The Legal Intelligencer's recent "New Firm Order" series has examined how the legal landscape has changed in the wake of the current economic downturn, highlighting, in particular, an increased emphasis on business development and sales skills for attorneys. Even if you have not been paying attention to the press, you have likely seen the impact of this renewed focus on "rainmaking" in your practice -- while the "finders" remain well-compensated and secure, the "minders" and the "grinders" are, increasingly, feeling the ill effects of this "New Firm Order."
As young lawyers cutting our teeth in these tumultuous times, we need to face the reality of the competitive marketplace in which we operate and position ourselves for success by embracing, not ignoring, the tools necessary for developing our own books of business. Of course, a little help from our firms would not hurt either. Recognizing the importance of client development for our continued professional success, we offer a few suggestions for young lawyers on where to start and a few comments for firms on how to help.
SUGGESTIONS FOR YOUNG LAWYERS
• Identify your target audience.
Everyone tells you to "get out there," join organizations and get to know more people than you know now -- after all, you will not find a new client by sitting at your desk. There is definitely truth to these oft-spoken words of advice; however, "getting out there" without a plan is just a waste of your time.
Identify the types of people who will bring you work and target your efforts to them. If you are a business lawyer, networking with other business lawyers will only take you so far; you need to meet businesspeople -- the consumers of your legal services. On the other hand, if you are a personal injury attorney, networking with attorneys is a wise choice (especially those with a different specialty) because, when people get hurt, they often call the only attorney that they know, regardless of his or her practice area. Target those individuals and organizations that are more likely to bring you success. You are not going to generate work from every person you talk to, but you can improve your "batting average" if you select wisely.
• Maximize your exposure.
You only have a limited amount of time for business development. There are hours to bill, case work to complete and existing clients to satisfy. For this reason, you owe it to yourself and to your family and friends to maximize the benefit of your business development efforts. If you are going to join an organization, seek a leadership role. Greater visibility yields improved results. If you are going to an event, do not spend the whole time talking to people that you already know or against a wall waiting for someone to approach you. Put on your personality hat and start a conversation with someone new. If you have trouble finding conversation topics, read the newspaper or brainstorm beforehand so you have some go to topics available if the conversation gets stale. Remember, if you only give 50 percent effort, you cannot expect 100 percent results.
Clients' legal needs are rarely one-sided. If you are a litigator, align yourself with a transactional attorney and develop a general understanding of the transactional practice. If you are a transactional attorney, get to know the general process of litigation. Market yourself to common industry segments as a full-service team. Working together will help you learn to "talk the talk" with prospects on issues outside your bailiwick, and demonstrate your comfort with the "team approach" -- a skill often coveted by businesspeople.
• Sell your firm.
Many young lawyers think that they do not have the experience or expertise to generate new business because they themselves do not know how to solve most issues on their own. When you find yourself discussing a topic beyond your expertise, sell your firm. Get to know the subject matter experts in your office and their capabilities. When someone has a question, demonstrate your problem solving skills and direct them to the appropriate specialist. Stay involved with the issue and help manage the client relationship. Along the way, you will pick up knowledge about something new, and demonstrate to your client that you can help them get answers even if you do not know the answer yourself.
• Get "local."
Acting as local counsel is an excellent way to develop relationships with attorneys and clients in other areas of the country. Keep in touch with attorneys in other jurisdictions, even if its just on Facebook or LinkedIn. Chances are, if they have an issue in this area, you will be one of the only attorneys that they know to call on. Show them that you are serious about sharing business by steering work their way -- even if you are not successful, they will think of you when the roles are reversed.
• Give it away.
If you are looking to expand your network, allow others access to it. By sharing your contacts to help others solve their needs, you will strengthen your bond and demonstrate to everyone involved that you are not afraid to bridge connections even if there is nothing in it for you. If you are looking to get your foot in the door with a new client, give them something for free. Share an article you have written, provide a quick answer free of charge, or invite them to join you for a game.
• Get to know the business.
You may know the law as well or better than your clients and prospects, but they know their business much better than you do. Learn. Listen. Get to know their business and how it works, not as a lawyer, but as a businessperson. The more you understand about how their business works, the better you will be at solving its legal needs.
• Ask questions, and take it slow.
Too often, young lawyers who are new to business development go right for the kill, failing to allow relationships time to develop before seeking work. The attorney-client relationship is often a very personal one, and clients want to be comfortable with you on many different levels before they call you "my attorney." Ask questions and get to know your potential clients' legal needs. Let them talk, but show them with your questions that you understand the issues they are facing. When you take your time, you are more likely to develop the type of bond and understanding of one another that leads to long-term success.
• When the time is right, ask.
Notwithstanding our advice in the previous paragraph, do not be afraid to ask for work when the time is right.
SUGGESTIONS FOR FIRMS
• Review your compensation structure.
What behaviors are you incentivizing in your young lawyers? If you compensate billable hours, but neglect to incent client origination, then your young lawyers will be billing machines, but likely amateurs when it comes to business development. Evaluate your compensation structure and ask whether it promotes the behaviors that your firm needs from its future leaders.
• Provide business development training.
As many firms have recently recognized, business development is a skill that can be taught and learned. Demonstrate your support for your young lawyers by providing them with training and access to coaching to allow them to learn and then hone their "rainmaking" skills. Your support will not only demonstrate your firm's commitment to their development, but also show them what is necessary for prolonged success in your organization.
• Provide financial support.
Business development can be expensive. Dinners here, lunches there, tickets to this, donations to that. The cost of developing client relationships can be significant, especially for young lawyers. Does your firm provide your associates with a marketing budget? When was the last time you increased it? Are there ways to allow your employees to pay for business development with pre-tax, not post-tax dollars? Look for ways to lessen the financial burden of business development, and you will find your young lawyers increasing their efforts.
• Encourage business development.
Ask your young lawyers what they are doing to market themselves and sell the firm. Provide positive feedback and encouragement to support their efforts. Share your own client development success stories. Bring a young lawyer with you to events, and involve young lawyers in pitching for new business. Develop a culture of business development from top to bottom.
• Start early.
Business development takes time. It does not happen overnight. If you expect that your partners will generate work for themselves and others, you need to get them started early. There is no magic switch that can be flipped once your young lawyers are up for partnership.
• Show them it matters.
Recently, we provided some suggestions on improving your evaluation process. If you really want your young lawyers to focus on developing a client base, put client development on your evaluation forms and track the progress of your attorneys year to year. If it is on the evaluation, they will know that you care.
The Editorial Board of Young Lawyer is composed of members of the legal profession. They serve voluntarily and are independent of Young Lawyer. Through their ongoing exchange of views, members of the board attempt to develop consensus on issues of importance to the bench, bar and public.
This article first appeared in Young Lawyer.