Resources Newsletter Archive The One Activity You Can't Afford To Pass Up (January 2009)

The One Activity You Can't Afford To Pass Up (January 2009)

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Issue #55

January, 2009


The Opting Back In Coaching Program, jointly offered by UC Hastings Center for Work/Life Law and Lawyers Life Coach was featured in the California Bar Journal.
Ellen in the press:
Ellen is quoted in Pink Magazine's article, "Sweating the Small Stuff: Subtle Discrimination Can Handicap a Woman's Career. Here are 10 Ways to Stop It."

Other articles by Ellen:
"Onward:  How not to let an absent mentor and a bad review stop your progress", in the New York Law Journal Magazine.

The One Activity You Can't Afford to Pass Up

Every lawyer with whom I've spoken recently is anxious.  Those who still have their jobs are wondering what they can do to ensure keeping them.  Many struggle to get enough work to fill their hours and find themselves at the end of the day with few accomplishments and little time to record.  Attorneys trying to opt-back-into the workplace are worried about how they will compete with the glut of lawyers now seeking jobs.  And, of course, those who have been laid off are very concerned about finding new employment.

Changes in the legal industry combined with widespread uncertainty about our economic future make developing effective solutions difficult.  While paralysis is the least effective way to cope, you'd be in good company if you found yourself responding this way.  So many lawyers feel like they just don't know what to do.  They've never encountered a situation quite like this.  The old rules don't seem to apply.  Recruiters have little to offer associates.  Partners struggle to get work from businesses that are loathe to spend money or have declared bankruptcy.  In the absence of a clear path, it's easy to freeze in place.
However, there is one activity in which you can engage which provides as close to a guarantee as possible that you will reap benefit from your efforts - that is building your social capital.

Social capital is the resources - information, ideas, influence, power, mentoring, sponsorship, job leads, assistance, business opportunities, referrals, trust, loyalty, goodwill, cooperation, advice and emotional support - that reside within the relationships you develop as you create and maintain your personal and business networks.  These are not personal resources:  you can never own them.  They exist only in the context of authentic relationships with other people, both within and outside of your workplace.

If individualism is a uniquely American value, then law firms are particularly American.  Law firm culture places singular emphasis on individual abilities and effort.  You are rewarded for the hours you bill; typically partners are compensated for the business they individually originate.  The mythology that success is forged by heroic individual feats remains largely unquestioned.

The fact is that no one succeeds without the help of others.  You could not have achieved your accomplishments to date without the contributions of parents, teachers, mentors and friends.  We all stand on the shoulders of others.  Associates in firms can't develop their skills without partners to provide challenging assignments and guidance in developing the requisite technical expertise.  No attorney ever became a law firm partner without a sponsor willing to spend political capital on her advancement.  Rainmakers need connections to others which members of their networks provide.  However much resumes matter for finding jobs, access to opportunities is still largely a function of the ties you've forged with others.  Even luck is social:  the luckiest people build a web of relationships and thereby increase their chances of favorable encounters. The one thing you cannot afford to pass up doing right now, regardless of your circumstances, is to build your social capital.

Research consistently demonstrates that the advantages of rich social capital include faster promotions and at a younger age, better compensation, greater influence, finding better paying and more satisfying jobs, having access to more needed information, new and repeat business and better mental and physical health.  

Social capital is similar to its disappearing sister, financial capital, in that it is productive.  It enables us to achieve goals that would not be possible in its absence.  Unlike financial capital, it is potentially abundant, even in a recession.  In fact, difficult times provide ample opportunities for building a big relational bank account.  This is because building social capital is fundamentally about generosity - and who doesn't need some bigheartedness these days?

Social capital is the by-product of your efforts to contribute to the success of others.  The paradox of social capital is that you will only reap its benefits if your networking efforts are driven by generosity.  To the extent to which you develop relationships in order to get something for yourself, you will fail.

The principle of reciprocity is what makes networking beneficial to you.  Reciprocity begins with an act of generosity without the expectation of a return. Helping others without regard to how they will help you is the best way to make sure that you will benefit from the network relationships you create.  Once you embrace this seeming contradiction, you're ready to begin working toward developing business, securing your current position or finding a job.


