Q. I am a partner who now has more time on my hands than I would like. My hours have been down during the past six months, and I expect that will continue to be the case until the economy rebounds. I am doing as much as I can internally to find more work, help others and generally contribute to the firm. What suggestions do you have for things I can do with clients and to help me prepare for the future?
A. It may provide little solace, but you are not alone. Although some practice areas remain strong (bankruptcy, white-collar, labor and employment and health care are four examples that come to mind), the economic downturn is affecting law firms. This is understandable, as the fortunes of private practice lawyers are inextricably tied to those of their clients, most of which are hurting.
Your internal focus is an intelligent strategy, as making yourself invaluable within your firm is crucial. This is simply not the time to be off on a proverbial island within your firm. There are several key parts of an external strategy that can simultaneously be pursued. My suggestions follow.
Talk to your Clients
Self-preservation dictates that now is the time to maximize the amount of work you can get from clients. This makes perfect sense, as protecting No. 1 is an all-important precept. This also presents a compelling opportunity to get closer to your clients so that you can pave the way to a deeper relationship in the future.
I urge you to go beyond your typical client conversations and interactions. Your clients, especially if they are in-house lawyers, are under significant pressure. You should remember, after all, that most in-house law departments are unfairly categorized as cost centers. If this downturn worsens, and such a lawyer is not supporting revenue-producing operations, the heat on him might be intense.
You could be a savior for his fortunes if there are things you can do to help the company that are outside of your normal representation. Having an in-depth conversation of what the issues are in the company, what the strategy might be going forward and what the pressure points are that the in-house counsel (or businessperson) may be feeling will be instructive.
This may serve as the trigger for you, and perhaps others in your firm, to sit down and talk more extensively to the business team about the company’s plans. This might position you to do a training or in-house presentation that is specifically tailored to the client’s current situation and future plans. This surely will be of significantly more value than your stock training program. Most importantly, you will hopefully have forged stronger relationships with a broader array of people in the company, which can be highly important in the future. If you manage to do this in a way that favorably positions your client contact, you will have a friend for life.
Fortify Your Network
Updating your contact list, reaching out to friends and colleagues and otherwise strengthening your network can be a daunting task when you are busy. Performing these tasks during a slow period, however, can pay big dividends in the future.
Assess the sources of your business and tailor your efforts accordingly. If most of your work comes from referrals from other private practice lawyers, then spend some time going through the Web sites of your go-to referral sources. There likely have been changes in the firm that escaped your attention while you were billing hours like crazy during the past few years. Similarly, if your work primarily comes directly from companies, update your records to reflect new lawyers in a client’s law department. You likely have contacts who have moved to new companies — have you been introduced to other lawyers in those companies?
Increase Your Visibility
If you are going to spend valuable time updating and strengthening your network, it certainly helps to have information or news to send them. Downtime provides the perfect opportunity to write an article or speak at a seminar. Doing so not only exposes you to new potential business sources, but also provides just the type of an update that you can credibly send to your contacts.
Aligning your writing and speaking strategy with your client activities can separate you from the pack. While you may have some stock programs "in the can," focusing on current challenges faced by clients will be newsworthy and of interest. Similarly, addressing legal issues and strategies that might be in play when things turn around (and, despite how bleak things may seem, history suggests that the economy will rebound) can position you quite nicely for the long haul.
In doing this, do not forget to target your efforts toward those who can hire you. For example, if you are normally retained directly by CEOs, then you need to find out what magazines they read and conferences they attend. It makes little sense to write a wonderful, scholarly article in a journal read just by lawyers that will help to educate your competitors but do nothing to land you more business.
The recession will surely produce some profound changes that will cut across all industries. This can be challenging for lawyers, many of whom find great comfort in doing things the same way. Critical thinking and embracing change are difficult, but those who are not afraid to take on those challenges may emerge as the big winners when this economic cloud finally lifts.
There are at least two crucial aspects of your strategic planning: assessing what may happen in the industries in which your clients operate and then trying to adapt your practice to those anticipated changes.
As to the client side, having the discussions and meetings with your clients, as suggested above, should be a major help. Research is a skill that lawyers never lose; dusting it off, if necessary, is a good idea now. Read as much as you can about what prognosticators have to say about the key industries in which your clients operate. If you normally just read your daily newspaper and The Wall Street Journal , it may be a good time to check out Barron’ s (and similar publications) and trade journals that your clients regularly read. This will help you better see where the future may lie.
Additionally, examine how your clients are changing the strategies that affect their use of legal services. For example, it is becoming increasingly clear that litigation is not providing the type of lift in a recession as it has in the past. Some aspects of this remain strong (such as labor and employment-related work and investigatory matters), but many others are much tighter.
In-house counsel are telling me that they are settling many more cases, when merited, as early as possible. If companies do more sophisticated cost/benefit analyses that show that this strategy produces more savings and other benefits, this may not be a recession-only development — it may be here to stay. If so, it just may be the time for you to add a serious and nuanced arbitration/mediation component to your arsenal.
There surely are many other examples of this type in every practice area. Your challenge is to think about them now, make sure they are tied to what clients are doing and show the initiative to change what you are doing. I firmly believe that when the economy rebounds, it will not mean a return to the days and practices of old. There will be profound changes — those who are ready for them will emerge as the winners. •
Frank M. D’Amore is the founder of Attorney Career Catalysts, www.attycareers.com, a Pennsylvania-based legal recruiting, consulting and training firm. He is a former partner in an AmLaw 200 firm, general counsel in privately held and publicly traded companies, and vice president of business development. He can be reached at email@example.com .