Just getting it in under the wire – I wanted to take the opportunity to mark the occasion of Zen & the Art of Legal Networking’s 11th Anniversary. Eleven is a lot of years to be writing – I started this blog when I was only four years into my career with the ILN, when I was still finding my way in the legal industry, and it helped me to gain confidence, meet talented, smart people, and engage in thoughtful conversations around interesting topics that were and continue to shape our field. In that time, I’ve published 1,265 posts, a number of them guest posts from amazing contributors. We’ve looked at topics ranging from leadership, the future of the legal, networking, business development, relationship development and more to content marketing, social media (from its first baby steps to where it is now), and legal marketing. I look forward to seeing what the future brings, and hope to continue to bring you interesting content and topics for many years to come!
Over the years, on our anniversary, I’ve shared lessons I’ve learned, tips for blogging or networking, my favorite posts from the past, or the past year. An eleventh anniversary gift is typically supposed to be steel, which represents strength – it’s a good characteristic to have for this year, the year in which I take on the role of Executive Director of my network, navigate new waters, while continuing to stretch and grow, face the coronavirus while making global travel plans and hosting events, embracing new challenges and opportunities. Strength isn’t only internal though – it’s also about the network of support that you have around you, who act as a sounding board, build you up, pick you up, dust you off and throw you back out there when you need it the most. I’m very fortunate to have built one of the strongest support networks I know.
Thinking about strength, for this year’s blogiversary post, I’d like to share with you 11 things I’ve learned about surviving in professional services (and particularly in legal) – feel free to chime in with your own in the comments!
- Build a strong and diverse support network: I mentioned this above, but I’ll mention it again – a support network is invaluable. But it shouldn’t just consist of your peers. Find people both in and outside of your industry at varying levels of experience to be your support and sounding board. You don’t want just “yes” people either – you need people in your life who will be brutally honest with you when they need to be, but who will also be your biggest cheerleaders. Both of those traits are essential for your success.
- Be that support for someone else: Being on the receiving end of real support feels great, but BEING that support for someone else is truly incredible. Work will always be there for you, so when someone needs you, it’s okay to take the time to pause, really listen to what they need, and offer them help, whether that is a listening ear, advice, connection, or a hug. Having empathy and sharing your time doesn’t just help others, it helps you too.
- Lawyers love to be first to be second: If you’re not new to legal, you know this is true. If you’re new here, and you are excited to deploy a new idea that will revolutionize the industry….oh honey. We’ve all been there. Lawyers are the most risk-averse profession, so unless you can show them how an idea has worked somewhere else before (and preferably in another law firm), it’s rare that it will get greenlighted. But if you have patience, and you can give them lots of evidence (and this goes for any idea, from networking to marketing to social media to project management to billing), you may have some converts. Along those lines…
- Increase your patience, decrease your ego: I learned early on that ideas take time to percolate through a firm or organization. “No” may not mean no, but you need to seed it correctly, and let it percolate (I’m going to be perfectly honest here, and say that I recently forgot my own advice, and am currently re-learning this lesson the hard way). Often, the best way to implement something is to talk to a few others who have strong capital in the organization, and let them present it as their own – you may be the brains behind it, but as long as you’re not precious about it and care only about getting the project done, it will ultimately get implemented.
- But keep records: There will come a day, if it hasn’t already, when someone will ask “what do you do all day?,” and if you can’t immediately hand them a list of strategic initiatives that have resulted in benefits to the firm, they will wonder what the benefit of having you work there is. It’s even better if they never have to ask you, so consider papering this up on a regular basis, so even when they DO ask that question, you can remind them of the memo that you send quarterly that they don’t have the time to read. It also helps you to look back at the projects that you’ve worked on, and the progress that you’ve made over time, and can inform requests that you make to senior management for more responsibility or a pay raise.
- Always keep learning: Wherever and whenever you can, find ways to educate yourself – read thought leadership, take online courses, earn certifications, attend conferences, apply for the thing that sounds interesting. Some of it may be work-related, and some may seem only tangentially-related, but it will all open your mind to new ideas, give you a break from the office, and help you to think in a more open and fresh way about the work you do each day. That benefits everyone.
