The SMART Way for Associates to Grow a Career

The SMART Way for Associates to Grow a Career

Associate development requires planning, developing overall goals and specific strategies that are preparation for the partnership.  The issue is not more billable hours by associates, it's what kind of billable work and what it contributes to the firm. The firm must be able to measure the growth of associates by specific standards of billable time, training and client development effort, measured against near-term targets that are realistic. It can be as fundamental as identifying two or three desired outcomes for the associate within a given time period, defining the behaviors necessary to achieve those outcomes, then giving the associate the means to achieve results.    

Such associate development requires planning.  Every law firm is a business, and a business that does not have a clear idea of overall goals and specific strategies for its most important asset - the young lawyers who are the future of the firm - likely does not have much of a future.  An excellent acronym, SMART, describes what's required for an effective plan to grow the business development capabilities of associates:

  • Specific: The issue is not more billable hours by associates, it's what kind of billable work and what it contributes to the firm.
  • Measurable: If you can't measure the growth of associates by specific standards of billable time, training and client development effort, you'll never know what they've done.
  • Achievable: Set near-term targets that are realistic and continually raise the bar.
  • Reasonable: Don't set associates up for failure with unreasonable income expectations or business development goals.
  • Timely: Give associates an adequate timeframe that still imparts a sense of urgency.

For any associate, the future depends on whether the individual himself or herself is committed to success, and whether their firm provides the means to succeed.  Defining "success" in relative terms such as "more revenue" or "better marketing" sets a subjective standard that is difficult to discuss, let alone achieve.

Once an associate views a legal career as a series of structured business and professional development targets, the dynamic changes.  It's no longer a matter of associates guessing what the partners are telling them to do - it becomes a process of understanding what they ought to do.  Lawyers who understand how to grow a career can better assess the value they provide, and better reflect it in their performance.  Associates who are thus empowered should be able to demonstrate to partners what percentage their billings are of the firm's total, what their expense to the firm is and their "profit" to the firm.  The result should determine an individual net profit value to the firm:  Billings - [Associate's Total Compensation + Direct and Indirect Expenses] = Net Profit.  Giving associates the capability and incentive to do this kind of calculus gives them a sense of control and ownership - of their careers, and their contribution to the firm.

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For more insight on this topic,  Click here to see the LawBiz Legal Pad VidCast, "Associates Must Be Profitable."