Winning The Partnership Track Lottery & Leadership Tips For Young Lawyers

It’s The Economy: Why Are Harvard Graduates in the Mailroom? The New York Times Magazine

According to his article in The New York Times Magazine, Adam Davidson implies that today’s most educated and talented young people have entered into a sort of employment lottery.

Like the irrational behavior of drug dealers in Stephen J. Dubner and Steven D. Levitt’s book Freakonomics, today’s best professional candidates are working overtime and underpaid with the naïve hope and off chance that, one day, they’ll hit it big.

“Young, ambitious accountants who toil away at a Big Four firm may have modest expectations of glory, but they’ll be millionaires if they make partner,” writes Davidson.

“The same goes at law firms, ad agencies and consulting firms. Startups explicitly use a lottery system, known as stock options, to entice young people to work for nothing.”

Law firms—especially BigLaw—are now experts at playing this employment lottery game. They ask young associates to keep their billable hours up, they’ve lengthened the partnership track, and they’ve incentivized late nights and low personal wellbeing.

These same firms understand that young first-years (and on) will work hard and long at the prospect of winning the precarious employment lottery. Each associate clings to the hope that he will be the one to finally make equity partner.

The older generation of lawyers is unsympathetic to this partnership roulette and its higher standards for career advancement.

“Rationalizing these actions, many big-law leaders have convinced themselves that the current generation of young lawyers is inferior to their own,” explains Steven Harper in his article for the AmLaw Daily.

“They complain about those who act as if they’re entitled to everything and unwilling to work hard, as they once did.”

It’s why young, newly announced partners have even more to live up to in the eyes of their firm.

For those lucky few who finally make it to partner—those who hit it big in the employment lottery—all associate eyes are on them. The expectations to become an effective, productive case leader and lawyer are high.

And, to make matters worse, these new leaders who are perceived by their peers as having low status, in terms of age, education, experience, or other factors, must obey different rules than their partner predecessors.

Traditionally, subordinates respond best to participative leaders (after all, nobody likes an overbearing micro-manager). However, according to the Harvard Business Review (HBR), recent studies prove this to be true only for high-status leaders—those men or women who are perceived to have superior education, experience, or age, for example.

By contrast, new studies show that leaders with a lower status rating—meaning, young law firm partners—are more highly regarded and receive better results by subordinates when they are decisive, demanding, and—to be frank—bossy.

Two different studies show that the low status leaders receive highest marks, in terms of confidence and effectiveness, when they are directive and ignore team participation. Basically, young leaders should act bossier to subordinates than older ones.

“If these results seem counterintuitive, imagine this: You’re on an experienced team that gets an unfamiliar leader. You look for clues about his status—How old is he? How does he dress? Where did he train?—and form an assessment accordingly. If he seems to be a lightweight, you’ll probably resist his attempts to influence you. And if he asks for your input, chances are even greater that you’ll view him as lacking in competence,” writes Stephen J. Sauer in his article “Why Bossy Is Better For Rookie Managers,” in the HBR.

“But if he’s directive and assertive, you’ll take that as confidence, and you’ll come to see him as more able than you first thought. His perceived capabilities will rise.”

Young lawyers who are lucky enough to hit the employment lottery may face unexpected challenges from their dubious team of associates.

And, as a young partner, if you get the impression others see your leadership as inferior—especially by the older generation and lottery losers—you’re probably right: They do.

It’s time to assert yourself into the hierarchy—until, of course, you’ve proven that it was more than just luck and freakonomics that got you to the top.

-WB

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