Retooling Skills to Remain Valuable As Law Firms Downsize

 People gathered in a meeting. Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

People gathered in a meeting. Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

By David Bargman

Special to the Eagle

Value investing is a strategy that seeks out fundamentally sound companies with strong balance sheets and price earnings ratios. It is becoming increasingly popular during the downturn brought about by the credit crunch. Because the good times inevitably follow the bad (at least they always have), value investors reason that over time they will be less susceptible to ups and downs and create long term growth.

Similarly, the demand for lawyers has returned to a focus on fundamentals, such as credentials, expertise, and drive. Because their skill sets are their primary asset, lawyers should focus on building value during the down times to prepare their careers for the return to good times.

Call it: value lawyering.

Firms have stopped filling their ranks with lawyers, permanent and contract, to perform due diligence in Initial Public Offerings (IPO) and Private Equity and, of course, securitization deals. Proposals for modifying lockstep pay for associate have surfaced and been adopted. Indeed, a recent article in Above the Law cited a proposal by one law partner to return “value to clients” by having junior associates pay their firms for their training until they become “productive” after three years. (Presumably the firms will return the investment should the associates stay.)

Despite the economic downturn, the fundamentals of lawyering have not changed. Associates with top law school backgrounds, top grades and large firm experience, will remain (if they wish) relatively secure at top tier firms or in practice groups for which demand remains relatively strong, such as patent litigation and restructuring. Many others, having had a taste of big firm practice and compensation, will have to retool for the new economic climate of layoffs, downsizing, casting off unprofitable practice areas, and flat compensation. In either case, the buyer’s market requires lawyers to emphasize basic skills and to pay serious attention to career decisions.

Value lawyering – How to do it:

Do a vigorous self-assessment:

1. Objective (What can you do?):

I. Academic: How do your credentials stack up objectively (rank of law school attended, class rank, honors, clerkships)?

2. What are your skills (i.e.,What are you good at)? Are you organized, analytical, and outgoing? What non-legal education and work experience and skill sets do you have that will help you enhance or retool your practice?

3. Legal experience: Drafting, negotiation, research and writing, depositions, participation in trials or arbitrations:

II. Subjective (What do you want to do?)- What are your career goals and priorities, both near and long term? Do you want to stay in the law? Do you want to maximize your compensation or your personal time?

Do you prefer a more or less structured work environment? Do you want to be a “headliner” or a staffer? (Be honest with yourself.) Do you like working with lawyers?

III. Get the necessary information -- What jobs are available? How do they stack up against your current job and your dream job?

A good career counselor or recruiter can aid you in appraising your skills, experience, goals and creating a search strategy. (See my article on recruiting checkups on www.baumstevens.com.) We are not magicians. The good ones give you the tools to evaluate your situation and determine the way forward. That requires you to examine closely (and simultaneously) what you want to do, what you can do and what is available.

Only after you have done an assessment of your skills, goals and laid out a strategy (or strategies) should you move forward:

1. Find a need and fill it: specialize as deeply as you can, even in the areas that are not hot right now (like M&A) working on lower profile deals and basic corporate matters instead of fleeing to a new hot area unless these really appeal to you. For instance, litigators should consider plaintiff’s work that generally is less credentials focused. Consider relocating and readjusting your short term compensation goals.

2. Use school to retool. Education is always a worthwhile investment. This is particularly true of professional education such as a Masters of Law degree in Tax, Environmental, Labor or Trade Regulation. Even if your prior practice does make you a specialist in a certain field, a degree in the field goes a long way toward establishing your expertise. Just be certain the area you choose is one to which you are ready to commit. Remember, you have a long career ahead of you.

3. Invest in yourself. If you have always wanted to start your own practice, now, believe it or not, is the time. With big firm training (and perhaps a few bucks set aside), you can offer quality service at lower rates than larger firms, and may snag business from clients of your former firm with whom you have built trust and who appreciate more reasonable fees for certain matters. The younger and less encumbered you are, the more risk you can take.

Establishing a strategy based on your fundamentals, your experience, skills, priorities and goals and on current, accurate market information can grow your “portfolio” personally and professionally. You can do nothing more important for your career.

David Bargman is the President of Baum Stevens Bargman and can be reached at d.bargman@bsblegalsearch.com