Believe it or not, not everyone in Biglaw hates their job. I remember meeting with my partner mentor—let’s call him David—many years ago. Now I had met many partners at the firm and found that most were actually glorified associates who were also responsible for shitwork.
Not David though.
Not only was he on the management committee, David was responsible for doing the highest level litigation work at the firm.
He had a Unicorn Job. He was paid well for doing meaningful work.
And most importantly, he really, genuinely seemed like he was having a lot of fun at work. Meeting David showed me that it was possible to win the corporate game. To the Davids of the world, work is fun and engaging. It’s not “a grind” and it definitely doesn’t seem miserable.
Other examples of people with Unicorn Jobs:
An investor who’s known to produce strong returns year after year;
A turnaround CEO who gets brought in to fix companies;
A movie producer known for making big box office hits
Today I’m going to share three characteristics I’ve learned that are core to these Unicorn Jobs. The concept itself isn’t new—in fact, the whole idea was introduced to me over a decade ago when I first read “So Good They Can’t Ignore You.” The book doesn’t call them Unicorn Jobs—that was just a phrase I came up with as I started to come across these rare individuals who were paid well for doing meaningful work.
1. Insanely Valuable Skills
Everyone who has a unicorn job has some underlying skill that’s insanely valuable. I use the word “insanely” kind of as hyperbole, but I’m trying to distinguish it from one of the more ordinary “valuable skills.” Take David for example. He was expert as lead counsel for these massive, bet-the-company litigation cases. Now lots of lawyers know how handle “ordinary” litigation cases. It’s a legitimately valuable skill.
But I wouldn’t call it *insanely* valuable.
David, on the other hand, knew how to handle billion dollar cases. Which involves a bunch of different activities, like knowing how to rely on large teams of lawyers below him, how to process huge amounts of information, and selectively focus on some data points and ignore others. David’s ability to apply judgment to a large scale case involving huge complexity, involving huge amounts of money, made his skills *insanely* valuable.
There are parallels in non-law contexts, too. In enterprise software, senior sales reps who know how to sell six-figure software licensing deals to giant companies have an insanely valuable skill. Bringing $300k of high margin annual recurring revenue to an enterprise software startup in a single deal can increase the company’s valuation by millions of dollars.No wonder these software reps get paid so much more than say, a furniture salesman who sells low margin products. The impact of the sales skills involved in the latter is simply much smaller than in the former.
Back when I was still in sales, I quickly realized why successful sales reps all tried to become managers. They wanted to jump on the executive track, where compensation was much higher. A single sales rep may close $1M of deals per year, but a VP Sales might be responsible for leading a team of reps to close $30M of deals per year. That outsized impact is why VP Sales get paid so well. And if you’re a big company exec leading a billion-dollar product line—well those skills are even more valuable.
2. Limited Supply
It’s not enough to *just* have an insanely valuable skill though. The skill also needs to be relatively rare. If it’s not, then your employer will just go out and find someone who’s willing to do your job for cheaper.
Think about your own job. If you threatened to quit, how would your boss respond?Would they not care, since they could replace you within weeks? Or would they be crushed, since it might not be possible to ever find someone else like you again?
When I was an entry level sales rep, I could feel that I was easily replaceable.When I started to develop more advanced selling skills, I could feel myself becoming less replaceable. And when I became an expert on selling software into this specific market, and had customer connections and relationships, and understood the nuances of corporate legal departments--I became incredibly difficult to replace.
For some skills, especially in law, there’s going to automatically be a limited supply of people with the skill. Let’s go back to David as an example. There are only a limited number of billion dollar litigation cases and most are handled by a select group of large law firms. So the supply of experts who know how to lead those types of massive cases is always going to be limited, because they all have to come from this small group of large firms.
Other “insanely valuable skills” don’t always have such strong protection against copycats. A telltale sign that the skill isn’t that rare, is if the job has low compensation relative to the impact the employee’s actions have on the business. Some examples:
An account rep at a large manufacturer who expertly manages million-dollar contract renewals;
An IT manager at a law firm with millions in revenue who ensures that the lawyers have zero problems accessing confidential client files when they need to;or
A graphic designer at a billion dollar tech company who creates aesthetically pleasing designs for software that’s used by millions.
