Editor's note: This is the fourth article in a new series about job transitions for older attorneys. Look for a new article in the series each Monday over the next several weeks. Links to previous articles in the series are listed following this article.
It should come as no surprise, especially in this economy, that law firms increasingly are run like businesses, with emphasis on the bottom line. Therefore, when experienced attorneys wish to change firms, one of the first things a prospective employer asks about is the candidate's portable client base.
If you have 10 or more years of experience, you must be prepared to answer questions regarding how much business will move with you. You must be able to convince a prospective employer that hiring you will improve their market position.
Even junior attorneys should give serious thought to business development in order to better position themselves for the future. Having your own client base is an essential element to taking control of your destiny, which can mean having the widest possible selection of job offers, starting your own firm or negotiating a better position within your current firm.
WHAT IS A BUSINESS PLAN?
A business plan is a document that shows your value proposition: what you have to offer (special strengths, skills, connections, etc.) and how your expertise and clients will contribute to your new firm. Take stock of what you are doing now or did in the recent past, and clarify steps to maximize your business development potential. When making a move to a new firm, the business plan should show how your expertise and connections, plus the new firm's expertise and connections, create new business opportunities that will increase the bottom line.
WHERE TO START
• Current or recent clients
If you are employed, begin with your current clients. If not presently employed, think about the clients you worked for in the recent past. For each client you either originated or serviced, look at the type of business they are in, who your contact is there, and his or her position. Consider the kinds of matters you handled for that client recently, in the past, and may handle in the foreseeable future. Try to determine what other kinds of legal matters could possibly arise for that client. Look at your past, current or recent, and estimated future billings for that client.
Note whether you were the main contact for that client at your firm and who else has contacts with that client. Research which other law firms handle the client's work, and whether you or attorneys at your firm can handle that work. Then, determine the probability that the client would follow you to a new firm.
(IMPORTANT NOTE: It is unethical for you to solicit clients, either directly or indirectly, before notifying your current firm of your intention to leave. If you have already left the firm, there is no issue.)
• Past clients
The next step is to look at your past clients who can be an excellent source of future business. Ask yourself the above questions regarding each. If you determine that any of your past clients are, or could refer, potential future clients, decide what steps you need to take to reconnect with them and position yourself to receive additional legal work.
• In-house attorneys
Even if you are currently in-house and have no existing business to bring to a new law firm at the outset, you can write a business development plan. Do you have contacts at your current or most recent company who may send you work? In many cases, even lawyers who were laid off find that they can do much or some of the same work for their previous employer as outside counsel. If your company has gone out of business or been acquired, where are people landing? They may be in a position to send you work; if so, you now know people in a variety of companies who can become clients.
Once you have examined all prospects for business development from current and past clients that you and others in your firm service, it is time to explore new prospects. Start with the strategies that have been successful for you in the past.
Your business plan should include any professional, service and civic organizations to which you belong, past and present involvement, and activities you plan to undertake in order to increase your visibility. Also, list any published articles and presentations you have given, plus ideas for future articles and speeches, including the publications and organizations to which you hope to present them.
People you know at out-of-town firms that don't have local offices might be business sources. Your undergraduate and law school alumni network -- especially if you went to school out of state -- can be excellent business development prospects. Networking with professionals in allied fields (such as bankers, accountants, brokers, etc.) could also yield client referrals, so your business plan should include a list of those contacts, along with a plan for cultivating business from them.
Warning: Your contacts grow up as you do. If your contacts are approaching retirement, make sure you get to know the next generation of people who will be in a position to hand out work.
If your business plan is being written for the benefit of a potential new employer, take into consideration how this new combination could create "synergy." Research your prospective employer on the Internet, and include in your plan additional areas of expertise offered by the potential employer firm for cross-selling with your clients. Include, if possible, the memberships and activities of your potential new colleagues as additional avenues for your new business development. Give specific examples of how your joining the firm would increase their ability to service their existing clients through cross-selling your services, as well. Show how your combined efforts could generate more business than you or the firm could have done separately.
For each of the activities outlined in your plan, estimate the costs involved in terms of lost billing time, travel, dues, fees, meals, entertainment, etc. Note especially if there are extraordinary expenses such as long-distance or international travel to attend conferences or visit current or potential clients. If similar expenditures have reaped results in the past, those results should be quantified in your plan. When presenting your business plan to your current or prospective employer, it is important to get approval not only for the activities you have proposed, but also for the budget they require.
Valerie Fontaine and Roberta Kass are senior legal search consultants with Seltzer Fontaine Beckwith, based in Los Angeles. Valerie Fontaine is the author of "The Right Moves: Job Search and Career Development Strategies for Lawyers" (January 2006, NALP). They can be reached at (310) 839-6000, or visit www.sfbsearch.com.
Read previous articles in the "Older but Wiser" series: