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August 3, 2009

Build Trust, Perform Well, Learn to Listen, Stay Hired

Robert H. Riley, Chairman, Schiff Hardin LLP, challenged audience members to think about what sets them apart in the job market, or firm, as they seek employment or work toward “staying hired” in a session sponsored by Section of Law Practice Management and the Young Lawyers Division at the ABA Annual Meeting in Chicago.

Robert H. Riley, Chairman, Schiff Hardin LLP, challenged audience members to think about what sets them apart in the job market, or firm, as they seek employment or work toward “staying hired” in a session sponsored by Section of Law Practice Management and the Young Lawyers Division at the ABA Annual Meeting in Chicago.

Advice and tips for those wishing to get, stay hired

Layoffs, deferrals and lateral moves litter the lawyer landscape in a profession that seemed nearly recession proof in past economic downturns.  Not this time around. 

 Speaking before a room of younger lawyers and law students, a Saturday afternoon panel at the ABA Annual Meeting addressed “Staying Hired: Everything Young Lawyers Need to Know, But Are Afraid to Ask,” and offered tips for both getting hired and moving up the ladder in a rocky economic landscape that has reached into the legal ranks, particularly at the entry and junior levels.  Four panelists shared their insights and experiences about how to get a job and keep it.

Bob Riley, of the law firm of Schiff Hardin, asked the audience to think about “How you handle adversity and what sets you apart?”  He also encouraged them to build “trust relationships,” with the observation that “the ability to form and maintain trust relationships distinguishes truly successful lawyers.”  He continued, “Trust in the practice of law is like life, you’ve got to earn it.”  People need to “trust your judgment, skill, commitment, and whether you can deliver bad news to power.”  If so, people are likely to trust you the next time, and if you give others the benefit of the doubt, you will earn it yourself.  People will listen to you and invest their time and energy in you, according to Riley.

Justin Heather, an eighth year at the firm of Skadden Arps/Chicago, built on the trust theme with an experience from his paralegal days in Boston with the same firm.  In a 24-hour turnaround project, someone on his team left before her job was done.  The next morning at 8 a.m., when the partner asked Heather, “Where is this?” he realized that as the lead paralegal, he was in trouble.  The partner said, “How can I trust you with the big things if I can’t trust you with the little things?”  Heather knew then that trust was key to their relationship and his future at the firm. 

He then reinforced the basics:

  • make sure you do everything to the best of your ability
  • realize that the practice of law is a career and not a job, and
  • make the practice of law what you want it to be by taking on leadership roles, showing initiative, seeking new opportunities and networking through your local bar and the ABA. 

Barbara Bourgeois Ormsby, an associate with the New Orleans office of Forman Perry Watkins Krutz & Tardy LLP, her third law firm job since graduating in 2001, stressed the value of finding a good fit and work/life balance. 

A new mother, she advised attendees to find a “family friendly and understanding firm” that recognized the needs of new parents.  She also stressed the importance of good organization on both the home and work fronts.  She reinforced the importance of quality work, saying “make sure you shine: do your best work all of the time.  No exceptions!”

Ray Morgovan, founder and CEO of J.D. Toolbox, has been a consultant to law firms for the past 12 years.  A marketer, he sees nearly every activity—personal and professional—as having marketing potential, whether one is marketing the firm or herself.  He gave an example of a young woman who was bringing in business by her third year because she had an affinity for music and often went to hear new music being performed.  She would introduce herself to the musicians, many of whom were writing their own music, and then subsequently brought them in as clients. 

On communications skills, Morgoven admonished, “remember you can never hear with your jaw moving.”  He said, “Learn to listen well.  Ask questions, define the assignment.  Communicate up, down and sideways.  Learn to communicate with staff and partners, as well as clients.  Take good notes and come back with good questions.”

His other tips included wardrobe, volunteer activities and memberships.  On the sartorial side, he advised, “develop a sense of style,” because it will get you noticed.  Volunteering is what gets your name “out there.”  And Margoven recommends joining the ABA Section of  Law Practice Management, in addition to your practice area section, to help you “understand the business side of law and understand technology.”

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