How to Protect Yourself and Your Career

Congratulations! You’ve done it. You secured your first job out of law school. What now?

Your first order of business in the volatile legal job market that defines 21st century lawyering is to make sure you are valued and appreciated by your employer. Attorneys today, especially in the private sector (law firms and corporations) are at greater risk of job loss than at any time since the Great Recession. Competition is fiercer for law firms competing for corporate clients and for companies that now must compete globally with one another. Mergers and acquisitions in both the legal and corporate arenas are breaking numerical records every year. Legal process outsourcing of increasingly sophisticated legal work by firms and in-house counsel offices is escalating. Corporate clients are directing their outside counsel to refrain from assigning first- and even second-year associates to their matters. Corporations monitor their general counsel offices’ legal “spend” more closely than ever.

The consequence of all of this legal community upheaval is that attorneys need to put job security concerns at the top of their career management to-do lists. Below are some suggestions regarding how to do that, protect yourself, take effective counter measures, and keep your anxiety level within bounds.

Your goal should be to aspire to make yourself indispensable. While it is true that no one is truly indispensable, you can come close if you adhere to the following simple, common-sense rules and the practical work environment applications that follow from them:

The Three Rules of Indispensability…and a Corollary

The First Rule of Indispensability: Never Assume You Are Indispensable. Thinking of yourself as indispensable can lead to risky behavior, precisely because you have deluded yourself into thinking that, no matter what liberties you take, “they” would not dare let you go. Think again.

The Second Rule of Indispensability: Always Work At Becoming Even More Indispensable. You can never stop.  Getting to Indispensability takes effort.  Staying there also takes effort, albeit less effort because of the credibility you have banked on the way there.

The Third Rule of Indispensability: Indispensability Breeds Very High Expectations. This is closely related to the Second Rule.  You will not be permitted to rest on your laurels. The bar will be raised.  High expectations from you will become the new norm.  But that’s a good thing.

The Corollary to the Third Rule: A Mild Dose of Job Anxiety Is Healthy. Never, ever take your job for granted.  There is simply too much uncertainty out there to ever feel totally comfortable.  You are never home-free in the workplace. Striving for indispensability needs to be a way of life.

Begin Your Job on the Right Foot

Nothing beats a good beginning and a great first impression.  It sets the stage for everything that follows. Here’s what you need to think about in preparing for, and on, Day One:

  • Walk tall and exude confidence.
  • Observe – and exceed – the dress code
  • Get – and stay – in shape
  • Always be well groomed
  • Be positive and upbeat
  • Be friendly
  • Don’t act weird
  • Take it slow
  • Take nothing for granted
  • Think career…not just job
  • Expect the unexpected
  • Make lists
  • Learn as much as you can about the organization

Build Your Value to the Organization

Employers are skeptics. They want new employees to prove their worth and build credibility. Here’s how:

  • Study the employee handbook
  • Learn all the rules
  • Learn the organizational and industry “buzzwords”
  • Know the products and services
  • Identify the “soul” of the organization
  • Master the organizational structure
  • Determine who wields the real power
  • Study the organizational history
  • Understand enough to exploit the technology
  • Always be professional
  • Arrive early…and stay a little late
  • Work while you are at work
  • Keep your turf neat, clean, organized and looking good
  • Keep your cool
  • Assume nothing
  • Do some learning curve work at home
  • Hold yourself to a higher standard than your peers
  • Don’t be a recluse
  • Meet your deadlines
  • Always be on time for meetings
  • Respect the support staff
  • Hitch your wagon to a constellation of workplace stars
  • Be a trends analyst
  • Be an “intrapreneur”
  • Add value
  • Be a problem solver
  • Hit a home run with your first assignment
  • Treat every assignment as important

Lock-in Your Status

Once you have punched the aforementioned tickets, it’s time to “embed” your indispensability:

  • Focus on your current job.
  • Be cost conscious
  • Have a vision
  • Develop a plan designed to achieve your vision
  • Identify and command the “choke points”
  • Study the competition—both internal and industry-wide
  • Think globally
  • Seek synergies
  • Analyze, understand and improve systems
  • Challenge the conventional wisdom
  • If it ain’t broke…fix it anyway
  • Tinker at the margins
  • Be project oriented
  • Think long-term
  • Look for growth potential
  • Set quantifiable goals for yourself…then announce them and exceed them
  • Cultivate internal and external clients/customers
  • Learn from each client/customer
  • Concentrate on the important things
  • Set priorities…and constantly triage them
  • Try to pick up each piece of paper – and email – only once
  • Deliver on your promises
  • Always do it better the second time
  • Do it faster
  • Proofread your work before submitting it
  • Simplify

Relations with Superiors

Respect begats respect.

  • Pattern yourself after your boss’s positive traits
  • Ask your boss for advice
  • Don’t bother your boss with petty issues
  • Help your boss succeed
  • Don’t interrupt
  • Be a good listener
  • Practice telephone etiquette
  • Energy and enthusiasm
  • Remember the manners your mama taught you

Useful Add-Ons

  • Volunteer
  • Become an expert
  • Become the “Go-To” person
  • Help colleagues with their problems
  • Find new customers
  • Sell something else to an existing customer
  • Offer your services as a trainer
  • Keep up with technology
  • Propose at least one solid idea a month
  • Seek evaluations
  • Get credentialed in areas related to your career
  • Learn how to do more than one thing
  • Master a related job
  • Write your own job description
  • Write the procedures manual for your activity
  • Keep careful records
  • Keep detailed records of your accomplishments
  • Consider the worst case
  • Conduct periodic career audits

Final Thoughts

Most people don’t excel at their jobs.  They never achieve their full potential or 100 percent workplace production or efficiency.  Attorneys are no exception.  I cannot tell you how many hundreds of times I sat and listened to legal career counseling clients come into my office and tell me something along the lines of:  “They are letting me go because I did not meet my billable hour requirement last year.”  My response was always: What did you do to try to fill the hours? Did you go to other practice group heads, partners and senior associates and announce that you were available for assignments?  Did you dive into client development? Did you seek opportunities to speak to potential client audiences about legal issues that might impact them?  Almost always, the answer was: No.

For an extensive elaboration on making yourself indispensable, see my book, The Lawyer’s Guide to Job Security: How to Keep Your Job and Make the Most of It—in Good Times and Bad (Kaplan Publishing) at http://amazon.com.