Having stepped away from 18 years as an in-house legal marketing professional in three regional law firms and forming the legal advisory firm KLA Marketing Associates in 2008, I’ve worked with hundreds of lawyers in scores of legal practices across the U.S. What I’ve witnessed and learned bears sharing with the legal community at large, for the benefit of “lessons learned.”
1. Law school does not prepare you for private practice, or much else. Over my 25 years of coaching, advising and working with lawyers, I have made a habit of asking lawyer clients, “On Day One of your private practice, what did you feel prepared to do?” Without exception, the response has always been, “nothing,” or “not much.”
Lesson: Recognize that, as in most areas of higher education, much of your academic training provides plenty of theoretical analysis and little practical information and experience. Understanding this will propel you to seek out practical guidance on how to successfully launch and grow your new legal practice, and how to engage in appropriate business development and marketing tactics, such as getting and staying connected with your law school classmates on Day One. Doing so provides critical relationship-building opportunities throughout the course of your legal career.
2. Your career transcends your present professional position. Dependent upon economic cycles, lawyers can be unable to make an upwardly mobile transition, paralyzed by a fear of failing (a common trait among lawyers). I’ve coached too many lawyers over the years who were willing to stay put in a position that they did not enjoy, had little interest in, and fell victim to unfortunate and unjust employment practices, all out of fear of the unknown.
Lesson: Summon the courage to chart out at least the next three to five years of your legal career. What I know for sure is that you can create the career of your dreams by charting your own course. There may be multiple paths, depending upon life choices and family planning concerns. What works for you today may not work in five-seven years. At least sketch out a plan of action, so you are working toward these goals. Doing so can prove empowering while you are clocking the endless billable hours in the interim.
3. Submit to the relationship-building process. Examining your initial motivations for becoming a lawyer may prompt you to reflect upon the approach you take for strengthening and cultivating new working relationships — or not. One of my career surprises has been that the majority of lawyers are actually introverts. To me, this defies logic, particularly with respect to litigators. As I repeatedly explain, if you are a private practicing lawyer, you are a business owner. Whether or not you actually have clients is another question.
Given that professional services, including legal services, are predicated upon consistent relationship-building, it is impossible to build and grow a prosperous practice without engaging in meaningful relationship-building activities such as targeted networking and, to a lesser degree, some sort of professional association involvement.
Lesson: Regardless of whether you are an introvert or extravert, there is a path uniquely suited to your personality and skill set to develop meaningful relationships that will lead to attracting new clients and strengthening existing relationships for business-generation purposes. What I’ve come to know for sure, is that if you are focused on building a prosperous practice/business, you will take the necessary steps to do so. Similar to experts in other disciplines, savvy lawyers know they must reach out to access requisite resources on the appropriate steps that stand between their present situation and the one they intend to create.
4. Failing to plan is planning to fail. Almost without exception, when we initially work with law firm clients, they do not have a written business marketing plan. Depending upon the stage of business cycle they are in, lawyer clients may have built a practice and are cruising to retirement, have assumed a “grinder” role in their firms and are hanging on by a thread, or are really struggling to string together success from their scattershot marketing approach. We see these as the most common scenarios, across all areas of legal practice.
Lesson: It is astonishing that regardless of firm size and breadth and depth of practice groups, firm management does not seek outside expert marketing resources to guide them to growth and prosperity, institutionally, at the practice group level or with individual lawyers. Further, there are plenty of in-house Chief Marketing Officers (CMOs) and legal marketing professionals who are woefully underutilized for the express reason that law firm management either does not know how to utilize the expertise they have in these capable professionals, and/or they do not know what they do not know, as business owners and firm leadership.
5. Accept that building a prosperous book of business is a journey, not a destination, and a total team effort. I realize that this truism is not limited to lawyers, but this is the world I know intimately. I have rarely encountered a lawyer who understands fundamentally that consistent business development and marketing must be an ongoing, consistent and integral piece of his or her business model.
Conversely, many lawyers prefer for clients to be handed to them, in a box with a beautiful bow on top. This unfortunate situation highlights the fact that lawyers view marketing as a “catch as catch can” proposition — or, what we typically refer to as “random acts of marketing,” which frequently results in zero clients/new business and 100% frustration.
