What’s the secret to developing great client relationships? We asked the rainmakers. They told us it takes building your brand, fostering teamwork, understanding your clients, and yes, great lawyering.
Richard Climan, Weil, Gotshal & Manges, mergers & acquisitions partner
I can tell you what I think being a rainmaker is not about. It’s not about slick marketing brochures. It’s not about glibly telling clients and prospective clients what you think they want to hear. I think that real rainmakers rarely operate as lone wolves. Most established rainmakers that I know function as part of teams, multitalented teams of lawyers who are able to provide attentive around-the-clock services and timely, honed advice on the most sensitive issues.
I think you’re gonna hear from clients that to be a successful and effective rainmaker over any period of time you have to be a successful lawyer.
In my experience, clients have very little patience for “rainmakers” that are solely client relationship people, but that don’t have the ability to roll up their sleeves and perform or supervise the needed work themselves.
You have to be an absolute master of your craft. It helps to have developed a reputation as a thought leader in your field.
I was chair of the [American Bar Association]‘s M&A committee, which has thousands of members. I’ve chaired and spoken at conferences around the world. On more than one occasion, a general counsel or corporate development operator has come up to me right after my session and said to me, in effect, “Why aren’t you our lawyer?” Some of my closest and most rewarding client relationships have begun that way. It doesn’t happen every day or every year, but people think speaking at conferences is sort of indirect brand building, and it is—but it can also lead, if you’re good at it, directly to client engagements.
To succeed in attracting the largest and most sophisticated clients, you can’t afford to rest on your laurels. You can’t expect to walk into a pitch meeting and trumpet your accomplishments and list the 20 other deals you’ve worked on just like this one and expect to walk away with an engagement in hand. This is especially true in the context of the competitive bakeoffs that sophisticated GCs are increasingly staging to select outside counsel on the highest-profile complex deals and litigation.
It’s much more powerful to say to a prospective client, “Here are the three most important issues you’ll face in this deal, and here’s how to approach them,” than to say, “Here’s my bio.”
Once you start reaching a critical mass, I think it’s easier to increase it. Building it up to that first million took a long period of time, getting to $2 million took a little bit, but after that it’s a little bit easier.
I always say to young lawyers you have to invest in yourself. If you start really good habits when you’re younger and it becomes the norm, it will pay off in spades, [like] the hard work and effort I did to maintain relationships and go to social events or functions or attend trade organizations.
You can’t have it all. Something is going to have to give. You’re going to get generally what you invest. I wasn’t there for every single thing my kids did. I missed stuff. It’s a sacrifice. My advice is to invest early and often.
Marianna Dyson, Miller & Chevalier, chair of the firm’s employee benefits group and executive committee member
It is all about getting your name out there as someone specializing in a particular area, and eventually word gets around to the buyers of your services. It is astounding how a speech outline or article will kick around in cyberspace indefinitely.
Don’t leave everything to email. The most powerful tool you have is the finger that you use to dial a phone. If you have a good relationship with a client, use the phone. If you haven’t heard from a client or potential client in a while, just dial him or her up to see what is going on.
Sandra Dawn Grannum, Drinker Biddle & Reath, financial services litigation partner
I don’t come from a background that I know people who could automatically be in my book of business, so there was some struggle, and I was raised at Cravath where there was not an emphasis on building a book of business and making rain. I was lucky because I was in-house and ended up working with a number of people who became my clients.
If you don’t have a client in your back pocket, going out and finding a client is a difficult thing, but going out and finding a friend is not that difficult. You have to build a relationship and build a network from the people who are sitting beside you.
I do make a habit of spending a lot of time with clients, so that they think of me. When people think of you, then they’ll remember to send you business.
Of course, it always helps to win. First and foremost, you have to do a great job. You can make rain because you know people, but generally people want to hire the person they can represent to their boss that will do the best job.
Alan Kaplinsky, Ballard Spahr, head of the firm’s consumer financial services group
I began practicing law in 1970, I didn’t have a clue and didn’t really think very often—or really at all—about how I would develop a practice. I left Wolf Block in 1976 to go in-house with a client, Teachers Service Organization. I became very friendly with the chief financial officer of the company, and he basically taught me how to sell. And he wasn’t selling legal services, he was selling various things for the company. And so I left Teachers Service Organization in the end of 1978, and around mid-1979 I went back to Wolf Block, and they said, “We’re interested in seeing if you can build a banking and consumer financial services business. If so, we’ll make you partner.” It was basically sink or swim.
I just took advantage of every opportunity that existed that I could find that would get me in front of a group of potential clients.
I would accept speaking opportunities, even if it was on a topic I didn’t know anything about—I would learn about it. I got very active in the American Bar Association committee on consumer financial services, [and] ultimately became chair of the committee in 1986. I sort of attribute that committee to taking what was before then a pretty local practice, focused much on Philadelphia and eastern Pennsylvania, and developing a national practice. A lot of clients I still have today, I met them through my involvement in the ABA committee.
