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Do ambitious IP lawyers need a career strategy?

Do you need a career strategy?
Though it might sometimes feel like it, your life doesn’t happen by accident. Where you stand today is the cumulative and collective result of what you have experienced and learned, decisions that you’ve made and actions that you have taken to date.
Where you will stand 10 years from now, will be the cumulative and collective result of the same factors that you apply between now and then.
Intellectually we know this, but we seldom feel that way. Instead, we feel pushed by the vagaries of fate, driven by the system in which we operate, pressured by those who have ambitions for us that may not match our own and limited by the resources we have available to work with.
These perceived limitations are not necessarily the biggest enemy we face – it's being too busy to strategise! When you are overloaded with tasks, work and life coming at you with increasing speed and in a relentless fashion, it seems impossible to find the time and headspace to gain distance, observe and analyse your circumstances and strategise more effectively towards your goals.
You can only be carried by the current if you drop your oars and exhaustion, burnout and/or overwhelm are the biggest reasons that most of us do it. Which in turn, leads to more exhaustion, burnout and/or overwhelm. So, we drift.
If you are not actively thinking about the factors that will advance your career and deliberately choosing decisions and actions that will move you closer towards the outcomes you would like, then you’re drifting, being carried along in the current.
In looking into the future and deciding where you want to be, a strategy can be developed that ‘reverse-engineers’ the steps you need to take today and all of the tomorrows between now and then to get there. And a good strategy should incorporate a reduction in the overload of steps needed to progress – your quality of life matters too!
2 essential strands to your career strategy – relationships and process:
There is little point in denying that the legal world is relationship-centric. The relationships between you and the clients you serve and your relationships with those in the firm will play a key role in the progression of your career. This is the strand that is prioritised in the strategy of the savvy lawyer keen to progress and with good reason. But is it enough on its own?
The roadmap to success frequently delineated by society is to be diligent in your studies from a young age. Choose a good subject for further study. Get into a good company. Work hard. Be promoted. Become successful. There’s one challenge though. It’s not true.
Ask yourself how many lawyers you know that diligently followed this roadmap to no avail. Has every lawyer who attended the right schools, got hired at the right firms and worked hard in the prescribed fashion been successful in reaching their career goals? The evidence, m’lud, is circumstantial at best!
Building relationships with the movers and shakers at the firm is then presumed to be the only differentiator between those that move up the ladder and those that don’t. It is essential but as a sole strategy, it's not without risk.
On the one hand, businesses, including law firms, don’t promote people. Managers do. It is a harsh cold reality for many underlings in every type of company to realise that you can be the best, most efficient, hard-working, result-delivering person in your company or firm, but if your manager or those above you don’t recognise and advertise your efforts and results, you’re not getting promoted. Those relationships are important.
But they are also a double-edged sword. Partners with whom you have strong relationships built over a long time can leave. A falling-out with colleagues can completely derail your progression. Human relationships are tricky and unpredictable things and from a strategic point of view, it might be considered unwise to keep all your eggs in a singular and shaky basket.
The second strand that should form part of your strategy then is process – your own and that of the firm. Processes that you improve, develop or employ then need to be selected by virtue of the essential elements of a career strategy for an IP lawyer.
What are the essential elements of a career strategy and plan for an IP lawyer?
Strategy doesn’t always mean what people think it means. Very often what people think of as a strategy is actually more of a to-do list constructed from the observable necessities around you. We talked in the introduction about ‘reverse-engineering’ where you will be in 10 years and your strategy and plan is how you will do this.
It’s said that your strategy should answer the question: “Am I doing the right things?” And your plan should answer the question: “Am I doing them the right way?” So, to answer the question: “Am I doing the right things?”, there are some critical elements to consider:
Whose interests does your strategy serve?
Just as teams don’t deliver results when each individual member only prioritises their personal goals, neither you nor your firm will benefit from a strategy that centralises and prioritises your wants over their needs. In practical terms, the first step of your career strategy is in understanding the firms' goals and seeking alignment with your own. And understanding that you need to build flexibility into this element because the ultimate goals of the firm will shift and change through time with market forces. This must be understood as a dynamic element.
What does your firm care most about right now? Where are they currently in the marketplace? What is the Board worried about? What areas are thriving or struggling? This does not need to be too in-depth, but a general understanding is critical. Effort is often wasted on achieving deliverables that, as it later transpired, was not the deliverable that the company cared about in that period. You need to understand the position well enough to be sure that your efforts are moving the needle while keeping an eye on which compass is in play.
What are the structures and rules for advancement in your firm?
Every law firm is hierarchical by nature, many with clearly defined seniority steps on the ladder to Partner.
Generalities apply, of course they do, but every organisation has its own little quirks and foibles, and you should make it your business to understand the inherent politics of your particular firm. Knowing the rules doesn’t necessarily mean that you are bound by them. Just know them well enough to know how to break them effectively!
What are the challenges of the step you are on within that structure?
Not only do you need to have a clear picture of where your want your career to go, you need to have an in-depth understanding of where you are now and the challenges that you face in getting from where you are to where you want to be.
Some of these are common issues shared by many but if you drill deeper, you will find challenges that represent a unique mix of your own strengths and weaknesses along with those of your firm.
It's important to scope these out in as detailed a fashion as you can manage. But this is not simply making long lists of roadblocks that you need to somehow overcome. This list serves as your directional compass of opportunities to improve on weaker skills, capitalise on stronger ones and learn more about your firm and the people within it.
What are the specific challenges in relation to the IP practice area in your firm?
Progressing your career as a Junior Partner, Legal Director or Senior Associate in the IP practice area can have its own challenges in a big law firm. Routine IP management work can often be viewed internally as loss-leading work that is undertaken primarily as a client retention tool that can lead to litigation work and opportunities for cross-departmental service selling.
Increasing the perceived value of routine IP management work and showing demonstrable revenue increases from that work can accelerate the career of younger IP lawyers in a way that is beneficial for their firm too.
But with the ever-present high workloads comprised of low-value, repetitive, manual and time-consuming work that frequently haunts the desks of young attorneys, how can the next generation of IP lawyers find their way off the treadmill and onto the Senior Partner track in Big Law?
Putting your strategy into action:
Law firms are, crucially, also a business and the best way to begin putting your strategy into action is in building a business case for yourself! But what should that business case consist of?
Here's an inescapable fact - career progression in a law firm is always linked to revenue brought into the firm. It's perhaps not a fair metric and discards the other value that you might deliver to the firm on a daily basis but it is the one that you will have to work with.
It's a challenge all its own to meet the revenue expectations that are already placed upon you, never mind to exceed them. You need a differentiator, something else that you can bring to the table to boost your revenue generation beyond expectations.
This is where an IP Management System (IPMS) is worth serious consideration. Not only does it give you an opportunity to examine the processes at the firm that you can improve but if you find the right system, you are bringing a new product to the table that clients will love and partners don't already sell (or sell very well!).
It can be a core differentiator that will sit at the heart of the business case that you will build to plant yourself firmly on the partner track. Click here to have one of RightHub’s expert team guide you through the value that you could bring to the table and the kind of business case that you can create!

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