Practicing law is not a solitary exercise. 

You will always have to deal with clients, other lawyers on your team, opposing counsel, judges, and juries. Sometimes, you must deal with the media, regulators, and politicians. There are differing degrees, of course: writing a contract does not often put you in front of a jury, but the law always involves people, their issues, and a need for agreement of some sort. 

You will also develop a book of business as you become a rainmaker, which means deeper relationships and higher degrees of trust. 

Therefore, you will develop a reputation whether you like it or not. When it comes time for you to retire and move on (which will happen), you’ll need to know what you want from retirement, what you want to leave behind, and how you want to transfer trust and relationships.

We call this Design A Legacy, and it’s crucial to define your career as a happy rainmaker. 

Who do you want to be? 

Imagine you walk into a courtroom, you’ve prepared your arguments, you actually got some sleep, and you ate that perfect energy-filled, but not heavy, breakfast. You are ready.  

The opposing council approaches you. His father, who lives in another state, is in the hospital. Your opposition doesn’t know how serious the situation is, but he wants to put off the start of the trial for a week to sort out issues for his father. He wants to know if you’ll oppose his request. 

You have a choice. His father is alive, the situation doesn’t sound life-threatening, and you’ve worked hard to be ready for this moment. You also know that this judge is likely to side with you if you object to the delay, and that would put the opposition off his game—this could be an advantage for you. 

On the other hand, he’s human, and his father is in the hospital.

What do you do? 

What you do is who you are

The baseline is hard work and smart legal insights. But you also want to find your distinct niche within your practice. This is “ that thing” everyone comes to you for or knows you for, such as: 

  • Being amazing at research, the go-to person any time someone needs help. 
  • Reading and understanding regulations and their implications.
  • Researching and finding relevant case law.  
  • Revising briefs to make them more compelling.
  • Critiquing and honing oral arguments. 
  • Calming clients down. 
  • Working extra hours to get something across the finish line.
  • Always attending networking events (or any events), even last minute. 
  • Great at detail; you are the one to proofread documents that need to be accurate. 
  • Great writer or speaker. 

This list could go on for pages; the point is to think about how you want to be perceived. Define your special talent and nurture it. This will make you stand out, and it will also make your work more rewarding because you will focus on what you enjoy. 

There is no correct answer. 

Even the scenario above doesn’t have a correct answer. You could push your advantage or grant the delay; neither’s wrong. Your decisions will impact how others perceive you, lawyers, judges, colleagues, and clients. Whether or not they are there in that room, they are listening, and then next time this comes up, someone will tell the story of your actions this time. 

The question is, what story do you want them to tell? Do you want to be the ruthless, nerves-of-steel litigator who presses every advantage or the tough, empathetic lawyer who will do the right thing? Or something else entirely…? 

You over time

When you first start your career, designing your legacy means thinking about how you want others to identify you within your professional sphere. It also means acting according to how you want to be perceived so that you build the reputation you want. 

As your career progresses, your attitudes might change, and your brand can be tweaked, but maintaining consistency is crucial. You can’t be a scorched earth, it’s my way or nothing, lawyer for years then expect others to bend when you need it.  

You will also eventually start moving into planning for your succession or retirement. The questions here are:

  • What do you want to pass on to the next generation of professionals?
  • What do you want for yourself in retirement? 
  • How will you make the transition? 

Your answers will determine how you engage or prepare the next generation, how you manage, mentor, and support the lawyers who work for you, and even the culture you want to create at your firm. 

You in Retirement

Eventually, retirement will come. I’ve met many lawyers who believe they will work forever, but whether we like it or not, all careers end. So the question isn’t whether it will end but how you want it to end. 

Some lawyers want to leave the firm and never return. Others want to generate business and receive compensation while playing golf. Or maybe you want to work as an advisor, providing the kind of advice that can only come from experience. 

As your career progresses, define what you want from the future. Anything is possible, but you must plan early to turn the possibilities into reality. 

Transitions take time

One reason early planning is so essential is that transitions take time. Over your career, you’ll create strong relationships with clients who trust you. They see you as an expert, and they value your advice. That only comes with time and reputation. 

If you own your practice and want to sell it, or if you work in a firm and want to continue to receive origination payments or maximize the profit of the firm you leave, then you will want to transfer those relationships to someone else. That takes time and effort; it can take years to establish the right relationships, so you don’t want to put it off.  

A note on finances

One other aspect of planning your legacy is financial planning. The more money you have saved, the more options you’ll have. So save early and often, benefit from compound interest, and write your plan for the future.  

Some things you can do in .1

Defining your legacy is a long-term game. It’s actually more about consistent actions than big actions, and here are some things you can do right now: 

  • Decide what you want to be known for. 
  • Audit your actions: do your actions align with what you want your reputation to be? 
  • Think about your legacy and what you want to leave behind. 
  • Open a retirement account and make a deposit. 

Design A Legacy is about deciding what you want to be known for and putting it into action.

Early in your career, your legacy is your reputation. Later in your career, it becomes, well, your legacy, what you leave behind. You will earn a reputation, retire in some way, and leave something behind. 

The question is, are you doing it on purpose and in a way that serves you?

You’ll always be better off if you set your terms, so spend time thinking through the legacy you want to leave.