More Than a Cog in the Machine: Defining Your Value and Writing Your Own Story

Those who know me well know that I have a love of story; I take great joy in weaving a message that communicates, in vivid detail, whatever it is that is in my head.

Often times, we as legal marketing and business development professionals spend so much time crafting stories of the firm’s brand or an individual attorney’s brand that we forget to put thought into what our own story looks like. Defining the value you bring to your firm, your team, and the bottom line is intrinsic to your success in this field, whether it’s at review time, when making a lateral move, or when strategically planning for the future.

Find Your Value. Define It for Those Who Matter.

We hear the term “adding value” thrown around a lot in the legal world. Are our attorneys adding value for the client that doesn’t show up on the bill? Are our internal marketing and business development departments adding value for our attorneys beyond the work prescribed for them? Are we truly making a difference?

When attempting to frame the value you add within your firm, try segmenting it into the following types of value:

  • Tangible Value – Run a quick profitability model for your own role. Figure out how much you cost the firm (including salary, bonuses, benefits, travel expenses, miscellaneous overhead, etc.). Then, determine the amount of revenue you can safely say you influenced (including but not limited to involvement in important pitches, RFPs, prep work for meetings, making introductions that result in new matters, ROI on events, content marketing, etc.). Once you have the two totals, see which number is higher. Ideally, you will want Figure 2 to be higher than Figure 1. Easy math. This is the most often utilized definition of value.
  • Intangible Value – How has your involvement in the team (regardless of your place in the org chart) made things run more smoothly and efficiently? Did you find a process that was broken and fix it? Or design a way to accomplish something in less time, with less monetary investment, or less human capital? How have you created efficiencies within the business side of the firm that have benefited everyone, from your team members to the attorneys, and eventually to the firm’s clients? These examples add value beyond revenue generated. This definition of value will resonate with legal operations professionals, in particular.
  • Cultural Value – How does your leadership, up or down the chain of command, add to the overall function of the team? Are you skilled in mediating tough personalities? Do you have a kind way of relaying bad news to others? Do you understand the players and politics within your team or practice group, and use your emotional intelligence to mitigate otherwise difficult circumstances with grace? Your integration with your team or firm’s culture and understanding of how to interact with your coworkers in an effective and efficient manner is a value-add to the overall health of the team. This definition of value is the most often overlooked, but can make or break your story with the right finesse.

Your External Clients Pay the Firm’s Bills. Your Internal Clients Pay Your Bills.

There is little to no debate that the clients of the firm are the most important people in the business life cycle. Their happiness, ease of interaction and satisfaction are paramount. However, it’s important to remember: for those of us in non-billable roles who are not always market-facing, our internal clients are the ones who determine our fates. Our firm management and the attorneys we interface with are those with whom we need to remember to communicate our value, and to take into consideration how they view us and our role in the bigger machine that runs the firm.

Here are a few questions and considerations to keep in mind:

  • Emotional Intelligence/Communication Styles – Remember that everyone is human. They have bad days, personal lives that may be unpredictable, and their own agendas for job satisfaction. Take the time to pause if a professional relationship is disjointed or adversarial; can you change the way you are framing your points to better communicate with the other person? Is it simply a matter of mode of communication (email vs. phone call vs. in-person interaction) that is creating a barrier? Not everyone communicates in the same fashion, nor does everyone see things in the same light; are you taking into consideration the other viewpoint and adjusting your delivery accordingly?
  • Look Beyond Your Routine Duties – Beyond your direct job responsibilities, who are the key players who influence your advancement within the firm? What do they value? How do you add value for them? Give some thought to the way the firm runs; if you don’t know how it runs, ask someone who does. Find out the chain of command, how the firm makes money, which groups and attorneys are most valuable, and how you can best support the efforts of the business as a whole. Try not to focus only on your direct supervisors, but think holistically about how you can effect change and add value for those outside of your immediate scope.
  • Think Like the Client – Remember, whether you are dealing with internal or external clients, to think like your audience.

While it may be true that a project took an inordinate amount of time to accomplish, or that there are far more steps to a process than are easily seen from the outside, only shine light on those facts if they truly will resonate with the audience you are hoping to showcase value. Appearing to be the busiest, or most underwater, person on the team is often not what the client is looking to see; what they value is that the job is done, with the most value added in their definition, and can often be dismayed by minutia. Ask the client to define value in each endeavor, and you can clearly deliver it back to them.

Go Above the Call of Duty. Tell Your Story to Those Who Need to Hear It.

No one owes you praise for simply doing what is expected of you. That is the harsh reality of a fast-paced work environment. If you want to make an impact, you will have to figure out a way to exceed expectations, and then communicate that added value to those who have an influence over your advancement or compensation.

There are a few things to keep in mind when approaching this delicate balance:

  • Time Is of the Essence – Don’t wait for value to be defined for you. If you are twiddling your thumbs, waiting for your manager to tell you how you help them, you are wasting your time. Ask the right questions, and then listen more than you respond. Take the initiative to create a roadmap for your own career, instead of expecting marching orders. It is an added efficiency for your supervisor or attorneys when you begin the process of defining your value, and turn to them for insights and reflection, rather than expecting them to have the time to proactively reach out to you.
  • Do First, Apologize Later – It is no surprise that our industry tends to be slow to accept change and innovation; the most inventive ideas have been strangled by red tape in law firms. Invest your time, even if it’s your free time, to do the legwork required to present a compelling argument, even if that means doing some beta testing yourself without permission. It is much easier to sell a new idea to your team or your attorneys if you already have some data to prove that it is worthwhile, so be brave and forge forward before you have explicit permission to give it a try. After all, you have been hired for your expertise in this field, just as they have in theirs. Trust in that, and in yourself, and take some calculated risks.
  • Mentors vs. Sponsors – Remember that there is often a distinct difference between a mentor (who provides guidance, sound advice and perspective) and a champion (who is willing and capable of going to bat for you when it counts in terms of career advancement or credit due). There are times when both roles can exist in the same person, but be wary of confusing one for the other in hopes that they will serve the other purpose. Make sure both parties know and understand your value, and that your story is clear in either viewpoint.

By Jenna Schiappacasse, Director of Client Development, Rosenberg Martin Greenberg, LLP, for the Third Quarter 2018 LMA Mid-Atlantic Region Newsletter

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