- You’re not a “non-lawyer,” but get over it: Listen, we all hate that moniker. It’s offensive, and it has to go. Lawyers who are reading this, stop using it. No one calls you a “non-doctor” when you walk into your doctor’s office. Doctors don’t refer to their nurses that way. No other profession treats their professional staff that way. So stop it. But to those of us who aren’t lawyers, when we get hung up on complaining about this status, it sounds whiny – I mean it. I see it a lot, and it frankly takes away from the good work that we’re doing in the profession. The best way to get lawyers to stop referring to us as “nons” is to simply keep our heads down, keep kicking ass at our jobs, and showing them the incredible value that we offer as strong, smart, professionals. We add business value to law firms, and we demand that respect because we do, not because we ask for it. So stop asking.
- Keep a sense of humor and have a good therapist: We have one of the highest rates of depression and suicide of any profession, so I recommend not only keeping a good self-check going, but also taking stock of those around you. If you don’t personally suffer from depression, please get familiar with the signs – know that particularly in our profession, people can be extremely high-functioning, and yet still in bad shape. Don’t be afraid to reach out to people, and to be blunt about it. When people are depressed, they will not ask for help. Many people will share the suicide hotline in an effort to be supportive, or offer to be a shoulder, but truthfully, those who are suffering will find it incredibly hard to reach out – they don’t want to be bothersome, they don’t feel they are worth the effort, and they are often so deep in the pit that they don’t know how to take that step. If you recognize someone is suffering, you can put your hand out instead. Help make positive changes in your firm or your company to make mental health a priority, and discussing it acceptable and accessible. Please also know that none of us is a substitute for professional help, unless you’re professionally trained – always, always, always refer someone to a professional doctor, therapist or psychiatrist when they need help. And when it’s not depression (or sometimes when it is), laughter is also important – we all need a good meme from time to time to lighten a hard day or relieve stress. Remember that no one understands the legal industry better than those of us who are in it with you.
- By a similar token, don’t take yourself too seriously (I am VERY guilty of this one, by the way, and still working on it). Although there are some instances where lawyers are working on huge deals that have major, long-lasting impacts, or may be defending a client whose life is at stake, for many of us in the legal industry, my go-to phrase when considering the work that I’m doing, is “we’re not curing cancer.” The idea is to give myself some perspective, that for what I’m doing, lives are not at stake, and so there may be times when I can step back, put the work off until the morning, and that’s okay. Are the deadlines real, or self-imposed? If they are real, what are the other things we have going on that can realistically be pushed back or rescheduled? Does the thing that we’re working on have to be THIS long, or can it be less and still be exactly what the client wants and needs? Have we even asked?
- There’s enough work for all of us: Yes, the market contracts and expands, but there truly is enough legal work out there, or ways of changing the type of work that we do so that we can always find more work to be done to survive and thrive as firms and organizations. Bearing that in mind, it doesn’t mean that we’re not competitive, but it DOES mean we can be competitive without tearing each other down, both internally and externally. I’ve seen the legal industry get a bit cutthroat at times, and I know for lawyers especially, they’re not going to get awards for being the “nicest” lawyer – I can tell you that from the client side, I certainly wouldn’t want my lawyer being nice! But when we’re not actively engaged in working against in each other in a matter, there’s a multitude of ways to boost each other up – and not just for “feel good” reasons. For example, I worked on the committee for the Empowered Women Conference that took place in San Francisco last year. It was entirely voluntary, but it also gave me the opportunity to meet some amazing women, both in the audience and as speakers, who are phenomenal business contacts for me. Because of developing those relationships, I may be able to work with them, I may be able to refer work to them, and vice versa, and it strengthens all of our business positions. I’m regularly in contact with other competing law firm networks as well, and although we don’t share proprietary information, we will share thoughts and ideas, concerns, best practices and opportunities, and that makes all of us better – everyone wins, and there is enough room in the marketplace for all of us.
- It’s okay to be an introvert: It may sound from the above tips as though I’m comfortable meeting people, networking, going to conferences regularly, etc. The truth is that I’m an introvert, and I know that’s true for many people in the legal field. Despite all of the advice that we’ve gotten over the years for how to be more “extroverted,” being an introvert is an asset, particularly in the legal industry. It makes us more empathetic, which is a fantastic business asset, because you’re more in tune with what your clients may not be articulating, and therefore, how you can really help them. It can make networking a bit more challenging, but not impossible. I’ve found, with practice, that I focus on the things that I enjoy and am more suited for (sometimes doing the things that I don’t love too much), and give myself the appropriate down time that I need afterwards. I can use my introversion to my benefit in assessing a room, reading the feelings of my lawyers, understanding what is working well or not so well and how to adjust it – it can be a superpower. So if you’re an introvert too, know that this can be an asset for you, if you embrace it instead of trying to change it.
Those are my eleven lesson learned in how to survive professional services (particularly legal). What would you add?