Succeeding In A Free Market System
Q: What is a free market system?
A: A free market system is one in which associates have control over the projects and assignments they take on. This stands in contrast to those systems in which an assigning partner or practice group manager distributes incoming work. When this concept was first introduced, the idea was that the associate would be given autonomy over his or her workload, and could (at least in theory) choose to take on or refuse an assignment for good reason, bad reason or no reason at all.
Q: What is the reality of a free market system today?
A: While this option can be particularly appealing for associates desiring more autonomy, it's important to be mindful that law firm revenue is driven by the billable hour. If you’re choosing to turn down specific types of work, that’s your prerogative. But given the realities of the fee-driven business model, be sure that whatever decisions you’re making nevertheless keep your hours within a range that resembles those of your colleagues. You don’t want to be an outlier.
So what should that number look like? Different firms have different expectations about desired revenue per lawyer. That said, it's safe to assume that the more profitable the firm, the higher their expectation. Law firms are businesses, and their ultimate success is dependent on maintaining their bottom line which is driven in large part by attorney utilization. With demand for legal services expected to remain relatively flat in 2017, this is not the time to use a free market system as an opportunity to coast.
Q: What is my onus in a free market system?
A: A free market system is not for the shy or the passive. You have to focus on seeking out work, seeking out diverse work, and seeking out work from a variety of partners and client-types. The burden is on you to maximize the breadth of your experience and create opportunities to increase your level of responsibility. The more assertive you are and the more initiative you take, the better you’ll fare in the short- and long-term.
Q: What are the pitfalls of a free market system?
A: The ultimate appeal of a free market system is that you get to navigate your professional career trajectory. In order to succeed in doing so, you need to be vigilant about the types of work that you’re getting, and be careful to notice if there are any substantive gaps. Educate yourself on the benchmarks that are set for associates in your group, and ensure that you're hitting them. If you discover you're falling behind, seek the advice of a mentor to get you back on track. Don't wait for others to point out any shortcomings - by that time, it may be too late for you to catch up.
The bottom line: be as vigilant as you can in monitoring what you’re being exposed to, who you’re being exposed to, and what the effect is on your progression.