Beyond Billable Hours

What law school doesn't teach you about being successful

By Michael Lear-Olimpi

[The review originally appeared in the September 19, 2008 issue of The Recorder and is reprinted by permission of the author.]

New York City lawyer Ari Kaplan's new book on how lawyers and law students can build a professional network and successfully nurture their career draws on the author's considerable versatility and skill not only as an attorney but as a business planner, networker, rainmaker and writer.

It's a treatise (but short and sweet) on key elements in Career success. Kaplan - principal of Ari Kaplan Advisors and a familiar face and voice on the law-conference circuit and in legal publications - explains how to unlock opportunities for success in traditional and little-considered places, beginning in law school and not, as a policy, ending in law firm partnership.

Kaplan exhorts anyone reading his book to begin thinking of how to become his or her own opportunity maker. And he provides succinct, accessible, practical pointers on how to do it, with special attention to junior associates and students.

Kaplan's primary message is that you can make your own way with the help of others whom you make your friends and mentors, and clients. You do it by: drafting a personal business plan; vetting it through the considered advice of experts who have established their profile and crafted a steadfast client list; "doing" for others; being adaptable; and changing your outlook from one of waiting and accepting to one of acting and acquiring.

He advises his readers to take a risk. Sure most of his readers are law school students and lawyers, traditionally averse to risk. But they can take a calculated risk, Kaplan suggests, an educated sojourn on a self-mapped path toward establishing and cultivating their own brand - themselves - to generate clients. Anyone who truly wants to should rain-make up a storm and reap the benefits - for oneself and one's clients. Sound tough? Sound too easy?

It's a bit of both. Every lawyer knows that billable hours are life itself. And that associates and new hires often have little life outside the firm for which they're generating paperwork and brain brawn for the partners who bring the clients in. But, Kaplan says, new lawyers, or even veterans looking for a change, should - and sooner rather than later - begin thinking not just about learning the law and how to practice it, but about the business of law and how to keep themselves in clients, in the black, and in demand.

Kaplan's been what the reader is now, and he knows a great deal about where he or she wants to go, and how to get there. And he's willing to tell.

In that last sense alone, "The Opportunity Maker" is a welcome amicus curiae not only in the legal world, but in any profession. But its legal specificity - by a lawyer for lawyers - makes it especially valuable to attorneys. Kaplan logged a decade with New York firms; he knows the talk and has walked the walk. And he talks without slinging jargon and walks a straight and steady line.

Imagine the novelty of attending a conference, walking up and saying hello to someone. Sounds like common sense? Well you know what they say about common sense. And how common a sight is a loop of lawyers who arrived at a meeting with one another that remains a closed circle? You see Kaplan's point, then. And there are practical tips on how to make meetings and contacts, even cold ones, work.

Or how about this: Do someone a favor - offer some guidance, trade notes, make a friend. If practicing altruism sounds somewhat unlawyerly, well, that seems partly to be Kaplan's point: Don't be just a face in the crowd, be a face that others recognize, trust and want to deal with. Yes, learn the law, but meet and greet, be open and friendly, be interesting and become part of a community, or a professional association - and then get moving.

Most lawyers write a lot, but relatively few get published. All lawyers went to law -school, but few maintain, a mentor. Everyone attends meetings and belongs to societies, but not many get full value from these activities. Kaplan provides diverse insights from many experts but also delivers a miniature media and public-relations and self-promotion guide geared to lawyers. Readers can learn how to get published - including how to query editors, construct an article, retain copyright and leverage published work; find a mentor; use media to build a profile, including blogs; network creatively; design a career plan; and build a rainmaking team.

This is a little book brimming with big, but manageable, ideas. It fits nicely into a briefcase, and should go where a briefcase goes.

Michael Lear-Olimpi is principal of Susquehanna Editorial Services, Harrisburg, Pa. He is also editor of incisivemedia's e-Commerce Law & Strategy newsletter, a Recorder affiliate.