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It’s often said that law firm associates should treat the partners they work with as they do the clients they work for. Call it the “golden rule” for advancing in a law firm.

The problem with this advice is that there will always be an imbalance of power between client and lawyer—clients are always in control of the relationship, although their level of control varies depending on how interchangeable they view a particular lawyer’s expertise relative to others. But in all instances, clients wield the power to hire or fire lawyers, which is the ultimate form of control.

While the imbalance between partner and associate is also considerable, power can become more distributed over time. As an associate advances within a firm, the power imbalance flattens. Ultimately, an associate can become a co-equal partner.

However, before an associate can become a partner, other partners must think of the associate as a partner. An associate must begin to exhibit the characteristics and behaviors of someone with an ownership stake in the firm. Accordingly, even as a young associate, the best way to impress a partner is to start acting like one. In all aspects of life, you must act “as if” you are what you hope to become.

Here are four ways associates can perform above their pay grade, and impress partners in the process.

1. Take Ownership

One of the best ways young associates can demonstrate value is to take ownership of all aspects of their work. Taking ownership of all you do reflects an understanding that your superiors don’t want to micromanage you. They are busy and trying to keep their heads above water, too. They understand the challenges you face at this point in your career and most are willing to help. But make no mistake: From day one, they expect you to take ownership of your projects.

Taking ownership involves not merely completing the discrete task that was assigned to you (although that is the first priority). It also means thinking beyond the task and anticipating future needs. This requires having a broader view of the case or matter that you’re working on, and not wiping your hands clean once your immediate task is complete. Successful partners see around corners for clients, anticipating issues and identifying risks, and you must do that for your colleagues as well.

2. Be a Leader

Most young associates perceive the early years in their careers as a time to be led. That’s a mistake. When partners survey the associate landscape, they’re looking for leaders not followers. They know that there are only a handful of associates in each class that will be elected to join the law firm partnership and they’re looking for signs of leadership ability from the get-go.

Accordingly, it’s never too early to distinguish yourself as a leader within your firm. As a lawyer fresh out of law school, this starts with taking ownership of your work. As you advance in your career, it means getting more deeply ingrained in your firm as well, by joining associate committees and volunteering to interview new job candidates.

Opportunities to demonstrate leadership also arise in the context of day-to-day work. Ask your supervisory lawyer if you can take the lead on a particular aspect of a deal or case and explain how you’re going to handle it. For example, if you’re working on a litigation matter involving a motion for summary judgment and get tasked with researching case law, step up and volunteer to write a few sections of the supporting brief as well. Explain that you’d like to own responsibility for both the research and the drafting, present a plan detailing how you will proceed, and then get it done.

If you’re a bit further along in your career, exhibiting leadership might mean taking the deposition, cross-examining the witness, or negotiating the resolution. Whenever you’re stepping up to take on a new responsibility, it should feel like a stretch because leadership almost always involves pushing past limits.

3. Support Marketing and Business Development

Revenue in the door is the lifeblood of every law firm. And every lawyer in a law firm can and should play a role in bringing in new business.

There was a time when law firm associates were told that keeping their heads down, billing lots of hours, and doing quality work for someone else’s clients was good enough. Clients were institutional, and business development expectations were much different.

In today’s legal marketplace, that’s no longer the case. The economics have changed. Firms can’t freely bill for junior associate time. Gone are the days when associates inherited institutional client work as they advanced toward becoming a partner. Now, more than ever, associates must start laying a foundation for future business development very early in their careers—not after they’ve gained mastery of the practice of law, but at the same time.

While, for most young associates, bringing in clients during the early stages of one’s career is an unrealistic expectation, every associate can play an integral role in supporting their firm’s marketing and business development efforts.

You can do your part by building and nurturing a network, both online and offline, consisting of people who may ultimately become clients or referral sources. You should also focus on co-authoring thought-leadership articles with partners in your firm. The process of writing thought-leadership articles allows you to hone your expertise in different subject matters. It also helps you to develop a digital footprint, which will make you more visible when you are ready to engage in more active business development. Perhaps most important, by co-authoring articles with partners, across offices and practice areas, you will build beneficial relationships in the firm that will pay dividends down the road.

4. Exhibit Resilience

Many young lawyers are uncomfortable with the idea that embracing failure is a catalyst for growth. Their lives have been marked by achievement in academic environments that only reward success. They’ve become perfectionists who abhor the idea of failing. As a result, they shy away from risk and tend to stay in their comfort zones.

To become a partner in a law firm, however, requires a more entrepreneurial mindset. A big difference between the lawyer mindset and the entrepreneurial mindset is that successful entrepreneurs understand they need to fail their way forward, while lawyers often avoid failure at all costs.

As a young lawyer you’re going to make mistakes. What’s important is being prepared for the fact that if you’re growing, stretching and expanding your capabilities by taking on an ever-increasing level of responsibility, you will fail from time to time. There is no way around it. Learn to be resilient in the wake of failure, rather than being paralyzed by it when it happens—or allowing it to stop you from acting in the first place.



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Looking for more? Check out these related posts:

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Jay Harrington is president of our agency, a published author, and nationally-recognized expert in thought-leadership marketing. 

From strategic planning to writing, podcasting, video marketing, and design, Jay and his team help lawyers and law firms turn expertise into thought leadership, and thought leadership into new business. Get in touch to learn more about the consulting and coaching services we provide.

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