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Being Indispensable: The Way Of The Future

For the first time in over a decade, the market is candidate driven, and we are seeing lawyers with multiple offers to choose from. How long will this boom last? With the August 2018 cover of Fortune declaring, “The End Is Near,” it is not a matter of “if” but of “when” the slowdown begins. What does that mean for legal hiring then? Since becoming a search consultant, I have observed what I consider three cycles of legal hiring and layoff, and it seems each layoff is deeper and wider than the last. The lawyers that are seen as valuable and indispensable are kept, but those that are simply “cogs” in the system are left to the wayside.

In Seth Godin’s book Linchpin, he talks about the importance of becoming the linchpin in your organization, someone who is indispensable and is just far too unique and valuable to ever be replaced or let go. Godin’s beliefs got me thinking more about recent hiring and past layoffs, and I began to consider lawyers’ and organizations’ behavior when hiring and what makes a candidate standout.

A Cog in the System

Godin writes about laborers and white-collar employees being cogs on the assembly line, people forced by the system to be average and easily replaceable. Each hour of the worker’s time is traded for money—sound like a law firm you know? If a worker can get more money for the same work somewhere else, they will go there because it is a simple equation for the average employee in a systemized job: same work + more money = sign me up.

In my bar prep course, the instructor began the course by telling the class essentially, “You are here because you got into college by doing well on a standardized test; you got into law school by doing well on a standardized test; and you will do well on the bar because you know how to do well on a standardized test.” Standardization is not what is needed to move forward any longer; cogs can be standardized. Creativity and leadership cannot be standardized, although authors and seminar leaders will try — systemized techniques work for some but not all. An individual needs to internalize the process and make it his or her own, creating and leading in a way authentic to the individual. The system will otherwise eventually stop working and remain average at best (if not fail completely).

If lawyers in a firm are seen as cogs, then they also begin to be seen as replaceable. The last mass layoffs of associates were a clear indication that associates are seen as dispensable and replaceable cogs in the system. So why would the brightest, creative lawyers want to be seen as dispensable and replaceable? They won’t, and the best will begin to walk out the door, leaving the average employee who is in the legal profession because it (like the factory assembly line of old) is an easy way to make money while remaining average.

Where the Talent Will Go

Today’s best lawyers, however, will go for the challenge and the opportunity to create something more and different with their knowledge and talent. It will not necessarily be about the money for those who want to actually give of their talent to make an organization better. So an organization needs to have opportunities for such lawyers to give of all their talents so that they don’t look to go elsewhere. These lawyers will also realize that by putting forth all they have to offer, they will also be justly rewarded. 

Case in point, I placed a lawyer during the economic downturn who took a more than 80% pay cut for this new position. This lawyer made it to the top of one of the nation’s most-prestigious firms but now was taking a pay cut for a new role. What was one of the key reasons the new position was so attractive? Clearly it wasn’t the money, but it was the anticipated challenges and opportunities that lay ahead in the new position. The company was not the most stable and things were changing daily, but it was clear there were challenges that allowed for an opportunity to create something new, something more. The move paid off, and less than five years later, this lawyer was tapped to be the general counsel of a public company—the ambition paid off.

The most forward-thinking companies do not necessarily want to fill leadership positions with contemporaries from their competitors; they want leaders from a different industry — the people who have changed organizations and challenged the status quo. They want that linchpin Godin speaks of, the lawyers who are willing to create opportunities for themselves and others.

Attracting Creative Minds

Forward-thinking companies are looking beyond a resume (and in Linchpin, Godin makes a case that if you are a linchpin, you should not want a job that requires a resume). They want to attract and retain lawyers who mean more to the organization than what they list on a piece of paper (or website or email). Each one is viewed as a leader, unique and indispensable; not as a commodity, that is interchangeable and based primarily on the cost of obtaining and maintaining. These organizations will invest in building relationships because they value relationships and connections with the people who know who these lawyers are and who have relationships with them. People who are connected understand motivations, and thus better recognize when the company and the lawyer will be successful together on all fronts. When is the last time you really figured that out from someone’s resume?

I tell lawyers I know and like, but who happen to be without what many in the profession would consider the standardized resume required for a top position, “You are going to find your next position through someone who you know and who knows you are more than your resume.” Why? Because they are going to connect—not just network— truly connect with someone who knows that a resume is not a sum of one’s parts but the actual person who they have met and know is the sum of many parts. These types of lawyers will succeed in the future. They will be the first to be able to dispense of their resume and become indispensable themselves. 

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