Want to win Survivor: The Law Version? In this slow economy, associates at all levels of seniority, and even some partners, may question their ability to survive the cost-cutting measures—including layoffs, salary freezes or reductions, and rescissions of offers or indefinite delays in start dates for new hires—hitting even some of the most prestigious law firms. While we know that the economy is just following a boom and bust cycle, most attorneys want to be among those left standing at the dawn of the new boom, and not be voted off their employer's island. And, real survivors know that, even if they do not win the first round, they can win the game in the long run if they are flexible and have backup plans.
To maximize your chances of being a survivor, you must understand what law firms value in economically challenging times. In boom times, competent work, lots of billable hours, and a decent personality are usually enough to guarantee that you remain employed. But during "bust" times, more is required to dodge the layoff ax. You need to set yourself apart from the rest of the pack as a "value added" attorney, one the firm cannot afford to lose. Of course, if you have been doing the bare minimum in the past, suddenly adopting a new work ethic may be a case of too little too late.
Besides producing prodigious quantities of excellent work, lawyers who go the extra mile to demonstrate their commitment to the firm and client service have a better chance of winning the survivor game. First of all, be a problem solver, and be willing to step in to handle difficult assignments, or those that others are not eager to undertake. Take on extra tasks without being asked. Be flexible in your attitude, going outside of your usual boundaries to volunteer to take on duties that the firm might otherwise need to refer out or hire another person to handle. Be willing to put in more time and effort at a moment's notice, if necessary, in order to deliver optimum client service.
To win at the survivor game, pay particular attention to your professional interactions. Demonstrate your team player and leadership skills. Show that you can build coalitions and bridge differences among groups (or tribes) in your firm, if things begin to get difficult. Manage your time and productivity so as to save the firm's time and money. And, express your eagerness to learn new skills to enhance your performance and more efficiently serve the firm's clients. Especially in times of budget cutting, taking the initiative to develop your legal skills, and even paying for your own further education, proves your commitment to your career and the betterment of the firm.
Honing these "value added" skills may not guarantee that you will not get voted off the island if times get really tough. At the very least, however, they will help you survive and thrive on a new island. Moreover, ultimate survivors will always have a Plan B or Plan C. If you find yourself adrift, you should take a good look at your long-term goals, and determine if there are other ways to attain them. The question to ask might be whether there might be another next step or a different path towards the same goal. Survivors need to be flexible and consider alternatives.
You might need to find a different kind of island; another type of organization or practice area might take you on a more circuitous—and possibly quite interesting—route to your ultimate goal. You must be realistic. For example, perhaps a smaller firm or non-profit would afford an opportunity to garner experience that will be transferable in the future. You may need to consider relocation, or a longer commute out of the major metropolitan areas. Possibly, an internship or clerkship or temporary position would be a good interim move. You might even consider a pro bono position if you can afford to do so, in order to build your skills or obtain new ones, as well as to extend your network. You must be resourceful, look in unexpected places, and use all your contacts.
You might need to try a new game strategy and reconsider the area of practice you wish to pursue. For example, if you intended to establish a career in corporate mergers and acquisitions and securities work, but find that there are virtually no such opportunities in this slow market, you could take a position working on loan restructuring and corporate reorganizations, which essentially, is the flip side of those transactions. Then, when the market improves, you can position yourself for the practice you desire.
Regardless of where you set your sights, in order to win a spot on a new island, you have to be the most exciting candidate. In these tough times, there are plenty of other potential players to chose from and, to survive, you must be the best, and have the best presentation. Use your downtime wisely: polish your resume, brush up on your interviewing skills, and, if appropriate, write a business plan. You must convince your potential new teammates that you have passion and dedication, and possess not only the substantive legal skills, but also are a "value added" contestant.