Robin Hensley, Raising the Bar Robin Hensley, Raising the Bar

One of the first rules of practice development, says J. Scot Kirkpatrick, is “you have to bring the younger people along.”

Kirkpatrick, a shareholder at Chamberlain Hrdlicka, has led the trust and estates group in the firm’s Atlanta office since 1989. “An essential part of growing a practice is mentoring,” Kirkpatrick says he has learned over the years.

The transformation from eager young lawyer to a steady, mature person who is making a solid contribution to the practice will go much faster if senior lawyers get involved, Kirkpatrick says. Chamberlain has a well-thought-out formal program for mentoring, including accountability metrics, but Kirkpatrick says it’s the informal daily interaction between senior and junior lawyers and a commitment to teaching and learning that make the difference.

Having mentored dozens of young lawyers over the years, he shared these guidelines for mentoring success.

Don’t expect overnight results.

Kirkpatrick says new lawyers can take five years to really “get their feet wet,” and he expects them to study hard and ask questions. In return, Kirkpatrick puts in the time to tutor the new lawyers in the finer aspects of tax, partnerships, trusts and state corporate codes.

Just as important, he says young attorneys in his practice area must understand the client base—in his case, mostly closely held business owners. Kirkpatrick says some people mistakenly think that bringing in business is a matter of knowing how to work a room, but clients aren’t looking for a charming personality. “Clients want someone who understands their needs and can apply the law to solve their problems. I’m a natural introvert and don’t light up any rooms, but put me in front of 50 CPAs, and I will make connections because I am passionate about what I do.”

Business development training starts early.

Kirkpatrick’s formula for business development is simple: “First, you need to know something— be the expert, as your expertise is what you are selling. Second, you have to become known as that expert so that people will pick up the phone and call you.”

Kirkpatrick is a firm believer in having young lawyers tag along when he visits clients, as well as the CPAs and financial advisers who are a source of referrals. This is mainly an exercise in “watch and listen,” and it is enormously helpful in learning how to talk to clients. “My partner, Tom Jones, says legal marketing boils down to convincing a potential client who has a problem that you are the one who can solve it for them,” says Kirkpatrick. Client meetings are where those skills are learned.

He also brings associates along when he presents at conferences, including the firm’s signature Tax Forums. “They learn that, if you’re going to stand up in a room of 100 people and teach them, you better know your material inside and out.”

Law still is an apprenticeship system.

It is important to remember that the law remains an apprenticeship system, Kirkpatrick says. “People who go to law school usually like to learn. I think it’s important for all of us—senior lawyers and younger lawyers—to embrace this culture of learning.”

Kirkpatrick concedes that it sometimes is difficult to find the extra time for mentoring, whether it is editing an associate’s writing or taking a few minutes to answer an impromptu question. But he likes to remind himself that it’s in his best interest. “I tell my folks, the real value of having associates is that one day they will grow up and be your partner. They will be able to do the work and share the load. It’s up to us to help them get there for their own benefit and the firm’s.”

Robin Hensley’s column is based on her work as president of Raising the Bar and coaching lawyers in business development for more than 25 years. She is the author of “Raising the Bar: Legendary Rainmakers Share Their Business Development Secrets.”