As law firms attempt to raise profitability, there is increased pressure on lawyers to bill a tremendous number of hours. While most large firms state a target billable hours requirement for associates on the partnership track of 2000, the reality is much higher. But not all hours are created equal. To get the most out of the hours you put in, you need to work smart.
First, take note of the culture of your firm. They have told you what the hours expectations are, and you can find out what the average billables are for associates at the firm as a whole and in your department to make sure you are keeping up. But, what haven't they told you? When must you be working? You need to look around for yourself: Are the powerful partners and the up-and-comers in the office late every night, or early every day? When does your immediate supervisor arrive and leave? Are they in on weekends? You need to be seen working when the people that matter can SEE you work!
Secondly, on which matters should you work? Learn which clients, practice areas and cases or deals are most important to the success of your firm. Where does most of the revenue come from? And which have the most potential for future growth? You should endeavor to work on those. Also, keep in mind which areas of practice are growing in the marketplace in general, and your firm in particular. There will be more room for partners in a hot practice area, than in one where there is little work for the existing partners to do.
Also, who should you be working for? Who is responsible for originating and/or supervising the most important and profitable matters in your firm? They most likely will be the most powerful people in your firm. They are the people for whom you should be working. Those are the people whose opinions carry the most weight when it comes to partnership decisions. Let those partners know you would like to work for them. Volunteer to assist on some of their big matters. When it comes time for partnership or other important career development decisions, do not be caught in the backwaters, or find yourself championed only by the firm's lightweights. Do not put all your eggs in one basket, however. Fortunes and firm politics change and people leave firms. Therefore, it is important to have your work known by a number of influential partners.
Furthermore, creating a niche for yourself, such as developing a specific area of expertise and excelling at it, is one way to set yourself apart from the rest of the pack. Keep abreast of changes in the law and the marketplace, and become indispensable by developing a new area of expertise for the firm. Once you decide on a particular area, read everything you can get your hands on. Attend all MCLE courses in that area, even if it's on your own time and dime. Find out who, if anyone, at your firm is involved in that aspect of the practice and let him or her know you want to work on any related matters that come in. Write articles and make speeches. Organize seminars for attorneys within your firm and for potential clients to educate them regarding your niche practice.
Toot your own horn: Send copies of your articles or meeting notices to any and all appropriate partners or senior attorneys in your firm, as well as to current or potential clients. Also send out copies of any successes, e.g., favorable rulings, client thank you letters, and the like. Make sure your practice group leader and supervising partner get word. (Note: associates should get the firm's authorization before contacting current clients.)
In summary, play office politics wisely. Look and listen. Observe who is in power and what type of work is most valued. Note the attributes of the most successful attorneys at your firm. Model your behavior and work style, as much as possible, on theirs, and choose your mentors wisely. Associates with even one important enemy often do not become partners. You'll be working hard, but you have only so much time and energy. You need to spend it where it counts. That is working smart.