Making Yourself Indispensable to Your Law Firm

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Superstars vs. Commodities*

by Anna IveyBio

In the past, workers with average skills, doing an average job, could earn an average lifestyle. But, today, average is officially over. Being average just won’t earn you what it used to. It can’t when so many more employers have so much more access to so much more above average cheap foreign labor, cheap robotics, cheap software, cheap automation and cheap genius. Therefore, everyone needs to find their extra — their unique value contribution that makes them stand out in whatever is their field of employment. Average is over.

- Thomas Friedman, “Average Is Over,” New York Times (Jan 24, 2012)

My former classmate Dan Currell and I returned to the University of Chicago Law School this week to talk to current students about how best to prepare for professional success and progress after law school. Some of our messages to them coincided nicely with Friedman’s piece in the New York Times: average is indeed over, and that applies to the legal profession as well.

What does this mean in the law school context? Take a look at this bimodal salary distribution curve for the class of 2010. Average is certainly over in that graph. But things are even trickier than that salary curve suggests. It’s not enough just to get into a top law school, or graduate from a top law school, or start your career at a top law firm or public interest organization. To progress, you’ll need something extra, some kind of plus, because book smarts and a fancy credential aren’t enough to get ahead and stay ahead. What’s your plus? Or, as law professor Larry Ribstein put it before his untimely death recently, do you want to be a legal architect or a legal mechanic? How do you stand out when your profession is being commoditized, and average is no longer an option?

There are lots of opinions about what kinds of skills you need to have when you’re already out in the working world, but in this post I’ll suggest some actionable things you can do right now while you’re still in law school:

1. Learn how to sound like an adult. That means leaning how to write a decent cover letter, how to write a professional email, how to conduct a professional phone call, and how to adopt grown-up speech patterns. Many law school students don’t and won’t. (Reforming speech patterns is hard. I’m a product of my generation, too — Generation X – and I find myself slipping from time to time.) Whoever it is you’re trying to impress — a client, a boss, a hiring partner, a judge, a conference room full of people you need to persuade — those people aren’t going to be inclined to listen to you if your communication style makes you sound like the high school babysitter. More on not sounding like the babysitter here and here and here.

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