Associate in a law firm: Want to be your own boss? Here’s what you need to do… – Sylvie Gallage-Alwis

By Sylvie Gallage-Alwis

Partner Sylvie Gallage-Alwis discusses the road to partnership and her key tips for others looking to achieve the same.

Sylvie’s article was published on Chancery Lane, 16 October 2019, and can be found here.

I have always wanted to develop and manage my own business. When you are a lawyer, this means that you have to get your own clients which only happens if you become known for specific expertise and take the extra mile to expose yourself to the world.

As such, my goal and the steps I have taken were, early on, meant at gaining clients and becoming a partner at the international law firm where I trained. Little did I know that I would turn out co-founding the Paris office of a specialized litigation firm based in London at age 36. Let’s be honest, reaching this point was not easy and required a lot of work and sacrifice. Nothing happens easily especially in an increasingly competitive legal market. This being said, I have seen many other associates work really hard, making sacrifice, but not reaching the goal they had for themselves. In my view, this is because they have not focused enough time on their business development.

Below are steps that I have implemented from day one, that worked for me and should allow you to become your own boss, which is great!

Start immediately, your view is not worthless!

I remember when I started practising, the first advice from senior lawyers was to focus on being a good law specialist and to provide quality work in due time.  Basically, you have to act as the partner’s service provider and make him/her happy as if he/she were the client.  This is obviously the first goal but it is really not enough in the current market.

From day one, you need to start thinking about how to put your name out there.  This can be done very easily nowadays, by posting news on social media, writing articles, volunteering for Business Development projects within your firm, sending interesting news to your contacts, attending free seminars and talking to people.  The more business development you do, higher the chances are you have of learning and building a credible track record.  For instance, when I am now asked to describe my experience in toxic tort cases, I am able to send people a bundle of articles published every single year for the past 10 years.  As a result, when you take part in a pitch and say that you know the topic, people believe you.  The same applies when you have to justify why you would be the right speaker at a renowned conference.

What I most often hear from junior associates as an obstacle to that is that it is difficult to choose a topic to write about as they are afraid this will mean that they will then be seen as specialising in only one field.  This should not be seen as an obstacle.  You have to write about what interests you and about what you know at the time when you draft the article.  Your specialties will appear naturally due to your cases and clients throughout the years.  If you are working on an interesting case, then write about the topic.  Do not worry.  You can end up writing on very different topics or writing only once on a topic and then shifting to a completely different topic, and no one will criticize you for that.  Over the years, you will have to choose a focus, but at the beginning, you do not necessarily have to.

Business development has to become part of your routine.

The other reason for not writing that I am used to hearing is that it is difficult to bring in an added value compared to what others have already written.  Your perspective will necessarily be driven by the work you do and your personality.  Trust yourself.  You will always bring added value, even if you do not realize it.  Furthermore, the more you write, the easier it becomes and the more ideas you get.

Publishing is key:

•  clients increasingly look up names of associates on Google: you do not want to have just three entries: your firm profile, your LinkedIn profile and your Bar association profile
•  you will not obtain speaking engagements without having a bibliography of your own
•  partners will see you as having the potential to develop your own clients and be partner material, and not as being a “simple” good soldier destined to merely do the work in their shadow

Think like a partner – open up to all opportunities

Life is made up of different steps: you work hard to get into the law school you want, then you work hard to come out of it with honors, then you work hard to get the right internships and finally to be hired as an associate.  But becoming an associate is not the end of the path, far from it, even if it feels like it when you (finally!) start working.

If you start thinking like a partner of your own firm, you will realize that your becoming an associate is just the beginning of the path from your firm’s perspective.  The only things that your firm knows about you is your resume, the potential behind your resume and sometimes your work as a trainee.  Your firm is in a “wait & see” mode when you start and even later on, while you are growing.  Therefore, do not feel entitled.  Do not feel that you are entitled to a specific case, to a specific client, to specific tasks and that the partners are there to make you happy and owe you something.  Partners will help you by training you and explaining to you why they have amended your drafts in a specific way and how to act in front of a client and before a Court.  But that’s it.  You are alone when it comes to your own development and the turn you wish your own career to take.  This can sound harsh but it is the truth.  Even if you have the chance of having great mentors and helpful partners, which I was lucky to have, no one will work in your place and when it comes to important steps to take for yourself, no one will do it for you.  Think about sport.  Everyone will tell you to do sport but it will be up to you to do so.  The same applies to creating your own profile and getting your own clients.  Partners will tell you that you need to spend time developing your profile, but you are the only one who can and should do it.

What does this mean in practice? Don’t be picky, don’t be difficult, take all the assignments that are given to you, accept all opportunities to learn.  Back when I was an associate, when associates would sometimes fight not to be assigned a case, I would volunteer for the said case.  This has provided me with great opportunities, great cases, great clients to meet and has taught me a lot.  The easy way out could have been not to volunteer as I did not want to ruin my weekend or did not want to work with a specific senior or partner.  That’s staying in your comfort zone.  When you start your career, you should always try to go outside of your comfort zone.  Even if you do not like a more senior member of your team, working with this person will teach you how to, one day, work for a difficult client.  Keep in mind that you will end up working on cases and issues as well as for clients you did not plan for at the beginning of your career.  So open up to opportunities!

I have sometimes put myself in very difficult situations by accepting all the work that came through but I do not regret it.  What do you want after a couple of years of practice?  To have a couple of cases to talk about or dozens?  Again, think like a partner.  When you will have to pitch clients or insert your CV in pitches, you want to have things to say about yourself other than the usual sentences used by all firms to describe their lawyers.  You do not want a CV mentioning that you are an expert in a field and no real work experience described below and one single article published or none…  Very often, associates are surprised that clients would, at first, not really pay attention to them or not even acknowledge that they are lawyers.  This is due most of the time to the fact that the client has looked you up when checking the Outlook invitation and not found much to believe that you will bring an added-value other than taking notes and handing over the right document to the partner…  Again, this is a harsh vision of things, but you need to factor it in from the beginning to make a difference.  From my first year as an associate, I published at least 10 articles per year.

