A lawyer recently complained about young lawyers who were working on projects for her. She said:

They grew up getting trophies for participation and now they think they deserve praise for mediocre work. They just touch the surface and I have to spoon feed them to go deeper.

I don’t know whether that is a fair criticism of lawyers in their 20s. During my 37 years practicing law, senior lawyers always criticized the next generation.

Having said that, I am an example of a lawyer who was forced to become a better lawyer by a client who pushed me.

Businessman wearing black suit and red boxing gloves

I once represented a client I will call Frank (not his real name). Frank was a tireless, brilliant businessman who started with nothing and built a thriving, successful business.

As some of you know, over my career I discovered I was a “big picture” lawyer. I frequently was able to see things others missed. But, I hated the details. Frank was the most detailed client I ever represented. He asked thorough, tough questions, and I had to be prepared to anticipate what he would ask and answer his questions. Frank forced me to become a better lawyer.

I recently read a Guy Kawasaki Article: Guy Kawasaki: At Apple, ‘you had to prove yourself every day, or Steve Jobs got rid of you’. Kawasaki writes:

In the Macintosh Division, you had to prove yourself every day, or Jobs got rid of you. He demanded excellence and kept you at the top of your game. It wasn’t easy to work for him; it was sometimes unpleasant and always scary, but it drove many of us to do the finest work of our careers.

Doing legal work for Frank was sometimes unpleasant and always scary, but it drove me to focus on details I would have missed if he hadn’t demanded excellence.

Do you have a client or a partner for whom you work who demands excellence? If so, years from now you will thank him or her for making you a better lawyer.

Have I ever told you I hated going to events and conferences? I only went if I was speaking, and I always tried to arrange my presentation so it was before the cocktail party.

Sometimes that worked, sometimes it didn’t. I remember when I was asked to speak at a Maryland Bar Association Annual Meeting held during the summer on the Eastern Shore. I arrived on Friday night, just in time for the cocktail party. I didn’t know any of the lawyers, so I stood with my diet coke in one hand and a vegetable plate in the other. After I finished my diet coke, I left and went to my room.

You might ask:

“Why didn’t you strike up a conversation with anyone?”

I never liked just striking up conversations with people I didn’t know. In this case, the lawyers were catching up with their friends from other parts of the state. What could I add to their conversation? Not much.

My presentation the next morning was at 8:00 AM. When I started my presentation only five people were in the audience. They told me the lawyers stay out late after the cocktail party. When I finished, there were at least 10 lawyers in the audience.

In 2019, you will likely attend one or more conferences. Like me, speaking at the Maryland Bar Association Annual Meeting, you may not know anyone at the conference. Sounds daunting, doesn’t it?

Eric Pruitt is a Birmingham, Alabama lawyer I coached 11 years ago. When I first met Eric he told me he would be attending an industry conference and asked if I had any ideas for him. I gave him some and told him to read chapters from Keith Ferrazzi’s book: Never Eat Alone. Eric did and it changed how he approached industry conferences. Here are some of Eric’s thoughts that he shared with me when I was coaching him.

Keith Farrazzi has 15 Tips for Being a Conference Commando. Some of it sounds over the top, or “dorky”, however, I decided to look at his tips with an open mind and see how I could apply his concepts as a lawyer. I found some great ideas. Here are a few of the things I’ve started doing:

  1. Develop a plan. Work to identify people you want to meet, schedule lunches/dinners/drinks/ etc. . . before the meeting. I’m attending the CMSA Annual Meeting in NY next month and have worked to schedule these events in advance and am working on identifying the “celebrity status” (people of importance in the organization – not real celebs) that I want to meet while I’m there.
  2. Work on building relationships with people, not seeing how many people I can meet and give a business card to. Focus on the person I’m talking to, don’t let my eyes wander and attempt to find the next target.
  3. Take notes on the people I meet and follow up quickly with a hand written note. Use the notes so I can make a personal connection in my follow up correspondence.
  4. Have a “what can I do for this person” attitude instead of “how can I do legal work for this person”. Helping others is a great way to build a network.
  5. If it is an industry organization that you want to become more involved in, find a non-threatening way to volunteer for tasks at the meeting. This can provide opportunities to find out about special invitation events, get to know leaders, etc. . .

These are just some quick comments. The book is packed with great insight.

What can you learn from Eric’s ideas and actually use at the next event you attend?

