I’ve been an employment attorney for 22 years, and I know employment law backwards and forwards. Complicated issues are funneled to me because I can find those creative, but, ultimately, simple solutions for employers who find themselves in employment-related jams. If I have become this go-to resource, why, then, do I not have clients of my own?
I recently discovered the answer to this question, one that has plagued me for the last few years. In that time, I have watched younger colleagues make partner while I remain a well-respected counsel. The answer to the question reaches back to the mistakes I made in structuring my career as a young attorney.
I was lucky enough to be employed by a large New Jersey law firm straight from law school. I worked hard and made good money. After working exhausting hours, I spent free time catching up on my life. With such a small amount of free time, the thought of attending industry networking events repulsed me. I felt I was not paid nearly enough to spend the few hours of my precious free time promoting my firm at nonbillable events. Mistake No. 1. Looking back, I missed an important opportunity to form good friendships, professional mentorships, business connections and referral opportunities at that early stage of my career.
The middle — looking for something more
As my colleagues found a way to connect their personal and professional interests, I began to wonder if the big firm life was for me. I was beginning a new life, a married life. I felt I needed to slow down and put my energy into my marriage, not my work. I left my big firm for another big firm. The difference being, this new firm was known for work-life balance. I focused on learning everything I could about employment law. In my mind, networking was not a part of becoming a reputable attorney. Mistake No. 2. Instead, I wanted to master my craft. I sought to be assigned to the toughest cases, and fought for the opportunity to argue motions in court. I wanted to be the showboat and prove how good I really was. I was rewarded with good cases, all the while building relationships with other people’s clients. As a result, I was able to take on a new area to master — counseling clients before disputes resulted in litigation.
But, as I continued to grow and build a reputation within the firm, I hit an age where I realized that, if I did not have a child soon, I would miss that chance. We shift to the proudest moment in my two decades of practicing law — the birth of my daughter and my decision to take a hiatus from the practice.
What’s harder than building your own book of business? Trying to reenter the legal profession after taking a few years off to raise a baby. More accurately, trying to reenter the legal profession after taking a few years off to raise a baby — without having a book of business. I learned the hard lesson that the reputation you are so proud of fades very quickly when new superstars join the ranks.
On my journey to reemployment, one former colleague and friend remembered me. That dear friend started his own firm and took me in, giving me the opportunity to rebuild my career while giving me flexibility to raise my toddler. (If you are reading this, thank you!) Remember the time I spent focusing on the marriage instead of building my book of business? You guessed it — the marriage ended. I had my toddler, my new-found employment (at an hourly rate, as opposed to that big-firm salary), and the struggles of balancing a child and rebuilding a career. I never even entertained the thought of building a book of business during this struggle. Mistake No. 3: Small steps are still steps.
That small firm served as a springboard to my new home, a midsized firm that knew of me from my glory days of being that overachiever. I was fortunate to find a firm that supported me in my struggle to be there for my daughter, not for just the big moments, but for many of the little ones as well. This firm did not just tolerate the choices I made, it supported them. I became that woman who had the enviable half-day Friday schedule. I spend half the day working from my kitchen table, and the other half picking my daughter up from school and spending enough time with her where I actually feel like a full-time mother and not a working mother. The firm allows me to practice in the area that I love — counseling. It also provided growth opportunities. I’ve learned some new skills. I now stand up in rooms full of professionals and train them (this all from the woman who was terrified of public speaking). I have also been given the task of acting as an investigator in high-profile claims of discrimination and harassment. I love it. I am in my glory once again, and could not be happier. However, when all is said and done, I am still a worker and not a rainmaker.
Hindsight is always 20/20
As I look back, I see the missed opportunities. Why did I schedule a conference call purposely to avoid a networking event? Mistake Nos. 4, 5, 6, and 7. I was concentrating on my billables for the moment, instead of planning for the future. I was maneuvering ways to avoid those awkward networking events where I knew no one in the room. I attended a few events now and then, but I dreaded each of them. I could never figure out how to approach a stranger and ask for business. But, had I built those networks early on, I would have been walking into a room filled with acquaintances who could have introduced me to new people and new opportunities.
I also look back to the boundaries that I drew. I made it a point to draw a line in the sand, separating my personal life from my work. I was proud of that line. My free time was my own time. Why would I spend nights at meetings and dinners when I needed my own time to recharge? I wish I knew better at the time.
Fast forward 20 years — there is no line in the sand. I take conference calls on the way to school pick-up. As I write this, my daughter is leaning on me while watching a movie. Let’s not even talk about how many times I check work email when I am with her. The financial rewards of those earlier, missed networking opportunities would have benefited her now, and also in 10 years, when college tuition is due.
I’m a little late to the party, but I am here now. I was recently told I have an advantage over my younger colleagues. I know the subject matter that I practice like no one’s business and can stand in front of a room, with credibility and speak about the nuances of employment-related topics. I look forward to this new challenge.
To all of my junior colleagues: This article is for you. Invest in your career. This not only means caring about your work, caring about being a great attorney and meeting your billables. It also means building relationships that develop as your career develops. How did I miss this? The truth is, years later, I realize that I did not put myself out there consistently enough to try. I did not make the investment in my own career. I thought clients would flock to me because of my skills. The reality is, there are many skilled attorneys out there. Skill is imperative, but it is not enough in today’s competitive environment. Build your professional network now. It will give you that platform for success!
Brigette N. Eagan is counsel in Genova Burns LLC’s Newark office and is a member of the Employment Law & Litigation, Human Resources Counseling & Compliance, and Education Law groups. She focuses on employment law counseling, human resources best practices, training and litigation defense.