'I Can't Get No Satisfaction' — Or Can I?

How Lawyers Can Maximize Job Satisfaction

When Mick Jagger says, "I can't get no satisfaction," it is very difficult to believe. When a lawyer says it, it is a lot more plausible. Multiple studies suggest that lawyers are among the least satisfied of all professionals. What many lawyers fail to realize, however, is that satisfaction is not as elusive as it seems. If you are among the majority of attorneys who fall somewhere below 85% on the satisfaction scale, you can do something about it.

Job Satisfaction

I talk to lawyers all day every day. Many seem to believe that their dissatisfaction stems from something endemic to the practice of law. The hours, the drudgery, the quest for higher profits, increasing billing rates, firm politics and cronyism, conflicts, lack of support, and the drive to make law firms more like a business than a partnership are often cited as inescapable evils.

Having helped dozens of lawyers move from extreme dissatisfaction to significantly greater satisfaction tells me that taking control of your career and finding the right platform for your practice can help. Not all lawyers are the same, not all practices are the same, and not all law firms are the same. If they were, my job as a navigator of legal careers wouldn't exist.

Job satisfaction derives from a number of factors, including such things as your relationship with your colleagues, work environment and culture, resources and support, compensation, growth opportunities, firm reputation, and the work you do on a daily basis. But arguably the most important factors are control and security — control over your own practice, clients and future, and the security to know they will not disappear overnight.

Is this even possible to achieve these days in the legal profession? In my experience, it is. But to achieve it, you must take control of your situation, your future and your career. Putting yourself in the best possible position to build and control your own practice with the support of your firm is the surest way to increase both your long-term job security and overall satisfaction.

To paint a picture of how control and security lead to satisfaction, let me give you a couple of contrasting examples. Several years ago, I was working with a solo practitioner in his late 70s. He had hundreds of clients nationally who would send him well over $1 million in business annually, and he wanted my help to find a new home where he could transition those clients before retiring. After speaking with several firms, it quickly became clear that he would have multiple options. Why? Because he had his own portable relationships and clients who would follow him wherever he went. Even in his late 70s, he had put himself in a position where he had both control and job security for as long as he wanted it. As a result, he was one of the most satisfied attorneys I have ever met. He still worked six days a week — not because he had to, but because he loved it.

Contrast this with 50-something attorneys without any of their own business who have spent their careers servicing a firm's institutional clients rather than building their own client relationships. Many of these attorneys still have significant financial obligations and would like to continue earning, but they are now being forced out of their firms due to factors beyond their control. Without control and security, these attorneys have zero satisfaction and may soon be out of a job.

Becoming a Self-Advocate

One problem is that while lawyers are very good at advocating for their clients, they are often not very good at evaluating whether their own career path is the right one for them. Many believe if they put their nose to the grindstone, work hard and provide excellent service, their practice will build itself. This is rarely the case. It is important to find the right platform that will support and help you take control of your practice so you have the long-term security you need.

Another problem is that partner practices come in a nearly endless variety of shapes and sizes. The legal practice is not a "one-size-fits-all" profession. It should be self-evident that not all practice shapes and sizes are a fit at every firm. Indeed, in any given market, there may be only a handful of firms that truly make sense for a particular partner. The trick is identifying which firms are the right fit for each partner and his or her practice.

As many variations as there are in partner practices, there are a similar number of variations in law firms — from culture, governance, structure, size, and metrics to collegiality, geography, rates, clientele and practice focus. With accelerating law-firm consolidation, an increasingly fluid lateral market, ever-changing fee structures, and increased client competition constantly altering the law-firm landscape, partners are facing a law firm reality like never before. What are the steps these partners can take to ensure that they achieve the enviable position of the 70-plus partner who chooses to continue practicing because he loves what he does and has hundreds of clients who continue to send him business? In my experience, implementing the steps outlined below will lead to significantly increased control and security, and increased satisfaction will follow.

Step 1: Develop an Executable Business Plan

This step is just as important for the $4-million-a-year partner as it is for the young of counsel or senior associate just beginning to grow their practice. The plan should be concrete and include measurable achievable goals:

  • "One lunch a week with an existing relationship and one lunch a week with a new contact."
  • "One visit each month to a client or potential client."
  • "One meaningful conversation each week with a colleague about developing business together."
  • "One speech or article per quarter in my area of expertise."
  • "One visit per quarter to another office to build relationships with colleagues."

The plan also should include a list of every contact you have who may be a source of business or referrals. This list should be constantly updated so you have a regular reminder of the relationships you would like to maintain and build upon. Keep in mind that these relationships can be both external and internal.

A good business plan will also account for other things that are important to you. For example, if work-life balance is important, include the amount of time each day and each week you would like to reserve for recharging your batteries.