Practicing law has changed dramatically since I started now long ago. We made far less money, ($12,000 when I started), but we never worried about making partner and the law firms demanded less of us. If we worked hard, it was more a choice we made not a demand from our law firm.

Years ago I read an Am Law Daily article: To Dream the Impossible Dream: Making Partner Increasingly Out of Reach.

More recently, I read a Bonnie Marcus interview of Elizabeth Anne “Betiayn” Tursi, Global Chair and Co-founder of the Women in Law Empowerment Forum (WILEF) in Forbes: Forget The Glass Ceiling. Female Attorneys Now Face A Concrete Wall.  Before the interview, reference was made to a Law360 report which included this statistic.

At the top of private firms, four-fifths of equity partners are men, ‘showing a continuing dearth of women at the highest firm level’.

Tursi identified two reasons for this:

I think that the partnership pie is less likely to be cut up than it was years ago. They don’t make as many partners in law firms anymore. And most firms have two tiers. They have non-equity and equity.

I am pleased to say that many of the law firms where I coached didn’t have a concrete wall for female lawyers. Many of those firms are among the Working Mother 60 Best Law Firms for Women. I coached women in the Best Law Firms for Women who are equity partners, top rainmakers and firm leaders.

What would the percentage of women equity partners be if those best firms for women were not considered?

What about the large law firms not on the list? I wondered what percentage of the male equity partners are over 50 in those firms. Then, I wondered what will happen to those law firms when those male equity partners finally retire?

If you are a non-equity partner or senior associate you must not only have significant billable hours, but you also must develop your own book of business. That is tough for any young lawyer.

Tursi described why some women are leaving law firms.

I think it’s the work-life integration. I think it’s about wanting a better life, wanting more balance.

I can relate to wanting a better family life. My work required that I travel almost every week. (I have over 5 million miles on American and over 1 million miles on Delta.) Years after our daughter grew up, got married and started teaching special ed, I found a journal she had written when she was a girl. In one entry she lamented that her father was not home for her birthday.

When I coached lawyers, I discovered that both fathers and mothers wanted a better and more balanced life. I recently completed the first draft of my second novel about a husband/father and wife/mother who are both lawyers. I decided that the mother would be the one more driven to succeed than wanting more balance, and the father would give up his work at a law firm so he could spend more time with their son.

So, is there any possible way to become an equity partner in a law firm while maintaining a more balanced life? In the Am Law Daily article, writers suggested you must pass what they called the “Cleveland Airport Rule.” The rule itself is simple: would a partner at your firm be comfortable getting stuck at the Cleveland airport with you and not want to self-immolate?

If you have hours, clients and pass the Cleveland Airport Rule, Seth Godin would likely say you are a Linchpin: Are You Indispensable?

When I was a young associate, a partner in my first firm unknowingly gave me about the best piece of advice I have ever received. He said:

Cordell, you are a very smart lawyer. You finished third in your law school class. But, smart lawyers graduate from law school every year and they are easily replaced by other smart lawyers. Your success in this firm will depend more on how well you attract, retain and expand relationships with clients. Lawyers with those skills are indispensable.

Are you busy doing the work for senior lawyers in your firm and hoping they appreciate your work so much that it will be ok for you to never have clients of your own? I hope not. If you want to become indispensable:

  • What are you learning about client development?
  • What are you doing to attract new clients?
  • What are you doing to exceed your clients’ expectations and create value for them?
  • What are you doing to build relationships with your clients and with partners in your law firm?


Many, maybe most of you either weren’t born or were too young to remember the 1984 Olympics held in Los Angeles.  There were many great American athlete performances, but the one that captured our nation was Mary Lou Retton, the young 16-year-old from Fairmont, West Virginia who became the first American woman to win the gold medal in Gymnastics All-Around competition.

Retton was locked in a close battle with Romanian Ecaterina Szabo. With two events to go, Retton trailed Szabo by .15 of a point. She then scored a 10 on the floor exercise but still trailed Szabo by .05 points. Mary Lou had to score a perfect 10 on the vault to win the gold medal.

I watched her run down the runway with a look of determination I had never seen close up on an athlete. She leaped in the air and came down perfectly to become the first American woman ever to win the gold medal in the Gymnastics All-Around competition. It was an unbelievable moment. After her first perfect vault, she did it a second time.

Her achievement and the 1980 US Hockey team featured in the movie “Miracle” are two of the most inspiring sports achievements I have ever watched. If you have never seen it, watch the video below, and think about the moment and the pressure the young 16-year-old faced.

