduate of the University of Michigan Law School, previously practiced law at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, and founded his own successful law firm in Detroit.

Acquiring and mastering business development skill is a three-part mission: Education, Training, and Coaching. Each produces a different outcome, and should be accomplished using different tools at appropriate cost.

  • Education produces understanding, awareness, context, but no skills. Like law school. The Dezurve content library lets you accomplish this easily, conveniently, and at trivial cost.

  • Training is the actual doing. It produces practical skills available to you when you need them in the real world. RainmakerVT online simulations and video courses let you learn and make your mistakes privately in our virtual world, at modest cost.

  • Coaching produces tangible success by guiding you to apply successfully the skills you learned.

Click on the links to learn more about each component. Contact me to discuss your situation and options.