Find mentors – they will guide you in moments of doubt

I have been blessed in my career and have received a lot of support.  The practice head I started working for and who is now my partner at our new firm, has been the greatest mentor possible.  He has taught me how to work well, become a good lawyer, fight in Court, develop clients, etc.  He also gave me the freedom to develop what I wanted to develop and at my own pace.  He trusted me with some of his clients, the work for which helped me get my own clients.  Having someone to whom you can ask advice is key.  You need to find that person in your firm.  It does not necessarily have to be the senior partner or the head of the practice, especially at the beginning of your career.  It can be an associate who is higher ranked than you are.  But you need to find someone who can teach you both how to handle clients and the politics of your firm.  Knowing how your firm works, how decisions are made, what criteria will be looked at when deciding who should become partner or who should be on a case, is crucial. Do not assume anything on this point.

Help should also come from outside the firm in my view.  A number of female GCs of companies that I have worked with and female senior partners of other firms are mentors for me.  They are the ones I turn to when my doubts about my career choices could not be lifted by someone within the firm.  They are also the ones who would advise me on how to lead as a female partner and reassure me with their own war stories.  This can sound very cliché but when your mentor at your firm does not resemble you (in gender, age and/or race), you also need to find mentors who have gone through the same type of challenges.

When I was an associate, I would typically discuss how to be patient, how business development efforts are worth it and how to climb the ladder.  This is how I have learnt that getting a client of your own can take time but that it will happen if you do the business development you have to do.  I have sometimes done years of business development on a topic before being instructed on a related matter.  Meanwhile, you have to keep faith and keep on doing that business development effort.  Had I stopped, I know I would not have gotten that work as there is always someone else on the market making that extra effort.

Today, the type of topics I discuss with my mentors are how to grow as a young female partner both on the market but also within my firm.  This could be the topic of a whole other article but women have fought for years to play a role in law firms, as partners.  A lot has been done and law firms are now quite different from how they were before, even if everything is not perfect.  However, the majority of younger women still think that there is not enough room for all women, that women need to compete with each other and that getting the senior male partner’s support is what will make the difference.  I am always surprised by how younger lawyers react differently when being told something by the male senior partner as opposed to the female younger partner.  I am sure this experience is shared by many other diverse partners.  Not having mentors would make things seem so much more dramatic and insurmountable than they really are.

Believe in yourself & surround yourself well

Being a lawyer is tough.  It is a passion for all of us, but it is tough and there are many occasions on which you will doubt yourself, when you will feel frustrated, when you will want to just change path.  Clients will challenge you.  Partners will challenge you.  Opposing Counsels will challenge you.  Believe in yourself.  You have to take in all the challenges and criticisms, learn and believe in yourself.

You have to integrate the fact that you will face challenges at every single step of your career.  Therefore, surround yourself well.  Keep your mentor(s) close, seek advice and cherish the people who help you in your work.  When did you last thank your PA? When did you last have lunch with the staff involved in your cases or the trainees?  On another aspect, how much time do you spend networking and keeping in touch with people who have helped you or could refer work to you in the future?

On the other hand, ignore the haters and accept that there will always be haters wherever you are.  That’s ok.  As long as they do not have a say in the development of you career, you should not care and simply take a step back.  Sometimes, the goal you set yourself feels very far away, whatever that goal is.  You need to regularly remind yourself of what that goal is in order to be able to put aside daily issues and not exhaust yourself with them, which would make you lose track of what is really important for you.

Stay humble & work hard

You need to be confident and believe in yourself, but the key to success is to remain humble.  Doubt everything you are sure you know.  Go back to basics very regularly to ensure that everything you are about to say to a client is 200% accurate.  I always go to trainings and read to learn more and push myself not to think that now that I have some experience, I know it all.  I can only encourage you to always do that as it is when you are the most confident that you make mistakes.  Listen to the others, including your PAs, paralegals, trainees.  They may have a point to make that will help you because you do not know it all and most of the time, fresh thinking is good thinking.

The reality is also that you will have to work hard.  You will have to learn how you work, how you think, what your strengths and weaknesses are in order to become the best you can.  This takes time and you have to reflect on it.  Every year, you should ask yourself if you have really done everything you could have and what you would change for the year after.  Do not underestimate the benefits of the annual review and if the system at your firm is not what works best for you, do your own annual review for yourself.  This is how you will realize everything that you have achieved (and build confidence out of it) and everything that did not work for you (so that you can adjust things).  Even if you are in a law firm which you feel is only looking at the number of billable hours, do not limit yourself to that.  Focusing on the number of billable hours is the biggest trap you could fall in as these are not sufficient to build your profile and your recognition on the market.

In summary: be passionate

Being a lawyer is great, this is the only way I can summarize it for me.  You get to learn every day, to meet so many people and to fight for what you believe in.  So be passionate as you did not choose this path by chance.  Being passionate means being curious, dynamic, unstoppable, enthusiastic, etc.  Do that when dealing with client work but also, be selfish, and do that for the development of your own profile.  If you are passionate for your clients, they will come back, they will instruct you and even recommend you to others.  If you are also passionate for the development of your profile, you will get twice more and you will become independent.  Little by little, you will not depend on anyone to bring you work and you will get even more than you could expect.  So be selfish and become a real entrepreneur!

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