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8 Strategies for Climbing the Law Firm Leadership Ladder

Last night, I plumb ran out of sleep. Here I was, snoozing away, not particularly dreaming about anything, when I woke right up. I found myself worrying about a legal professional who had come to me to find ways to get promoted in her firm. 

I went over our conversation. She was at her firm 14 years and hadn’t had a raise in several years. Other professionals were being brought in at a higher salary than she was getting. To compound the problem, she wanted to move into a higher position but nothing seemed to be happening. A key part of her story was that she believed she was doing all the right things: working hard, being a great team player, offering up quality work but was unable to get the attention of her supervisors. What was wrong?

I mapped out a plan for her when I realized she was making the biggest, most common mistake you can make when seeking a raise or promotion: Sitting and waiting for the firm to notice that you are doing a good job. Few promotions are given when the employee puts in long hours, is a good team player, is always on-hand for whoever needs them and turns in big billables. Why? Because putting in long hours, being a good team player, the always available person is exactly what is expected of you.

To succeed, you must take charge of your own development. Here are some strategies to get you where you want to go in your career.


The more knowledge you have; skills you develop; strategies, tactics and techniques you have up your sleeve; the faster you can drive bigger amounts of dollars into your bank account. Succeeding has a nonnegotiable rule: Take 100% control of your learning and you can take 100% control of how valuable you are. The more valuable you are, the more choices you have about where you want to work, how you want to work and how much you get paid. There’s almost no downside.


One way to make your goals come to fruition is to use the SMART strategy:

  • Specific: Make your goal as precise as possible. If you aspire to be in the C-suite, look at CLE courses and webinars that might apply. Or look into getting certified with the Certified Legal Manager (CLM)®.
  • Measurable: Quantify your progress. Set benchmarks such as applying to 10 jobs that meet your requirements.
  • Attainable: Set goals that you can achieve. To confirm that your goal is attainable, think about the individual steps and consider how realistic they are.
  • Relevant: Any goals you set should genuinely matter. How important is this goal? Will you reach where you want to go?
  • Time-based: Give your goals deadlines. That way, you will have an easier time reaching the end result and motivating yourself.


Set career goals, as they give you a framework to achieve milestones and provide a path for you to actually do them. Lay out a step-by-step strategy with long and short-term goals. Short-term goals are stepping-stones to reach your long-term goal. For example: Your long-term goals may mean becoming a legal operations manager. Your short-term goal could be to take courses in accounting and technology.

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Cultivate a strong professional and personal network that can give you guidance and advice. Your network might include colleagues, supervisors, former classmates, members of ALA and social network friends. Think in terms of creating a board of directors. These people can be a key element in promoting your skills and abilities to the right people.


If they don’t know you, how will you ever move up? Be aware of who is making the promotion decisions: Is it a partnership committee? Managing partner? A vote of equity partners? Find out if they are likely to support and promote your candidacy. 

“Cultivate a strong professional and personal network that can give you guidance and advice.”

Decision-makers will be less inclined to back you if they are not familiar with you or your work. Become better acquainted with these individuals. Work on a matter supervised by a decision maker. Use the opportunity to show them your best work.


Do not be overzealous in efforts to move up. Employees are not well received if they’re being disingenuous and self-promoting — colleagues and managers can tell.

On the other hand, when someone takes action for the betterment of the firm, the community or the overall practice — that’s when an individual is noticed in a positive light. Your boss may not pat you on the back to say you’re doing a good job, but understand that your efforts are being recognized, and your actions are reflecting positively — always a good thing. 


Strategize to learn a new assignment. Send an email to the appropriate party, noting why you can get it done. Have you just taken a course to learn budgeting strategies? Now is the time to advertise that. For example, say something like “I noticed the creation of the new budget for the HR Department coming up. I would like to be included in this process, as I’ve just taken a course that I think can help us make the process more efficient. Can we Zoom on Tuesday or would Wednesday be better to chat?”


Negotiators too often start focused on the opportunity in front of them rather than on ultimate work and life aspirations. Think strategically about not just what you might negotiate but how.

The best negotiators generate mutually beneficial solutions through joint problem-solving and creative trade-offs, along with compromise. Negotiating the direction of your career typically involves multiple stakeholders — including those in your personal life as well as those at work. Making compensation the deciding factor can be a mistake. It may be more important to get the role, learn more and leverage that knowledge in another bump up.

Getting noticed in order to get promoted is not easy. It takes hard work and perseverance. You may even be trying to create a brand new position within the firm or simply get higher-level assignments. Bottom line? You can get what you want. It just depends on how you do it.