Much as we see patterns in our lives emerge as we age, so, too, do trends in business reveal themselves with greater clarity as our careers lengthen. This has proven to be the case with the work I have done with partners, which now begins its second decade.
One interesting phenomenon has been the common attributes that separate the largest rainmakers from other partners in their firms. Although there is no clear line of demarcation, because of variances in rates and markets, those who generate fees above the $2 millionto $3 million level will be the focus of this article, as that typically is a point at which many partners hit the originations wall. The skills that it takes to bust through that barrier often differ from those that were relied upon in building that quantum of work.
The fundamentals of business development (such as being a great lawyer, building a network, and strategically pursuing business, to name a few essentials) are not the subject of this piece — they are assumed to be in place. Rather, the emphasis here is on the differentiators that are the province of those who produce at higher levels. The three most common characteristics of the biggest fee generators I have worked with will be explored in this article.
Building and Managing Teams
No matter how great the reputation of your firm may be, or how talented you are, a law firm partner is marketing and providing an array of legal services to clients. As your practice grows, the bulk of those services are provided by others on your team, and the fate of your practice and relationships with clients will be determined by how strong those lawyers are who constitute your team. This even holds true in so-called commodity practices, as results still matter and there are legions of other talented firms waiting in the wings who can swoop in to take that work away from you if your client isn’t happy with your performance.
It is not especially difficult to assemble and direct a team of just a few lawyers when your practice is still rising toward the million dollar mark. You may have a lawyer or two who have been with you for many years and it is likely that you have solid, reliable systems in place.
However, as your practice continues to crest, issues seem to increase exponentially and many focus on the quality and integration of newer members of your team. It thus is vital that you stay heavily involved in recruiting, since those you hire are critical to your team’s success. Missteps in this realm are not only costly in terms of dollars and time wasted on training, but also send a troubling message to clients if turnover becomes the norm.
In addition to hiring well, it is important that you find challenging work for your team and provide them with significant client exposure. Lawyers long for these opportunities, as it validates their self worth. Your ability to keep your team together for the long term will be enhanced if you accomplish those objectives. You are much like a coach in this role and must be mindful of keeping your troops motivated and upbeat, as clients will know if they are not. This may reveal itself in dispirited client communications or in less than exemplary work product, as it is difficult to divorce attitude from performance — which, if poor, can quickly turn clients into ex-clients.
An extensive discussion on morale building and team management is beyond this article, but focus on the basics: ensuring that everyone is involved and feels connected, giving recognition for achievements, and spending the time and extra dollars for out-of-office events that provide welcome respites from the daily grind. You also need to fight, when warranted, for promotions and appropriate compensation for your team, as they will forever appreciate your backing.
The Micromanaging Bug
Some of the most successful professionals, including lawyers, whether they admit it or not, are control freaks, at least to some extent. This does not have the full pejorative connotation that the term might suggest, as attention to detail and staying abreast of issues foster greatness and are more likely to lead to success than relying on chance. Nevertheless, if you want your practice to scale the heights, you will not get there if you can’t shake the need, which may be deeply ingrained in you, to micromanage every aspect of your practice. You simply will have to learn to let go — at least in part — otherwise, your practice will stay stalled at lower levels.
You will be able to tame your tendency to micromanage if you build the type of strong team discussed above. This is why you need to hire stars (or at least those you can mold to excel) and empower them as they develop. When you, and clients, have confidence in your team, it will make you feel more comfortable in backing off. This should lengthen your life (at least a bit) and the time that your lawyers stay with you, as you will be able to breathe a bit easier and they will cherish the responsibility you have given them.
This is not to suggest that you develop a laissez faire attitude and spend most of your time whittling that handicap down to the low single digits. You need to stay apprised of important matters, must be ready to step in to handle important deals or cases, and still need to maintain strong relationships with clients. The key is to learn to “pick your spots” and not smother the development of your team — the quicker you do this, the more time you will have to pursue even more work and the more likely it will be that your practice will continue to accelerate.
Complacency and Risk Aversion Are Anathema
Some may intuitively think that those with large practices have it made once they reach those rarified levels. After all, they likely have strong relationships with multiple clients, have the type of team in place that provides staying power, and are prepared to weather the type of downturns that could cripple those with smaller practices. Consequently, they should be positioned well for the long haul.
While those factors are all true, there is one phenomenon I have observed with the most prolific business developers I know: Not one of them has breathed a sigh of relief once they have surpassed the $2 million to $3 million fee level. The same drive that propelled them to generate such fees quells any sense of complacency. In fact, each and every such lawyer in this group I know seems even more acutely concerned with where his next biggest case or deal is coming from, even though past performance provides some assurance that those large matters will somehow materialize.
This intense passion to succeed is why the biggest producers tend to stay at those levels throughout their careers. Even if a client is merged out of existence or an important business source retires or is replaced, the super-producers become even more motivated to make sure that any dip in their fees is a short-lived event. Sometimes this is fueled by anxiety, but most often it is based on the positive and unshakable belief that since they have succeeded in the past, they will do it again — somehow, some way.
Similarly, even though many might think that getting to the upper echelons may be time to scale back on risk, the biggest producers think the opposite. Risk aversion is kryptonite to big producers, as they never would have built huge practices by adopting that philosophy. Not being afraid is part of their DNA, and they realize that to stay at the top, and build their practice even further, they will need to display the same type of courage that has defined them throughout their careers.
This does not mean that foolish risks should be taken, especially when such a solid client base is in place. Judgment is still important, whether it entails retooling a practice, continuing to cultivate new clients or expanding relationships with existing clients. The key, though, is to continue to go for it, much like you did in the earlier years.
Taking action, especially when it involves stretching yourself, consumes energy and can trigger feelings of vulnerability, as you often may be in situations where you can lose. It thus can become seductive to shy away from those situations once you have reached a fairly high level, as it is more comfortable to do so, especially with a cushion in place. Super producers fight that tendency, as they know that things can change rather quickly and that there are many competitors who are rising and are striving to knock them off. After all, they were one of those persons in the past and did not get to their lofty level by resting. If you are not there yet, you won’t get there unless you really continue to push. •
Frank Michael D’Amore is the founder of Attorney Career Catalysts, a Pennsylvania-based legal recruiting, consulting and training firm.