Mary Lou Retton’s quest for the gold medal started many years before the event. She dreamed for many years about that moment in history in Los Angeles. On an old HBO show about her, there was a film of her tumbling at age 7.

She worked endlessly to achieve her goal. In fact, she worked so hard that just six weeks before the competition she tore the cartilage in her knee and had to have surgery. No one thought she would be able to rehab in time to compete. But, reportedly she told her doctors:

I’ve made it this far, no one’s going to keep me from trying.

Mary Lou rehabilitated her knee in a short period of time and prepared earnestly for the victory she had dreamed about many years before. After the Olympics, Time Magazine reported that the night before the finals, Mary Lou Retton lay in her bed visualizing and dreaming about the perfect performances she would have the next night to win the gold medal. Later, Mary Lou Retton said:

Each of us has a fire in our hearts for something. It’s our goal in life to find it and to keep it lit.

If you are interested, you can read more about her story: ‘Meeting challenges’ won Retton Olympic gold, she tells Judson crowd.

Many young lawyers I mentored, coached or met are incredibly bright and talented. They have the fire in their hearts for something. Yet, many have not taken the time to figure out what it is. Take the time. You will be enriched by the experience.

Over the Christmas week, I read an Altman Weil report: 2018 Law Firms in Transition An Altman Weil Flash Survey.

It is certainly worth reading. I found this quote interesting:

Most law firms continue to plan for short-term, incremental improvements in performance, while deferring or slow-walking more forward-looking actions to address long-term, systemic threats.

And this one even more interesting:

In 69% of law firms, partners resist most change efforts. – 2018 Law Firms in Transition

Finally, here was one of the bold headings in the report:

Pay close attention to the firm’s greatest asset – human capital


So, what is changing?

  • More firms are merging,
  • Law firm revenue in big firms are increasing, but, there still a problem
  • Law firm size is greater
  • There are thousands and thousands of more lawyers
  • Senior partners are coasting to retirement and law firms are not developing the next generation

Merger mania. I recently read an American Lawyer article titled: Mid-Market Moves, ‘Serial Acquirers’ Drive Law Firm Merger Mania. Here is a quote from the article:

Almost every law firm we work with is actively considering its merger options in 2018, and some large firms are becoming serial acquirers.

Increased revenues per firm. I also recently read: BigLaw Growth Back in a Big Way. It included this quote:

After years of solid, if unexciting, 2 to 3 percent revenue growth, the American Lawyer’s Global 100 experienced 6.4 percent growth, amassing $105.7 billion.

More lawyers. In 1951, there were approximately 200,000 lawyers in the United States, 1 for roughly every 700 people in the nation. Skip forward to 2018 and there are 1.34 million licensed lawyers representing 1 lawyer for less than 200 persons. At this rate we are not far from the day that there will be a one-to-one relationship between licensed lawyers and American citizens.

Size of law firms. In 1960, there were only 38 law firms in the entire country with more than 50 lawyers. By 1985 there were more than 500 firms of that size or bigger. Today, a 50-lawyer firm is considered a small firm. In most cities, a firm that size is a relatively recent start-up, a merger candidate or a highly specialized boutique. Today’s largest law firms include thousands of lawyers. The average number of lawyers in the Am Law 100 is 781.

Increased Profit per Partner. Not too long ago, partners who claimed a $250,000-per-year share of profits, considered themselves well-off. But in today’s high-end, highly competitive world of business law, this would be a dangerous level of performance for a firm of any substantial size. Consider the PPP of the nation’s 100 largest law firms: In 2006, for the first time, a majority of America’s 100 top-grossing firms had profits per equity partner of $1 million or more. In 2018, 74 of the top 100 firms exceeded $1 million.

Litigation. Because large law firms are so focused on increasing profits per partner, they no longer want the kind of work that provided opportunities for young lawyers to go to court. I can remember when I started, a group of associates met at the courthouse frequently as each of us had small insurance subrogation cases, or court-appointed criminal defense cases to litigate. Now, I know litigation associates who become partners in their firms without ever trying a case. Needless to say, that can be disheartening for a young lawyer who aspires to try cases.

Firms are not Managing Transition:

In the Altman Weil report, this startling statistic appeared:

Almost 40% of firms surveyed attribute chronic lawyer under-performance to partners who are ‘coasting into retirement.’ The absence of rigorous management of lawyer and client transitions is a huge, ongoing problem in the legal profession as Baby Boomers extend their careers ever longer.