Lesson: If lawyers would avail themselves of expert marketing resources, either from in-house marketing departments and/or outside marketing experts who have a broad base of experience, they could take comfort and be empowered to develop a concrete and integrated marketing plan, which is S.M.A.R.T. — Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Timely.
6. Effective time management is imperative. While many legal practices grow and die by the billable hour, I have often been dismayed at the lack of effective time-management discipline lawyers have. Granted, time is money and one must prioritize the most pressing tasks at the top of the list, but engaging in any activity that resembles relationship building, reputation enhancing and meaningful contact management only when everything else is done, is a grave and often fatal misjudgment and waste of resources.
Lesson: It bears an in-depth assessment of how you allocate your time, on a daily basis. Do you really have all the business you can handle? Today, and a year or two from now, should you reallocate some time to cultivating new, targeted relationships with individuals who can directly purchase your legal services or connect you to those individuals who can?
Over two-plus decades, I have witnessed too many lawyers put their proverbial eggs in too few baskets, and the entire apple cart was turned upside down, when that “one big client” went away. Do not be lulled into complacency. Continue 2017 in a stronger, more empowered position for growth and prosperity.
7. Trust thy partners: Cross-selling still has not been institutionalized, in most firms. In my view, it is a sad testament that law firm partners still do not trust one another not to poach each other’s clients and act for the greater good of expanding the services provided to existing clients.
Lesson: While cross-selling still has not made its way into the accepted-marketing mindsets of many lawyers, motivated and service-minded attorneys would find greater prosperity if they took the time to analyze additional service areas their top clients would benefit from, then make introductions. There are certain stopgap measures that can be put into place for the referring lawyer to be kept abreast of matters proceeding without their direct involvement. My mantra has always been, “Do what’s right for the clients and it will be good for the firm and individual lawyers.”
8. Client teams can be an extraordinary selling tool and service solution. If firms and lawyers can move beyond the “go it alone” mentality, they can offer clients a team approach wherein lawyers of different disciplines can effectively work together to deliver extraordinary service. What is required, however, is to check one’s egos at the door, and to have a designated partner to demonstrate strong leadership, for the good of the team.
Lesson: Fortunately, we have seen firms have great success when they have organized as client teams, with one caveat. These arrangements absolutely require a constant and thorough communication process, to ensure that all the “pieces” are kept apprised of developments, successes and losses, regardless of whether a particular team member is directly involved. It is here that we have sadly witnessed considerable and needless client drama and loss of credibility (not to mention steep write-offs) when the team is not unified in its communication strategy and keeping each other abreast. In cases like this, what begins as a top-selling client benefit unravels into a painful mess.
9. Commit to becoming and perfecting a strategist, not technician, role. In these competitive times, it should be no surprise that if there is any security and upward mobility in a legal career, it is at the finder and trusted adviser level. No disrespect, but lawyers are a dime a dozen in some practice areas, as we clearly saw during the Great Recession. Regardless of legal acumen and extraordinary trial, negotiation and ADR experience, as long as lawyers are being handed client matters and not generating their own cases, it is merely a matter of time until their professional life as they know it will cease to exist.
Lesson: Learning from Day One how to develop and grow a book of business to ultimately be regarded as a legal strategist and a trusted adviser to one’s growing client base is the only path to prosperity, when lawyers are engaged in private practice. Resist the temptation to believe anyone who says, “Don’t worry about developing business, we have plenty of institutional clients who are not going anywhere.” Do not allow yourself to be lulled into complacency by this assurance. You do so at your own peril.
10. BONUS: Evoke the “Secret Sauce.” To build and grow a prosperous business and law firm, lawyers and law firm management must evoke what we refer to as the “Secret Sauce,” which is quite simple. The secret to prosperity is not some far-fetched random, scattershot approach to marketing. We all know that there are no magic bullets, no “one and done” marketing exercises.
The only path to true growth and prosperity is through strategic and defined consistent, persistent, massive amounts of action over a prolonged period of time.
The views expressed in the article are those of the authors and not necessarily the views of their clients or other attorneys in their firm.