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Making partner is the easy part,” chuckle the senior members of the firm as they congratulate you on your elevation to the partnership. “The hard part,” they continue, “is figuring out what to do next.” Becoming a partner (especially an equity partner) is more than just an affirmation of a young lawyer’s exceptional legal skills. In a sense it is a long-term bet placed by the existing partners that the young partner will, over time, give more to the firm than he or she takes away. Now, more than ever before, the chief attribute that defines success at a firm is the ability to develop business. Why are some new partners able to build a substantial client base and “make the pie bigger,” while others never seem to get the knack? Part of the cause might be institutional. Some firms are regarded as more “entrepreneurial” than others. At these firms, nearly every partner is expected to be a rainmaker and associates are encouraged to pursue business-development activities at a very early stage. “BD” is an essential part of the firm’s culture, and there’s no room for those who want to sit on the sidelines. Conversely, at other firms, associates (and even young partners) may be discouraged from generating any business whatsoever. While this seems contrary to a law firm’s best interests at a macrolevel, at a microlevel it makes perfect, rational sense: Rainmakers who have “star” associates working for them often don’t want these associates distracted by other projects. Similarly, since demonstrable business-generation activity at these firms may not even be an essential requirement for making partner, the equally rational associate may see no short-term benefit to developing that skill. Finally, even just the process of bringing a new client to the firm can be daunting to an associate. Hours and hours may be spent trying to locate a billing partner, navigating conflicts, and preparing an engagement letter, all to no avail. To make it worse, these are hours that are not being billed. As a legal recruiter, I often hear from young partners that generating business is simply too difficult and that even if they wanted to do more business-development activities, they simply don’t have the time. I shared these sentiments during my own career at Hogan & Hartson. But the fact remains that some partners are finding the time, and from this side of the fence, I see very clearly every day that not attempting to develop their own clients is one of the biggest mistakes young partners can make, assuming they want to eventually control their own destiny. WHO’S YOUR MENTOR? Recently, I spoke with a friend who is a young partner with a national firm. Though not yet 40, he already controls several million dollars in business and has been recognized as one of the top lawyers in his field. When I asked him what he thought were the most important factors contributing to his success, he was quick to reply that having an excellent mentor has been instrumental to his growth and development. He speaks with his mentor, a senior partner at the firm, several times a day and has paid close attention to how his mentor deals with clients and learns their businesses. Many young attorneys who make partner already have a mentor; in fact, some would say that having a mentor is sine qua non for making partner. But sometimes the person who mentored you as an associate may not be the appropriate person to mentor you as a partner. For example, suppose your mentor is extremely well respected within the firm but typically services other partners’ clients. Will that person be able to teach you all the skills you might need to develop your own practice? This isn’t to suggest that you should abandon that relationship, but rather supplement it with another mentor who can help you develop those skills. Other young partners also stress the need to have a business plan. Almost any plan is better than no plan. (And to those of you who say your plan is to have no plan, I think you will find that your non-plan won’t seem very funny in a couple of years.) Surprisingly, some incredibly bright people can become completely paralyzed by the mere thought of developing a business plan. Why? A business plan doesn’t have to be 30 pages long, and it doesn’t have to detail absolutely everything you expect to do over the coming year. But it should provide an outline of potential clients you plan to solicit and the kind of work you plan to handle for them. If you don’t already have ready answers to those two simple questions, you need to start thinking about them as soon as possible. Your business plan should also include your plans for continued professional development — put yourself in your clients’ or potential clients’ shoes and think about what they might need from you to make their jobs easier. If you don’t know where to start with your plan, seek out partners with substantial practices and ask them how they developed their practices. My guess is that they will be more than happy to share their thoughts. NETWORK, NETWORK, NETWORK Lastly, perhaps the single most important thing a young lawyer can do is develop his own network as soon as possible. While it may be true that associates, as well as young partners, are unlikely to land major accounts, they can start forming lasting ties with other young attorneys and businesspeople who may someday be in a position to hire outside counsel. To develop these contacts, you need to get yourself out of your house and out of your office. Join the relevant American Bar Association practice section or young lawyers division; attend CLE seminars; go to class reunions; join Rotary, Kiwanis, the Elks Club, Gold’s Gym, whatever, just join! While extensive networking is no guarantee of success, not networking at all is a virtual guarantee of failure. You have to put in the effort. Invite potential clients to lunch; send them an article that you think might be of interest to them; call them up just to say “hi” — just don’t sit at your desk and do nothing. Similarly, your colleagues can also prove to be a tremendous source of business over time. The day I made partner I received a very nice e-mail from the head of one of my firm’s regulatory practices. Though I didn’t really know him well at all, he congratulated me on my elevation and said he hoped that someday we would have a chance to work together. I recall thinking how thoughtful it was of him to take the time to send me that note. Only later did it occur to me that he was, knowingly or unknowingly, plant-ing the seed for a referral. Like you, your partners are often specialists who rely on other firm members for help with issues outside their areas of expertise. They may have a number of people within the firm from whom to choose, so you need to show them that partnering with you will benefit both of you over time. You may find it easiest to start “partnering” with members of your own generation, but don’t be shy about reaching out to your senior partners (who likely will have more significant client relationships). Successful lawyers like working with other successful lawyers, regardless of their age. Your elevation to partner is certainly something to be proud of. Savor the moment, but don’t savor it for too long. You’ve started on a new journey down a road that will bear only a passing resemblance to the path you took to partnership. Over the next several years some members of your partnership class will begin to distinguish themselves from the rest of the pack, putting themselves on a trajectory toward higher compensation and eventual firm leadership. Making business development a priority will, over the long run, be one of the most important investments you will ever make in yourself and your career. Show your senior partners that the bet they placed on you was a smart one.
Jeffrey Lowe, managing partner of Major, Lindsey & Africa‘s Washington, D.C., office, focuses on lateral partner and group placements.

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