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Making the Most of the Middle of Your Career
by Warren Smith
Previously posted in Lawyers Weekly  

I’ve often been asked what separates the leading partners in the market from the otherwise successful ones.  Bear in mind, the ‘others’ in this category are by most definitions highly successful practitioners in their own rights, so this question is typically about how do best in class do things differently that allows them to pull even further away from a group of highly successful practitioners in their respective firms. 

Here are four ways in which the best lawyers pull further ahead in the middle stage of their careers: 

Don’t let up.

While there is the temptation as lawyers approach the middle stage of their career to believe they have ‘arrived’, particularly once they have achieved equity partnership, the best recognize this is merely a checkpoint along a much longer career path. Top practitioners continue to expand their networks, whether through speaking, writing, or engaging the market however best suits their talents, as they cement their position in the market.  It may feel like, after many years of working to achieve recognition in the market (and at your firm), you should now be able to take a bit more of a status quo approach to an otherwise successful practice, the best lawyers continue to expand their reach in the market, emerging as one of the select few, best in class, in an already competitive market filled with successful practitioners. 

Recognize working smarter is part of working harder.

Often, early success in practice is highlighted by a robust work ethic, a simple willingness to out-hustle peers in the market place.  As your practice matures, it becomes equally important to learn which tasks matter most, which can be delegated, and candidly, which ones don’t matter at all.  Again, while the temptation can be to simply tailor your practice to allow you to focus on only the most important matters, and using the newly found free time to allow for greater personal freedom, the best lawyers recognize this is simply a tool to allow them to better deploy their resources into the market.  For the best, working smarter is a means to work more efficiently, while still applying the same level of effort that allowed them to achieve success in the first instance. 

Continue to augment your skills. 

While you may be approaching the apex of your legal skills insofar as your billable hours are concerned (and certainly, your clients will expect you to have achieved a high degree of skill to match your hourly rate) – there are a myriad of skills which you can continue to augment in rounding out your profile in the market.  As you approach the middle stage of your career, recognize there is still plenty of time ahead of you to optimize your skills – if public speaking is a challenge, it is not too late to take courses to shore up this area; similarly, if a deeper understanding of finances would improve your ability to advise your clients, there are courses (MBA or otherwise) which could greatly augment your non-legal skills available to you – taking them now still leaves you with multiple decades to employ these skills in furthering your practice in the market.  Recognizing substantive skills development remains critical at this stage of one’s career is another area which frequently separate the best from the good practitioners. 

Give back. 

Finally, one of the areas which round out top practitioners is they invariably find a way to make a contribution back to the community.  While some may cynically suggest this is simply another vehicle to further market their practice profile to a broader or non-traditional audience, what the best recognize is the act of contribution helps round out their profile, and gives them a greater sense of satisfaction in their career.  In doing so, this helps give them a greater sense of purpose, which in turn allows them to remain deeply invested in all aspects of their career.   

Overall, the key remains to recognize that simply arriving at the mid-point of your career in private practice, while clearly an accomplishment (especially given the high attrition rate for those who pursue this career path), to continue to excel in the role beyond this achievement requires continued focus, and an understanding of how best to leverage your successful career to date.    

Warren Smith is the Managing Partner for Smith Legal Search. He was the first Canadian to be elected President of the National Association of Legal Search Consultants (NALSC), North America’s leading legal recruitment industry association, and is a past recipient of Business in Vancouver’s 40 under 40 award.  You can follow him on twitter @lawheadhunter 



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