Good read in this morning’s New York Times by Alex Williams explaining that a law degree from a top law school is no longer a ticket to riches in large law.

Jacqueline Muna Musiitwa, an associate in 2006 at Pillsbury in San Francisco was willing to work mammoth hours “for the prospect of Caribbean vacations, a convertible and a big loft apartment.”

Those days are over. As the profession lurches through its worst slump in decades, with jobs and bonuses cut and internal pressures to perform rising, associates do not just feel as if they are diving into the deep end, but rather, drowning.

Lawyers who entered the field as recently as a few years ago could reasonably expect a life of comfort, security and social esteem. Many are now faced with a different landscape. Firms shed more than 4,600 lawyers last year…, and an increasing number of firms now compensate associates based on grades for performance — shades of law school — rather than automatically advancing them on the salary scale.

Knowing she’d have to work a million times harder just not to be laid off, Musiitwa left Pillsbury after a year to start her own firm.

It gets wilder.

One 2008 graduate of a top-10 law school, who worked at a large Chicago firm for a year, said she spent days trying to look busy as business dried up while not billing a single hour, before being laid off last fall along with a quarter of the other first-year hires.

“We used to gather in someone’s office, close the door, and say, ‘I hate my life, why are we doing this?’ ” she said.

Williams says the main reason for the associate ‘squeeze out’ is the recession with fewer deals in financial services, real estate, and high tech. In reality it’s highly unlikely that law grads and associates are headed backs to the days of Camelot, even with an economic recovery.

Corporations are learning to operate with less. They’re demanding reduced and flat fee billing. And with lawyers leaving large law and opening shops with far fewer trappings than at large law firms, those corporations are going to find lawyers ready and willing.

Rather than fine tuning your resume and knocking on doors, only to be rejected, it’s time for graduating lawyers and young associates to develop their own brand. Developing a brand that makes you more valuable to a law firm than other associates or developing a brand that allows you to be successful outside large law.

Law firm marketing and business development people in law firms, as good as they may be, are not thinking about developing your career as a young lawyer and making you more valuable to the firm. They are thinking about developing the firm’s brand and expertise – and maybe promoting the skill and expertise of one of the firm’s heavy rainmakers.

Many placement people in law schools have never had to get out and get a law job like you. They’ve certainly never faced an economic decline and law firm re-structuring like we have today. I wouldn’t be placing my future in their hands.

It’s up to you to develop your brand. A brand in the professional service business is not a logo, a font on letterhead, a fancy website, or a tag line. A lawyer’s brand is their expertise, usually in a niche area of the law.

Fortunately, there’s never been a better time to develop your brand. One, Social media, including blogging, has been the great equalizer for lawyers. You don’t need the budget of large law firm PR and marketing to develop a brand. Two, your competition is lazy and a child of the ‘expecting generation.’

Sound and strategic blogging allows you to develop a name and network with leading authorities in a niche. A focused and professional use of Twitter allows you to become an intelligence agent in an area of the law or for a particular industry. Your tweets culled from highlights in your newsreader will get you followers from your target audience and be re-tweeted to even more. LinkedIn allows you to connect with the people you meet, that you’d like to meet, and network among groups of companies and professionals you would like to be hired by.

Second, and more importantly, your competition sucks. Sure they graduated from top law schools and had high LSAT’s. But they are not Phd’s – poor, hungry, and driven.

The vast majority of your competition has come to expect things to be handed to them. They are not used to hustling. They are not used to doing what they need to do to build a personal barnd. In my mind they are lazy.

I got my first full time job out of law school by cold calling on law firms. I knocked on the door and asked to see the top partner in the firm, whose name I looked up in Martindale-Hubbell. I did not have an appointment. The receptionist told me the firm was not hiring and that the lawyer was not available. I told them I’d wait. Heck, I didn’t have a job, what else could I do that would be a better use of my time.

Maybe, you’re too scared to knock on doors. But that doesn’t prevent you from networking with the leaders in the area of law you want to get into. Getting to know them through blogging, Twitter, and LinkedIn would circumvent the ‘cold knocking.’ You could ask them to get to together for a cup of coffee. And they’d gladly accept an invite from a go getter like you who’s developing niche expertise.

You’re scared because you’ve got large student loans, you need to get that large law job for the big bucks. You’re afraid to use social media because your large law firm or your placement director frowns on it.

Get over it. Don’t let that fear paralyze you. The future is always going to belong to those who think differently and hustle more than the next guy.

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