A recent exchange with a business development coaching client of mine is a great example of the ways in which rich social capital can help a woman lawyer become a rainmaker.  This attorney was concerned about the impending loss of a large client in the financial services industry.  She and her client had a long-standing relationship which provided a significant proportion of her book of business.  Now his company was folding and he didn't have another job.  She stayed in close contact with him, providing support, ideas and connecting him to a wide variety of other people in her network.  As a result he landed a high-level position in another company.  Not long afterward he called her asking if she could handle an important matter.  It didn't fall within her area of expertise but she was happy to introduce him to other lawyers in her firm who could provide the counsel he needed.  Last week he asked her to handle a very large matter - one that could easily replace the lost business from his prior company. Then he followed up by referring her to a colleague in another company who has asked her to do take on several significant matters.  My client never expected this to happen - in fact I'd had to challenge her to call him to offer emotional support since she viewed this as inappropriate and intrusive.  She was surprised that he not only welcomed her support, he was grateful for it.

If your practice is slow, staying chained to your desk will only increase your feelings of helplessness.  Close ties to people within your organization will help you accomplish projects but will not connect you to sources of new business.  For this, you need ties to a diverse range of people.  Becoming a connector between different networks creates value for both groups of people.  Try networking outside of your firm by joining organizations whose missions are interesting and meaningful to you.  Your active participation positions you to contribute to others and build social capital.

The benefits of social capital take time to accrue.  You can't expect to get work from people you've only just met.  To quote David Maister, "marketing is a conversation."  People all around you are worried.  Why not ask them how they're doing and how you can help?  Not only are you planting seeds for the economic rebound, you're also likely to experience the "helper's high:" the rush of positive feeling that comes from genuine acts of altruism.


Consider this situation:  Two woman lawyers in the same firm are hoping to advance to equity partnership.  They have been practicing for the same number of years and their books of business are roughly equal in size.  One has originated most of her own business.  The second has brought in work from clients originated by the senior partner for whom she works.  Only the second woman advances to partnership, although both attorneys' practice groups seem to have more than enough work.  Why would this happen?  

Research studies indicate that social capital is crucial for the advancement of women to positions of leadership.  Insufficient social capital blocks the career progress of women to a much greater extent than it does men.  In particular, the absence of a white male sponsor can kill the career of a woman in a predominantly male organization.  Having a powerful male sponsor signals to the predominantly male leadership that a woman lawyer possesses those highly-valued competencies and qualities that are typically only attributed to their male peers.  Without being perceived as the voluntarily-selected protégé of a senior male, a woman attorney can easily be judged as not "having what it takes."  This signaling influence is entirely based on social capital.

If you're concerned about holding on to your current job or status, you can't afford not to spend time and energy building strong ties with powerful people within your organization.  Understanding their needs and creating value for them is crucial.


Especially given the contraction of the legal industry, sending in resumes in response to ads or to employers not advertising positions is the least effective way to find a job.  As frantic as you may feel about finding a job now, you must keep in mind the paradoxical manner in which social capital is created.  It's fine to make requests of people to whom you have a history of being generous.  However, if you are re-activating a dormant network or developing brand new relationships, you'll need to put your worries aside and focus on listening, learning about other people's needs and goals and doing your best to meet them. 

Even when you're unemployed, it's still easy to be generous.  In particular, you can offer enormous value when you function as a "linchpin" in your network, connecting people to needed information, opportunities and leads by introducing them to people you know but they don't.

For example, a coaching client had been out of the workforce for several years while home raising her children.  During this time she kept in touch with friends from law school, her former employer and a diverse group of people in her community, all of whom worked with her as volunteers on a non-profit board.  She already had created rich social capital when it came time to "opt back in."  Members of the non-profit were happy to introduce her to people they knew who could provide her with information about areas of practice and job opportunities.  These relationships led her to paid consulting opportunities.  Her work as a consultant brought her in contact with new connections, allowing her to establish an even broader, more diverse network.  She became a "linchpin," connecting people from the various circles within which she moved.  Social capital in the form of information about career opportunities, job openings and introductions to people she wanted to meet began to flow toward her.  

Although she began this process feeling confused about her career goals, she now knows precisely what she wants to do and understands which credentials and experiences she needs to obtain in order to become marketable in that field.  People now call her to offer her part-time and project work and to request her resume'.  She has no doubt that she'll soon resume a satisfying career.

Like other forms of capital, social capital doesn't typically produce quick dividends.  However, there simply is no other way to become rich with opportunities, leads, referrals, new business, help, support and influence than by building your social capital.  And you will experience immediate benefits:  the high that comes from helping and the positive feelings that immediately ensue from developing authentic, mutual relationships with other people.

So stop worrying and get connected.  You can't afford not to.


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Ellen Ostrow, Ph.D., CMC

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