Today, we’re now 115 lawyers at our firm in the consumer financial services group, and everybody is inculcated with my philosophy of developing business and the need to do it. Law is a great profession, but if you lose sight of the fact that it’s a business, you’re doomed.
What separates the great lawyers from just the good practitioners are those lawyers who know how to develop business and they know what clients need and they anticipate their needs.
Lucinda Low, Steptoe & Johnson LLP, head of the firm’s regulatory, enforcement and public policy department and management committee member
I was fortunate to attract clients relatively early in my career, when I was still an associate. Those early successes taught me I could attract and retain business.
If you are lucky you will find opportunities to bond with clients. It does not work with everyone, and you need to accept that and move on where it does not.
This is a relationship business. You have to be good, but you also have to generate trust and confidence in clients that you can solve their problems. Don’t always look to maximize revenues, but look for opportunities to build the relationship.
Mark Kelly, Vinson & Elkins, chair
I was fortunate to have good mentors as an associate who introduced me to their clients, many of whom have not only remained clients but have become good friends.
I have found that being available for clients to assist on personal matters unrelated to my practice has helped make me a trusted adviser and is remembered more often, frankly, than the fact that I stayed up all night working on a deal, which is expected.
David Barkus, Holland & Knight, mergers and acquisitions partner
You have to choose an area of the law that you both enjoy and [where] there is sufficient demand. Once you pick, you have to make sure you are working for top mentors who are really experienced in that area and also have the workflow to give you the repetitions to develop your own expertise in that area.
Generating business isn’t a destination, it’s meeting people along the way. Every time you do a deal, develop a relationship with everyone on that deal so that people will remember your expertise and think of you for when they have referrals. From the time I was a third-year associate, all I did was deals. We built the practice just by meeting people on deals. [And some socializing.] There’s breakfasts, lunches, dinners, Heat games. I bring other people from the deal community to the games. My goal is to know quality people.
Don’t burn bridges. There’s nothing to be gained from having bad relationships with anyone. Always do your best to make sure things are resolved amicably.
Monica Riva Talley, Sterne, Kessler, Goldstein & Fox, head of the firm’s trademark, advertising and anti-counterfeiting practice
Early in my career, I necessarily focused on working on my firm’s institutional clients. I also brought in clients, primarily smaller clients, and grew the work with them over time. Many are still my clients.
Be prepared for the long race. It takes years to build a career and a book of clientele.
Charles Ruck, Latham & Watkins, mergers and acqusitions partner
I think of two things when I think about my success within Latham. One’s external and one’s internal.
Externally, I think about forging strong bonds with our clients. I need to know about their business. I need to know about the trends affecting their industry. I need to stay on top of the trends that affect not just them but all of their competitors in their industry.
The internal-focused advice I guess is building teams and making it not just about one person but about a whole bunch of people.
That involves knowing your firm and where all the talent is and who’s got the experience and knowing who to call on and when to call on them, and sometimes that’s bringing them in a little earlier than you might think.
It’s about collaborating with the other service providers. I have good friends who work for McKinsey and some of the other consulting firms, the accounting firms, the banks.
We worked on a transaction within the last two years [that] required us to separate the company into two and then sell it. The business was a global business—it had sales in 40 countries around the world. We had really meaningful teams out of 10 different offices, from Paris to London to Hong Kong to New York and Los Angeles. You can’t do [that] well without really knowing the firm. I’ve only ever had one job: For the last 25 years I’ve been at this place learning what all our partners do and forging those relationships. You couldn’t do it as a lateral partner in your first few years, for sure.
David Douglass, Sheppard Mullin, Richter & Hampton, government contracts, investigations and international trade partner and co-managing partner of the firm’s Washington, D.C., office
If there was a turning point, it was getting gray hair, which I say only half-facetiously. In all seriousness, clients are looking for more than legal knowledge. They want judgment, which comes from experience. They are looking for someone who can give guidance because they’ve been through it before, more than once. Lawyers, like fine wine, get better over time.
I find that the advice clients often value most is when I explain to them why what they have asked me to do is not in their interest.
Whether it is because it won’t achieve their desired goal, the benefit isn’t worth the cost or is inconsistent with their company culture, values or overarching business goals.
Practice development is a discipline, not a transaction. It is about much more than taking a prospective client to lunch, dinner, a game or a show. If you master your craft, cultivate relationships and are the kind of person people would want to invite to their home, you will make rain.
Steven Zager, Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, head of the firm’s global intellectual property practice
In litigation, few clients want to hire a lawyer who does not have a record of success. So in many ways, success leads to more business. But you can reach a point where continued success at trial is expected and so you do not see much of a bounce in business as a result.
Today, about 90 percent of cases settle, and so clients are much more interested in the value proposition.
Stated differently, how can you manage the matter to a budget and make certain that there is a predictability of legal spend on a quarterly basis? Those things now drive business more than courtroom performance.
There is an old Spanish proverb that goes, “It is not the same to speak of bulls as to be in the bull ring.” To be a successful rainmaker, you need to be in the bull ring. Legal business seldom comes to those who sit and wait for it to find them. You have to get out there and ask for it!