In all of these cases, the employee’s work is unquestionably valuable. Their impact is huge. But the employee captures very little of that value because it’s easy for the employer to find and hire a replacement. Put another way, the employee’s insanely valuable skills aren’t scarce, so they have very little economic value.
Replaceability is at the heart of why Unicorn Jobs exist. If you have a valuable skill that can’t be replaced, PLUS the exercise of that skill has a huge impact on the business—you’ve got a lot of leverage against your employer. They’re not going to be just OK with you just leaving. Which means they’ll likely give you what you want—whether it’s money, autonomy, or influence.
And if you’re well known for your expertise to the outside world—that increases the risk to your employer that you can leave at any moment.
3. Personal Brand
The third piece of the puzzle is personal brand. Because having that brand enables other employers to find you, and potentially recruit you. The brand gives you a competitive market for your services. So your employer will have to give you great working conditions to keep you from being poached.
Let me be clear. Personal brand isn’t just about being well known for its own sake. You can be famous, and get attention on Twitter and/or LinkedIn, and still not have a strong professional personal brand.You need to back it up with something real (see the previous two sections) and then be known for *that.*
In fact, you don’t even have to be well known to most of the world at all. Some of the most valuable personal brands are unknown to the general public.As long as there are a few different potential employers who know about you, that’s enough.
Having a strong “internal” brand is incomplete. To be sure, having a good reputation within your company or firm is helpful. But it doesn’t create the competitive conditions that lead to Unicorn Jobs. There’s no fear that you’ll take your valuable skills and bring them elsewhere.
Some jobs lend itself to having a strong personal brand. Like being a trial lawyer. Litigation is public, and it’s often clear how well lead counsel is doing at trial. The same is true for lots of different customer-facing roles. Rainmakers are always out there generating business for the company, but they’re also being seen by competitor employers who can potentially recruit the rainmaker away.
If you have a strong external personal brand, then you’ll likely have a strong internal one too. David The Partner was always referred to as just “David” within my old Biglaw firm. People didn’t even feel the need to reference his last name. Everyone knew who you were talking about. He was The Guy.
So to recap, to acquire a Unicorn Job, you need to
have an insanely valuable skill that’s
rare in the labor market, and that’s
tied to your personal brand.
Before I discuss how to maneuver yourself into a situation where you can get all three, let me explain why it won’t happen in Biglaw, or in any established company.
Remember that whole discussion on shitwork? How there’s an organizational incentive to force junior employees to do useless things? That’s not an accident, that’s by design. A well run company is never going to encourage its employees to develop rare and valuable skills. I mean, it can happen. But (1) it’s super unusual and (2) if it does happen, it likely happened by accident.
The whole concept of an employee with such valuable skills that’s impossible to replace creates huge operational risks for a company. If David decided to leave the firm, how would he be replaced? Or more specifically—how would the company replicate his impact to the business? Who would handle the existing billion-dollar cases? Firms don’t want unicorn employees. They want replaceable cogs to minimize the possibility that a single person can have such a negative impact on the business when they leave.
If you have insanely valuable skills, the company wants to operationalize what you do.
And if they can’t, bingo! You’ve got a Unicorn Job. (Or maybe you’re on the unicorn track.) When that happens, the employer has a strong incentive to steer more of that high value work to you. That’s the feedback loop that keeps you on the unicorn track. For example, if David knows how to litigate billion dollar cases, it makes little sense to give that work to another lawyer without that skill—just to protect against the risk of the firm losing him. It’s much easier to just give David what he wants.
So what ends up happening is, a feedback loop develops where you get even better at that rare and insanely valuable skill. You start to develop mastery, which makes you even more valuable. The rich get richer, while everyone else is grinding away, doing shitwork.
How Do You Find A Unicorn Job?
These jobs aren’t posted online. Employers know it’s hard to find these types of employees, so they know they’ve got to go out and find them. Very often they either approach the potential employee directly, or rely on specialized recruiters or other intermediaries to begin talks. So if you’re browsing LinkedIn or job boards looking for a unicorn job, you probably won’t find it there.
Instead you need to develop an insanely valuable skill. This is the hardest part to the whole thing. Because the more people know that a skill is valuable (e.g. litigating billion dollar cases) the more competitive it will be. Look at how hard it is to make partner at a Biglaw firm. The vast majority of the people who go there trying to develop valuable skills, will just do shitwork the whole time. They’ll be paid well, but they won’t have autonomy and the chance to do meaningful work.
