The Great Recession of 2007–2009 was a sobering experience on many levels for the legal industry. Woefully unprepared firms were forced to lay off attorneys and staff, deals slowed to a crawl, and associates’ offers were deferred and/or rescinded. In some cases, entire offices were shut down, and several firms even folded.
With the prospect of another recession looming, law firm associates should take proactive steps now to demonstrate value to current and potential employers.
Strengthen Your Skill Set
Becoming a recession-proof associate means making yourself indispensable. Be sure you have mastered the work you are already doing as well as the skills you should have respective to your years of experience. Do not fall behind in your skill set; in fact, strive to take it above and beyond your class-year level.
Skill-building requires initiative. Consult with your mentor or your firm’s professional development adviser for suggestions on how you can take on more responsibilities and accelerate your progression as a lawyer. This could mean volunteering to do depositions if you are a litigator or running small deals if you are a corporate attorney.
Working on pro bono cases is a smart investment if you are interested in deepening your competencies. You might also consider taking classes and obtaining certifications to strengthen your technical skills and knowledge base.
In the event of a recession, having a robust legal repertoire and offering the most “bang for your buck” may shield you from painful downsizings.
Do Exceptional Work
It seems obvious, but it’s worth emphasizing: As an entry- to mid-level attorney, you must strive to always be at the top of your game. Be fully invested in every task and every project. Take the extra time you need to do your best work and exceed expectations, even if it means going over budget in billable hours and then cutting your own time.
You may only have one chance to impress certain partners—and you want to ace each and every request. Making an excellent first impression can lead to new and better assignments that move your legal career forward.
Nurture Your Network
The company you keep matters, and you should always be building your existing and new connections. Set your sights on working directly with your firm’s senior partners or rainmakers. Take advantage of organizational events to connect with individuals who are higher up in the chain of command.
You should also work to raise your visibility outside of your firm by joining legal associations, participating in panel discussions or taking on speaking engagements. Kindness and generosity are key to cultivating a strong professional network, and asking others how you can help them will forge mutually beneficial relationships. Be a good citizen by volunteering your time to be on committees.
It’s these kinds of things that can be tie-breakers when firms are forced to downsize and must decide who to keep.
Keep Your Eye on Business Development Opportunities
As an associate, having marketing and business development skills is a true differentiator. The earlier you start marketing and building relationships with potential clients, the more you raise your value in the eyes of your employer.
If your firm sees that you have a propensity for bringing in new clients, they are more likely to invest in you during an economic downturn. In any recession, the rainmakers are the last ones to go, and in fact are generally immune from job instability.
Choose Your Practice Group Wisely
Some practice areas are naturally prone to cyclical ebbs and flows. For example, while real estate has been thriving since late 2010, it experienced a lull during the 2-3 years prior. Deal work in corporate practices also tends to slow down during recessions.
Some practice areas, like health-care law, are reliably steady, even if they are not booming. Other practice areas seen as fairly recession-proof include labor and employment law, which are in fact hotter during economic downturns. Counter-cyclical practices like bankruptcy and restructuring also tend to pick up momentum in times of recession.
You can also focus on developing hot new practice areas, like cybersecurity and privacy law and cannabis law. Honing your skills in a niche practice area is a must, particularly if you are a general litigator.
As recession chatter infiltrates the news headlines, it’s important that you manage your own concerns. Fretting about the future is a normal part of human existence, but you cannot let fear dominate your mindset. Excessive anxiety about your job can hinder your critical-thinking and problem-solving capabilities, as well as your ability to plan for the future.
While the sting of the Great Recession has not completely faded, there is reason for the legal industry to be optimistic. Most law firms have adapted newer, more efficient and cost-effective modes of service delivery, which means the impact of the next downturn should not be quite so devastating.
When you combine this positive outlook with the recession-proofing steps above, your legal career will be well-prepared to weather any storm.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. or its owners.
Darin Morgan is a managing partner in Major, Lindsey & Africa’s Philadelphia office and a partner in the firm’s Washington, D.C. office.