Law firms are becoming bigger and richer, and young lawyers are earning more than ever before, which seems more cause for cheer than concern. So why is our money-hungry profession in crisis, why are law firm clients dissatisfied with the quality of the legal services and why are so many young lawyers disillusioned with the legal profession?

Law firms are growing – and closing – at record rates, and our entire profession is being turned upside down. Many law firm leaders fail to recognize the need to change the main focus from profits and billable hours to clients and the development of the firm’s young lawyers.

I am reminded of our 2004 Olympic basketball team – talented losers. Compare that team to the first U.S. “Dream Team” that included Michael Jordan and Larry Bird. Those players never let their exceptional skills substitute for adherence to the game’s fundamentals.

Jordan, who often seemed like a one-man, high-flying, point-making machine, never forgot his philosophy,

“Talent wins games, but teamwork and intelligence wins championships.”

And Bird was a player so dedicated to fundamentals that he always showed up for a game hours before anyone else – so he could dribble the ball and detect any flaws on the court.Both men – and their teammates – recognized the power of focusing on the basket, not the scoreboard.

The 2004 U.S. Olympic basketball team included just as much talent but took a third-place bronze medal because they were less focused than the Argentine and Italian teams on the basics of basketball.

Partners in the 69% of law firms who are unwilling to change are focused on the scoreboard – The AM Law profits per partner – will ultimately lose to firms who understand the value of the fundamentals – training, motivating and retaining their best talent and providing exceptional service to their clients.

Harry Chapin wrote and sang a song: As Dreams Go By.

I urge you to listen to the lyrics. It is the story of a couple who had dreams about their future but never acted on those dreams. Near the end of the song:

You say you should have been a ballerina, babe
There are songs I should have sung
But I guess our dreams have come and gone
You’re ‘sposed dream when you are young

I owed at least part of my success practicing law to the fuel coming out of my dreams. Unlike the couple in the song, I acted on those dreams.

In my case, when I was a junior partner, my dream was to become the best lawyer on transportation construction projects (highways, rail, airports, mass transit) in North America. I was told by other lawyers that my dream was stupid and that I should stick to commercial litigation.

When I left my law firm in 2004 to become a coach and mentor to lawyers and law firms my dream was to reach out and inspire young lawyers on what they could achieve and coach them to achieve it. Again I wanted to become the best in North America. My partners at Jenkens & Gilchrist told me I was crazy to be giving up my lucrative law practice at the peak of my career.

I understood their point, but I followed my dream of teaching and coaching young lawyers. While my dreams focused on becoming the best at something, in truth the I was focused on the journey of striving to be the best, not reaching the end result.

Years ago when I was coaching I read a great book titled: Overachievement by John Eliot.

Eliot believes that all great performers have extraordinary dreams. He says:

Dreams make you click, juice you, turn you on, excite the living daylights out of you. You cannot wait to get out of bed to continue pursuing your dream. The kind of dream I am talking about gives meaning to your life. It is the ultimate motivator.

He describes the story of Michael Dell fixing computers in his garage with a dream of competing with IBM in the computer market. When Michael thought of dropping out of the University of Texas and told his parents what he wanted to do, imagine what they said. His father did not think that was funny.

Eliot describes the story of Richard Branson. What do you think people told Richard Branson when he decided to compete with British Air? Elliot ends the chapter by saying:

The kind of dream I am talking about is a feeling that excites you, that sticks, that propels you and gives meaning to your life.

For me, that was powerful stuff. I had those kinds of dreams long before reading the book, but reading it helped me understand what enabled me to persist when I wasn’t seeing results.

So, Dream big dreams.  As an unknown author once said,

“The bigger you dream, the higher you go.”

When a young partner comes to me wanting to change law firms, among other things, I ask:

  • What is the most important thing you want to accomplish in your career?
  • Why is accomplishing it important to you?

Years ago, a lawyer I was coaching was struggling with developing specific actions in his plan. He asked me to help him.

I told him he was going at it backwards. You and he will have a difficult time figuring out how if you haven’t figured out what and why.

I know I am not the first person to use these words, but I have always found them incredibly powerful and inspirational. If you can figure out the WHAT, and you know the WHY you will creatively figure out the HOW.
Have you figured out WHAT you want to become both as a lawyer and in your personal life? Do you know WHY it is important to you? If so, let your creative mind come up with HOW to achieve it.
Want more thoughts on this subject? Check out the Fast Company post: 5 Career Questions To Ask Yourself Instead Of, “What’s My Passion?”