The plan also should set achievable goals for generating business. How much annual business would you like to bring in next year? Five years from now? Ten years from now? Remember that building your own business leads to increased control and security, which results in heightened satisfaction.

I know this all sounds well and good, but preparing a thorough business plan can be difficult. If you don't know where to begin, a topnotch recruiter will have templates and expertise to help guide the process. Nearly every week, I work with senior associates, of counsel, and partners to help them prepare business plans optimally suited to their individual practice and circumstance. While it is no surprise to find that attorneys are as allergic to homework as anyone else, it can help to focus on the fact that preparing a detailed business plan is simply trading short-term pain for long-term gain. A thoughtful approach to developing your practice will almost certainly better position you to achieve security, control, and ultimately satisfaction.

Step 2: Determine Whether Your Current Firm Offers the Optimal Platform

Step two is evaluating your plan and thinking about whether your current firm is the best firm to facilitate its execution. But how do you know whether you are in the optimal platform to build and control your practice? Think about whether your current firm offers the things that are most important to you, your practice, and your clients and whether they mesh with the goals outlined in your plan. The bundle of satisfaction drivers and keys to success for law firm partners typically includes some combination of the following:

  • Access to clients and potential clients who fit with your plan.
  • Culture that fosters and rewards entrepreneurialism and cross-selling.
  • Supporting, complementary, or ancillary practices or areas of expertise.
  • Pricing flexibility.
  • Financial health and long-term firm viability.
  • Personal autonomy.
  • Fair compensation.
  • Equitable balance of inbound/outbound work.
  • Minimal legal, business, or personal conflicts.
  • Strong marketing support and budget.
  • Prestige/brand recognition.
  • Offices in specific jurisdictions.
  • Quality of life/work-life balance.
  • Culture of collegiality and friendly colleagues.
  • Quality associate support and proper leverage.
  • Compatibility of firm-wide and individual goals.
  • Client service focus versus bottom line focus.
  • Reasonable path to equity partnership.
  • Transparency.

In addition to these, there may be a number of other elements that are important to you and your practice and some that may not be important to you at all. Whatever the mix, does your current firm offer the optimal combination to enable you to successfully execute your plan and achieve greater satisfaction?

Step 3: Decide Where to Execute Your Plan

Step three is to decide where you can best execute your plan. The decision may be to stay put at your current firm or it may be to explore the market to determine whether there is another platform that would better facilitate execution of your plan. How does an attorney with an active practice make this decision? Are you in a position to identify the firms that offer the optimal combination of drivers of success and satisfaction? Identifying the right firm is crucial because that is the firm that will maximize your chances of executing your plan and achieving success and satisfaction.

As market consolidation accelerates and the legal landscape continues to evolve, navigating the options that are best for you requires a greater degree of informed market knowledge, expertise and experience. In Chicago alone, 15 out-of-market regional, national, and international firms opened offices between January 2014 and January 2017 — adding to the 114 NLJ 500 firms that already had Chicago offices prior to 2014. While this should be good news for any Chicago lawyer not entirely satisfied with his or her present firm, do you have any idea which firm is most likely to offer the optimal combination of features that are important to you and your clients in your own city?

Step 4: Execute Your Business Plan

Once you have prepared your business plan and decided which firm would best help you execute that plan, it is important to execute on that plan. Do not let a single week go by without looking at your plan, implementing the concrete tasks you have set for yourself, and updating the plan to include new contacts and any modifications that the evolution of your practice may require.

If you are having difficulty executing on your plan and regularly find it being pushed to the back burner, there are a couple of things that may help. First, find a colleague you like and trust to work with as a mutual support system. You can help the colleague execute on their plan, and the colleague can help you execute on yours. Mutual encouragement and positive peer pressure can be powerful motivators. Alternatively, there are a number of excellent career coaches who essentially act as professional "personal trainers." Whether you utilize a colleague or a coach, your chances of success increase dramatically when you have another person holding you accountable to deliver on the deliverables and execute on the concrete steps laid out in your plan.

Getting It Done

A top-notch legal recruiter can help with each step along the way. A recruiter should have business-plan templates and guidance to offer in preparing your practice development plan. He or she will also help you identify whether your current firm or another firm is best positioned to help you execute on that plan. A truly superior recruiter can even help to some degree with the execution of your plan as they make it their mission to act as career counselors and trusted advisors to their candidates throughout their careers. If you are feeling less than fully satisfied with the direction your current firm is taking you, it is imperative to find a recruiter who can best identify and assess the most significant impediments to success and satisfaction at your current firm and help you navigate the many opportunities you have to improve your situation.

While, in the words of Mick Jagger, "You can't always get what you want," with the help and advice of a top-notch recruiter who truly understands both you and the legal market, you can put yourself in the best position to achieve the satisfaction you deserve. 

This article was originally featured in Law Journal Newsletters, Law Firm Partnership & Benefits Report, June 2017.


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