Interview with Jay Harrington, Author of "The Essential Associate" Part Deux


This is Part Two of our Interview with Jay Harrington, the author of "The Essential Associate".  The Essential Associate, helps young lawyers not just survive, but thrive in today’s competitive law firm environment. It is a step-by-step guide for mastering both the practice and business of law, and includes the insights of dozens of successful lawyer, general counsel at Fortune 500 companies, and leading consultants to the legal industry.  

In Part One of our interview with Jay, we covered legal career, career arc, writing, and marketing.  

Jay Harrington is an attorney, author, public speaker, executive coach, and marketing consultant.  The Essential Associate is his third book.  Previously, he was a commercial litigator and corporate bankruptcy attorney at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom  and Foley & Lardner.  Jay also co-founded a boutique corporate bankruptcy firm in 2009.  He earned his law degree from the University of Michigan in 2001 and his undergraduate degree from Bowling Green State University, where he played baseball.

You can read more of his writing at

Jay Harrington was interviewed by me, Jeff Barlow.  Jay and I have known each other for a long time and we touch on that in the interview.  To recap, Jay has written 3 books.  Jeff, on the other hand, has written 0 books.  Here's Part Two of the our interview with Jay:


JB:  Let’s dive into The Essential Associate - Step up, stand out, and rise to the top as a young lawyer.  I really love how you broke the book into 2 parts: (1) Step Up, which identifies and explains the 5 Characteristics of The Essential Associate, and (2) Stand Out, which explains ways for young lawyers to cultivate their business development skills.  How did you develop this approach for the book? 

JH: I started writing this book in 2016. I wrote about 30,000 words, stepped away from it for a bit, and when I came back to it I realized I was going in the wrong direction and trashed the entire thing. Then I dove into the process which I had short-circuited to some extent with my first pass—research and structure. I conducted in-depth interviews with dozens of lawyers, general counsel, and consultants to the legal industry. I dove into the academic and behavioral science research related to optimizing human performance. After synthesizing all of this research, the structure just sort of fell into place—people were telling me the same things, this data was buttressed by the social science, and it was consistent with my own experience. So, yes, the book is divided into two parts, one focused on the practice of law and the other the business of law. What’s important for young associates to remember is that, despite what anyone tells them, they can’t work on just one or the other and succeed – they must focus on both in unison.


JB:  I really love that you added Part Two, Stand Out.  In today’s law firm, you can be a great lawyer but you’re never going to be an equity partner or have essentially your freedom unless you’re able to develop your own clients.  What are some of the key takeaways on how to go about developing clients?

JH: First, begin with an understanding that as a first, second or even third year lawyer, you’re not going to be in a position to have clients of your own at most law firms. That being said, if you don’t start laying the foundation for business development from day one, you won’t be in a position to develop clients later. Focus on building your network and personal brand. Identify people in your network, and people outside your network that you want to form relationships with, and look for opportunities to help them and make them better for know you. Grow with and collaborate with your peers. You’ll be in a position to send each other work as you progress.

Pick a niche to focus on. I share the experience of Scott Becker, former chairman of the healthcare practice group at McGuire Woods, and how he started small as an associate by representing surgical centers in the greater Chicago area. This small niche grew into a very big one as he gained experience and expertise and branched out to represent much larger hospitals and health systems. He did this by burnishing his personal brand by writing and speaking about topics of interest to his target audience. He was doing this 25 to 30 years ago before the Internet and before anyone used the term “content marketing.” The same playbook can be used by young lawyers today. Understand your target market (the narrower the better). Build your personal brand by sharing your knowledge and expertise through writing, speaking, and other means of communication. This will position you as an expert in the minds of prospective clients and lead to new business opportunities.


JB:  You mention in Chapter 7 that lawyers have to master both the practice and business of law.  It’s the latter that I think is rarely stressed in the development of young lawyers.  I learned the business of law through how lawyers were evaluated and compensated at my first law firm, Roetzel.  The number that really mattered was “Receipts” - dollars in door from work did and got billed to the client.  You could “bill” 3000 hours but if you didn’t hit or exceed your “Receipts” number you were not viewed favorably.  It was a good education on learning value to the client and understanding your own profitability.  Am I wrong in thinking most firms don’t teach their young lawyers about the business of law?  What should firms be teaching their young lawyers about in this area?

JH: I agree wholeheartedly. Firms fall short in educating young lawyers on the economics of the practice (although it seems to me that young lawyers should take it upon themselves to learn these lessons, too). Young lawyers need to understand that their time is, literally, money—not only the firm’s in terms of collections, but the client’s too. This means that they must learn to learn to be productive and not just busy. They must also have perspective and judgment about when to invest more time on something and when to cut bait, when to ask questions and when not to, David Jaffe, former general counsel for Guardian Industries, shares in the book that it drove him crazy when he would go to his lawyers with a $20,000 problem and they would come back with a $25,000 solution. Young lawyers need to understand, more than anything, that what they do is not divorced from business and financial issues—it’s inextricably tied and almost exclusively motivated by business and financial issues. They need to make the firm money, and they need to save the client money whenever possible. There is inherent tension between these objectives, but it’s critical to learn that the latter will ultimately result in the former.


JB: When it comes to personal branding, I think that in-house lawyers believe they don’t need to do any of this and I think that’s naive.  You have many internal clients within the company and you need them to have high client satisfaction and be an advocate for you internally if you want to move up within the organization and if you want to keep your job.  I also think if you want to move to another in-house position at another company, particularly, if you want a General Counsel position, you have to have a personal brand OUTSIDE of the company.  What do you think about that, Jay?  I see The Essential Associate as a good guide for younger in-house lawyers, as well. 

JH: You hit the nail on the head—while in-house lawyers may not have external clients, they have lots of internal clients that they need to impress and rely on for advancement, compensation, and support. Jeff Bezos said that branding is: “What other people say about you when you’re not in the room.” So outside counsel, in-house counsel, everyone—you should always be thinking about your personal brand, which essentially is your reputation. I like to use the term “personal branding” rather than simply “reputation,” however, because I think it suggests a more purposeful, intentional approach to managing one’s reputation. If you wake up every day thinking about how you can make yourself better, and those around you better, then you can’t help but increase other people’s perceptions of you. This means freely sharing your knowledge, making and fulfilling commitments with a sense of urgency, and being a team player. All of these things help build your brand. You may be in-house, but the odds are that you’re looking to advance within your company, move to another company for a better position, or even transition to a law firm. By having a strong brand, by having a dynamic and thoughtful presence online, for example, you’ll be in a far better position to find opportunities—or better yet, have them find you.


The Essential Associate is available at and Amazon.

Jay's children's book is called The Magical Tale of the Fairy Trails. It’s available on Amazon and at Life and Whim.