Instead you’ll have to leave the firm. And your comfort zone. Like I said earlier, all the work that lets you develop this insanely valuable skill is going to be taken by existing experts. So you need to go off the beaten path. Maybe you’ll have to develop the skill in a different work environment, like a Biglaw litigator learning how to try cases by going to the public defender’s office. Or you’ll have to learn a niche skill before demand explodes, like Joe Flom did with hostile takeovers in the 1950s before the M&A boom.
Either way, you’ll have to go off the beaten path and stay focused on your craft for years before collecting the rewards.
But if you ask me—it’s totally worth it.
If you want to me to send you my next essay about how to build insanely valuable skills:
To me you can have a “Unicorn Job” even if you’re an entrepreneur. And you can also be “on the grind” and miserable as a small business owner.
Simple math explains why a small difference in expert judgment can make a huge difference. Naval Ravikant talks a bit more about that here: “If you’re steering a big ship, if you’re steering Google or Apple, and your judgment is 10 or 20 percent better than the next person’s, society will literally pay you hundreds of millions of dollars more, because you’re steering a $100 billion ship.” Source.
Although multiples have fallen since the tech correction, imagine a startup’s valuation is a reasonable 20x its annual recurring revenue. Closing a $300k ARR deal increases the startup’s valuation by $6M.
“Valuable work” doesn’t always have to be complex. It’s all related to how much business impact your actions have. That’s not to say complexity of the work isn’t important for Unicorn Jobs—it is—but that’s more related to the scarcity of the skill rather than the impact it has. Which I discuss in the next section.
This is why senior associates are far more valuable than first years. It’s not hard to find someone with a decent resume who would like to be paid a big salary. But it’s incredibly hard to find someone who’s spent years reliably working in a Biglaw environment and has developed a specific set of skills. That doesn’t make that senior associate job a Unicorn Job, but it does make it pay a lot of money.
I was easily hireable too. The market for SDRs was incredibly hot, especially if you were good at making cold calls and had domain experience. That’s why I didn’t worry about being fired from a sales team with >100% turnover rate—but that’s a story for another day.
Even though working in Biglaw means you’re likely going to do only shitwork, there is a small group of people who are privileged enough to get the chance to do meaningful work. Usually these folks fit into the firm socially, and are well-liked by powerful sponsors and mentors. This favoritism is why when you look at all of the expert trial lawyers out there, they’re all white men. They got a chance to handle that big case early on, and from there, built legitimate expertise that’s hard to replicate if you’ve never handled a big case.
There are countless comments on the Sales Reddit sub from account reps at large mature companies who have 8 figure quotas, marveling at software startup sales reps with 7 figure quotas who get paid 2x to 3x more. Mature companies have smaller margins and have operationalized their sales to the point where they can just hire anyone to do the work, and train the new employees up. Startups are high margin, and have not yet operationalized the work.
This is not the same as a CIO who runs IT for a Biglaw firm—that type of employee is not as easily replaceable. I’m talking more about like a system admin.
I recognize the irony that I, a social media guy with lots of followers, am the person delivering this message. But it doesn’t make it any less true. Talking about being a great lawyer on LinkedIn, or talking about being a great VC on Twitter doesn’t actually make it so.
For example, there’s a small group of sales leaders who are known to startup investors and CEOs to be great at what they do for early stage companies. Most people have never heard of them. Each of these sales leaders have an unquestionably strong personal brand.
In case I wasn’t clear, the work that helps newbies potentially develop this valuable skill gets funneled to the person holding the Unicorn Job, further solidifying their lead in this expertise.
I don’t exactly have a Unicorn Job yet although I’m headed in that direction. I made it to the unicorn track because I went off the beaten path twice, pivoting out of law and sales, respectively, to focus on posting cringey content and weird Tik Toks. I’m doing it all in the hopes that I’ll get a big time Unicorn Job in the distant future.
Great overview of something I've seen illustrated time and time again in the job market, especially with respect to personal branding and expertise. One of the most powerful insights you offer is personal branding externally and internally. There's a difference between the two and the power of your personal brand comes from having both types of brands.