Beyond Biglaw: Don't Become Pray

January 5, 2016

By Gaston Kroub

Law firm life is not for everyone. The legions of lawyers, both young and old, who wash out of the legal system on an annual basis provide a testament to that fact. As we approach a new year, market conditions, both in Biglaw and for small firms, have led to increasing numbers of lawyers feeling vulnerable. Conditions are unfortunately ripe for what can be a brutal profession to become even more brutal. Those of us who hope to thrive in the new year must have the fortitude and resourcefulness to avoid becoming prey to the many predators with an eye out for fresh lawyer flesh. The dangers are most acute for employees at law firms, whether they be partners (especially in these days of Biglaw acting out a de-equitization tantrum), associates, or staff. While these “employees” may be insulated from the dangers of having to manage a firm in this market, they are also vulnerable to layoffs, and predatory colleagues happy to make sure that someone else’s head precedes them to the guillotine.

In many ways, law firm life is a game of survival. Those who know how to persevere and do what it takes to get to the next “level” get to continue playing the game — which means that lawyers need to be aware of their surroundings, and make sure they have a concrete understanding of what is expected from them in terms of performance. To be truly safe, law firm employees generally need two things to happen: 1) they personally exceed whatever expectations are set for them and 2) their firm’s performance is such that layoffs are not necessary. That is assuming a healthy firm, where nearly everyone is generally contributing to the success of the collective.

But sometimes the atmosphere at a law firm can turn toxic. Such a phenomenon can be triggered by any number of disparate events, such as a key client jumping ship, or a rainmaker retiring, or a merger that is not paying off. In such an environment, lawyers need to be even more careful and resourceful, as the likelihood of previously genial colleagues getting desperate and turning on others increases. Since much of what differentiates lawyers is subjective, having a single “enemy” with the ear of management can be deadly to someone’s position at a firm. When things are going well, there is less incentive for co-workers to view each other as competition. In an environment where people feel threatened by forces outside their control, however, all bets are off. All it takes is one slip-up, or series of “complaints,” and someone can unfairly be tarnished as dead weight that needs to be jettisoned.

Awareness of the dangers is key, and requires honest self-analysis of your standing at the firm. Many lawyers tend to focus on — and wrongly rely on as evidence of their job security — the reasons the firm hired them in the first place. But having had the right credentials to get hired, or the right experience, becomes meaningless when the firm needs to make decisions around who gets to stay. In that calculation, the focus shifts onto who is contributing now — first and foremost. Then, the firm may consider whether the person is likely to become a bigger contributor in the future. Little thought, if any, is given to who was the most attractive candidate at the time they were hired. So it is important to be realistic, and prepared to present both a reasoned analysis of your current performance, as well as your prospects as a contributor going forward. That is good practice even at the best of times.

What if you are in a toxic environment, where colleagues are turning on each other in the hopes of avoiding the unemployment office? Don’t put on blinders, and assume that the guy or gal who joins you for a drink every so often is your true friend. Raise your level of awareness, and identify your “competition” by thinking about who is most likely to stay on if you got canned. If that person is someone who is known to be an office “shark,” then it is time to be extra careful. Depending on the situation, you may want to either avoid or engage that person — but always with the goal of making sure you know whether they have turned their sights on you, or are taking active steps to unsettle you in the eyes of management. Remember that sometimes the best defense is a good offense, and even if distasteful, there may be a need to call out this person yourself. Every situation will call for a different response.

I understand this may not be the sunniest column, but I think it is important to be realistic about the muddling the legal profession is going through on the business end. If you are feeling vulnerable, and need inspiration as we approach the new year that you will make it through, consider this example of staying ahead of predators. Researchers wanted to test the adaptability of a certain species of rats to a new environment, as part of their consideration of how to deal with invasive species. So they took a rat, slapped a radio collar on it, and dropped it onto a remote island. First they tried to use food traps to kill the rat, baiting the critter with rat delicacies. Didn’t work. So they tried lacing parts of the island with poison. When that failed, they released dogs with an appetite for rodent. Eventually, they realized that the rat had found a way to get off “Rat Death Island” to a more hospitable island across the bay. It was only after 18 weeks that they were able to catch and kill it, despite the radio collar and their best efforts to do so earlier. Be your firm’s rat.

Gaston Kroub lives in Brooklyn and is a founding partner of Kroub, Silbersher & Kolmykov PLLC, an intellectual property litigation boutique. The firm’s practice focuses on intellectual property litigation and related counseling, with a strong focus on patent matters.

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