The age of the super lawyer: how to succeed in today's market

By Jonathan Brenner

Lawyers on Demand (LOD) was recently invited to take part in a focus group held by Zipcar on what makes a “Smarter Business Blueprint”. The subsequent research is an essential reference for any aspiring start-up, providing advice on how to cut costs and remain agile in this increasingly tough business environment. It’s an interesting report that got me thinking – when it comes to the legal industry it’s not just businesses that need to learn how to be agile, it’s lawyers themselves. In this competitive market, where lawyers with experience and impressive technical expertise are seemingly plentiful, lawyers need to explore their softer skills and uncover their entrepreneurial sides to distinguish themselves.

In the 1990s I co-founded ZMB, which became one of the leading independent legal recruitment businesses. During this time we placed hundreds of lawyers within law firms and in-house teams. Typically clients’ requirements focused on technical expertise rather than on softer client skills. Lawyers needed to be subject matter experts, skilled in their chosen field, no more, no less. There was lots of work and they just needed people to get it done.

Today, however, it couldn’t be more different. Both law firms and in-house teams are operating within huge pressures to over-deliver, under budget. Of course quality and experience are still at the top of legal teams’ wish lists when they are looking to flex their teams, but softer skills are now just as vital. At LOD the number one issue we hear from in-house counsel is that they simply don’t have time to train new lawyers up. They might urgently need the support of our freelance lawyers to cope with peaks and troughs in their workloads, but these lawyers have to hit the ground running and be able to adapt to a new environment on day one (in minute one).

We see it’s those lawyers who are able to bring a more proactive approach to in-house teams that are the most in demand. Interestingly we sometimes find that a mid-level lawyer who can get up to speed on a new business quickly can add more value to a client than a more senior lawyer who might take longer to get to grips with a new environment. When we interview lawyers to join our team therefore we are as rigorous in testing their approach to their work as their technical expertise. A surprising proportion don’t make it through (we only take one in 10 of the ones that we meet).

And it’s not just a dynamic attitude that will help lawyers succeed in today’s market. These days lawyers need to wear a variety of hats – from client relationship manager to salesperson, from business strategist to marketer. I would advise those coming through the ranks to think about themselves as business people, not as academics, if they want to succeed in law. Lawyers need to think more commercially, and pay as much attention to the workings of the business they are in as they do to the letter of the law.

Some lawyers are even taking this more commercial approach a step further, by combining their legal careers with other business interests as part of a portfolio career. For example, at LOD one of our lawyers manages a ski firm business alongside his lawyering; another a garden design firm. Such lawyers report that there is often an opportunity for cross-pollination (excuse the pun…) of their careers and for bringing fresh business insight to their lawyering.

Over the next five years we will continue to see the more agile lawyers do best in their careers. Like the best of today’s graduates, who already have two page CVs full of internships to their names, so lawyers will need to go over and above their legal qualifications to really shine in the future.

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Filed Under: Practice of Law

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