I still know a number of you who are not setting goals. I am hopeful that if you read what scientists have written, it might give you an idea of why setting goals is important and how to do it.

Edwin A. Locke and Gary P. Latham, both professors, have summarized 35 years of empirical research on goal-setting theory in a professional paper titled: Building a Practically Useful Theory of Goal Setting and Task Motivation. Here is what they found:

  1. The highest or most difficult goals produced the highest levels of effort and performance until the limits of ability are reached. I have found very few lawyers set goals that are beyond the limits of their ability. So, coaches should encourage junior partners to set goals that “stretch” them.
  2. It is very important to have goals that are specific rather than something general like to do one’s best. In their view when people are asked to “do their best” they generally don’t do it, in part because there is no external reference point.

How do goals affect performance? For me, setting goals always helped me set priorities on my non-billable time. Locke and Latham recognize this function of goals. They say: “…they direct attention and effort toward goal-relevant activities and away form goal-irrelevant activities.”

As illustrated in the scientific research, the problem many people have is setting their goals too low. I like what Evertt Bogue recently wrote How to Succeed by Being Completely Unrealistic. Check out his list of 13 ways to start thinking.

The young lawyers I coached over the years were in big firms and smaller firms, different parts of the United States and Canada, different practice areas, different personality types and a variety of other unique characteristics. The lawyers I am helping find new law firms also differ in many ways.

Yet, to the person, the most successful young lawyers I coached shared these attributes, and I look for these attributes in lawyers seeking my help now.

  1. They were patient, persistent and persevered
  2. They knew their strengths and focused their client development efforts on things that suited those strengths
  3. They developed a plan for their non-billable time and written goals
  4. They worked regularly and consistently on client development
  5. They were seeking to become more visible and credible to their target market
  6. They were getting feedback on their ideas and how they are doing
  7. They found ways to hold themselves accountable
  8. They found meaningful ways to stay in touch with their contacts
  9. They all wished they had started their efforts earlier in their career
  10. They were willing to get outside their comfort zone

Law firms look for lawyers with those attributes. I know, I looked for those lawyers when I was practicing law.



I loved practicing law in law firms. Then I loved coaching lawyers. Now I love recruiting lawyers, in large part because I am still coaching in the recruiting process.

As you may remember, I graduated from law school, passed the bar exam and was admitted to practice law in 1971. Plenty has changed since I started practicing law in 1971, but I know one thing that has not.

The key to success in private practice with a law firm is the ability to attract, retain and expand relationships with clients.

Many of you became lawyers, less because of loving”the law” and more because you could use your knowledge and skills to help your clients achieve their goals.

If attracting, retaining and expanding relationships with clients motivates lawyers, why aren’t more lawyers doing what it takes to have that opportunity?

As you know, several years ago I wrote a book titled: “Prepare to Win.”  It is available from us, Amazon and is available for your Kindle, Nook or iPad.

Screenshot 2015-08-02 09.44.27

I picked the title based on a quote I had seen many times attributed to various famous coaches.

The essence of the quote is:

Many have the will to win, but only a few have the will to prepare to win.

I encourage you to read my book. Many lawyers have the will to attract, retain and expand relationships with clients, but only a few have the will to do the hard work that leads to getting, retaining and building relationships with clients.

How many lawyers in your firm have a written plan including goals and a method of holding themselves accountable? Do you have one?

How many lawyers in your firm are making a concerted effort to build their profile or build relationships? Are you?

Regardless of your law school, your class rank, your family situation, your age, your firm, your boss, your firm’s clients, you and only you are responsible for your success and only you can define what success is for you.

Over time you will also have to inspire yourself, motivate yourself, hold yourself accountable, stick with it when it is challenging and pick yourself up when things do not go as you had hoped. But, if I have coached you, then you know that encouragement at the right time is also helpful.

I was thinking about my work with lawyers years ago when I read Forbes article: The 3 Most Powerful Ways To Change People Who Don’t Want To Change,

If we worked together you might notice some things in the article that we did in our coaching sessions. I encourage you to read the article and think back to our time together. If anything you read resonates with you, drop me a note.

When I worked with lawyers in my old firm, I learned a very important lesson. I could make an inspiring presentation on career and client development. But, if it was a one-shot program, very few lawyers changed. That was the reason I started coaching.

What will it take for you to win in 2019?