Superstars vs. Commodities

In the past, workers with average skills, doing an average job, could earn an average lifestyle. But, today, average is officially over. Being average just won’t earn you what it used to. It can’t when so many more employers have so much more access to so much more above average cheap foreign labor, cheap robotics, cheap software, cheap automation and cheap genius. Therefore, everyone needs to find their extra — their unique value contribution that makes them stand out in whatever is their field of employment. Average is over.

- Thomas Friedman, "Average Is Over," New York Times (Jan 24, 2012)

My former classmate Dan Currell and I returned to the University of Chicago Law School this week to talk to current students about how best to prepare for professional success and progress after law school. Some of our messages to them coincided nicely with Friedman's piece in the New York Times: average is indeed over, and that applies to the legal profession as well. 

What does this mean in the law school context? Take a look at this bimodal salary distribution curve for the class of 2010. Average is certainly over in that graph. But things are even trickier than that salary curve suggests. It's not enough just to get into a top law school, or graduate from a top law school, or start your career at a top law firm or public interest organization. To progress, you'll need something extra, some kind of plus, because book smarts and a fancy credential aren't enough to get ahead and stay ahead. What's your plus? Or, as law professor Larry Ribstein put it before his untimely death recently, do you want to be a legal architect or a legal mechanic? How do you stand out when your profession is being commoditized, and average is no longer an option?

There are lots of opinions about what kinds of skills you need to have when you're already out in the working world, but in this post I'll suggest some actionable things you can do right now while you're still in law school:

1. Learn how to sound like an adult. That means learning how to write a decent cover letter, how to write a professional email, how to conduct a professional phone call, and how to adopt grown-up speech patterns. Many law school students don't and won't. (Reforming speech patterns is hard. I'm a product of my generation, too — Generation X – and I find myself slipping from time to time.) Whoever it is you're trying to impress — a client, a boss, a hiring partner, a judge, a conference room full of people you need to persuade — those people aren't going to be inclined to listen to you if your communication style makes you sound like the high school babysitter. More on not sounding like the babysitter here and here and here.

2. Learn how to read a financial statement. Whether you plan on being a transactional lawyer or a litigator or something else entirely, you need basic financial and accounting literacy. You shouldn't even be running a PTA meeting or a pug rescue league without knowing how to read a balance sheet. Take baby accounting in law school if you need to ease into it, then go cross-register at the business school for real accounting that the MBAs take.

3. Network with non-lawyers. While you're taking accounting with the MBAs, get to know them, and how they talk, and how they think. They'll be managing businesses down the road, and they will eventually be your client-overlords and referral sources. More generally, if you want to be in a position to make rain later (see #6), learn how to think about and understand the non-legal needs of your future clients, because their eventual legal needs are going to be just a small piece of their larger headaches and opportunities. What if you don't see yourself serving businesses down the road? Then go mingle and learn more about whoever you envision your future clients and referral sources to be. Don't hang out just with other law school students, even if only for your own sanity.

4. Network in person. Blasting out emails to people you've never met hoping they'll give you something (time, money, advice, a job, a favor) is a horribly inefficient way to get ahead. Email is fine if you already have a pre-existing connection of some kind with the recipient, but in many cases, establishing relationships and building up relationship capital means backing away from your laptop, heading out the front door, and talking to people in person.

And make sure to follow up. You never know where an opportunity or a life-altering tip will come from. Weak ties – people who aren't close friends or family, and whom you don't see everyday — matter as much as close ties do in an employment search, for example, and the many people who come to your school to talk to you are a great place to start developing your in-person network. Networking takes real-life practice, and you have to actually do it. Thinking about it doesn't count.

5. Seize opportunities to improve your writing. Students love to moan about Legal Writing classes, but those classes may be the most valuable ones you take in law school, so treat them seriously. Go work for a journal. (Yes, it's scut work, but you will also learn how to edit, and that will improve your own writing.) Take classes that require longer papers, and learn how to manage a longer writing project. Embrace moot court, not just for the oral argument opportunities, but also for the extra practice in brief writing. Take those contract drafting classes. Learn where to put that comma so you don't get sued for malpractice (I bet you didn't know that a comma could be worth a million dollars). Write, get feedback, and write some more. You will get better, but it requires lots of guidance and practice.

#5 is very important, because many law school students think they are good writers, but most of them are not. Many of you have been misled all throughout college into thinking that your writing is great, but people who grade various kinds of law school writing, even at top schools, find themselves struggling to teach remedial writing skills before they can get to the the more advanced, technical writing skills they actually need to be teaching.

6. Start thinking like a creative problem solver and businessperson. You may have defaulted into law school because you are not attracted to the "business" world (whatever that means to law students, which is often fuzzy), but unless you want to get stuck doing boring, low-level, poorly-paid, increasingly offshored grunt work, you need to start thinking like a businessperson. Many of you will in fact turn out to be businesspeople, if you succeed at moving up far enough: you'll either hang out your shingle and eat what you kill, or you'll be equity owners with other business partners who expect you to bring in business and manage the firm, or you'll have a senior management role in a public or private organization. Guess what? That makes you future business owners or at least managers, and when you're still in a junior role you'll need to start an internal mental shift to think about yourself as someone who has to learn how to run things and solve management problems eventually. Law school rewards relentless analytical reasoning; it's also quite good at selecting for it (thank you, LSAT). Can law school also teach creativity and problem solving for management challenges? I'm not sure that will happen any time soon, so you need to start paying attention to those skills on your own initiative, not least because creativity is hard to delegate to machines that will only get increasingly cheaper than you are.

You have a while to learn what creativity and management and problem solving mean in a legal context, so during your summers, start observing how more senior people (the successful ones) run their teams and resources out in the real world, and how they generate business or clients or funding. Watch how they don't just issue-spot and identify problems but also help solve them creatively. You know the saying that you should dress for the job you want, not the one you have? The same is true here: Start developing the mental habits for the more senior and more highly rewarded role you want, the legal architect vs. the legal mechanic. You don't have to acquire that mindset overnight, but start paying attention to it while you're still in school.

There's lots more to say on this subject, and I hope you contribute your own suggestions in the comments. What do you think? What pluses and extras do law school graduates need besides their stellar law degrees and their analytical horsepower? What kinds of transferable skills should they be mastering? What other steps can they start taking immediately?

Former Dean of Admissions at the University of Chicago Law School and a recovering lawyer, Anna Ivey founded Ivey Consulting to help college, law school, and MBA applicants navigate the admissions process. You can find more admissions tips in The Ivey Guide to Law School Admissions. Join the conversation here in the blog comments and on Twitter and Facebook, or email us a new question for the blog.