Reap what you sow
The road to personal success in a law firm is generally clearly signposted with technical qualifications and achievement targets.Less clear is the route that brings an assistant the commercial skills they need to become a successful lawyer who wins and retains profitable business for their firm. Few firms want lawyers these days who cannot be self-sufficient in bringing in and nurturing new clients. So for those assistants with an eye on progression, what route should their development in this area take?To be successful and reach partnership an assistant needs a strong business case.Some may get lucky with a natural 'slot' suddenly becoming available. Realistically, though, you will be expected to prove your worth - not only technically and by demonstrating good client handling skills, but also in your ability to bring in new work.For many assistants this is a tough call, particularly if they are in a firm where the major client relationships are kept close to partners' chests.A key aim is to avoid a skills 'breakdown' - I call it the new partner's 'business development shock' syndrome. This can occur when a talented assistant gets promoted to partner and suddenly finds that their job description has dramatically changed.Suddenly, they are expected to perform revenue generation and relationship-building activities, despite having had very little training in these crucial areas of a partner's working life. Increasingly, though, many law firms are investing in business development programmes for assistants. Thanks to this training, many new partners are more clued-up on complex client relationship management and targeting strategies. If these resources aren't available to you, though, what should you do? The answer lies in consider-ing your own contact set. These will be individuals among your peers and clients and also in the market in which they operate. Your aim should be to forge relationships with these individuals. When they get promoted or move on to bigger and better things elsewhere, plan ways you can keep in touch so that you remain in their thoughts. In time, this will lead to the 'can you help?' call or the 'I've got something for you' email. Before you know it, you will have established an enviably strong personal network. AvailabilityYour clients and contacts want to get through to you on the telephone first time and they want to get through to a real person, not your voicemail. Some will want you to be available on your mobile, or at home, when needed. If you are not available, then they want access to alternative sources of knowledgeable support who can help. So, consider your availability, develop better time management skills and establish good alternative support systems for when you cannot take contacts' calls.HonestyOne general counsel recently told us: "I wish our legal advisers would be honest about their timescales and project management." Many clients also want greater clarity about legal costs. Be realistic about what is possible and do not promise what you think your contact wants to hear. For the long-term health of your contact relationships, it is best to meet or surpass expectations, rather than disappoint them. A key to this is being open about how projects are going. If something gets added in or takes longer to complete, aim to discuss it openly with the client straight away. That way everyone then knows the situation and unwelcome hidden surprises are avoided.Straightforward opinions, great understandingAbove all, clients want commercial answers and practical solutions. They look to their lawyers to tell them about an issue, give them options on what to do and describe the risks involved. More importantly, however, they want their advisers to tell them what they would do if they were in that position. How do they gather this insight? Ask your contacts about their businesses, keep an eye on their relevant trade press and events and focus on really understanding the issues that affect them. Interest and personal supportUnfortunately it isn't enough just to understand your client's business; they also want to see your interest in it. A good tip for building your network of contacts is to try to pick people, businesses and sectors that you have a natural interest in. You will find it much easier to get to know them and your interest in them will come across as genuine. Adapting your approachThe saying 'different strokes for different folks' applies particularly well to client relations. If the client wants a proactive problem-solver who takes the hassle away from them, make sure you keep them informed of your progress, but avoid making unnecessary communications or requests for information.If the client wants a sounding board, then factor in the appropriate time and be prepared to listen. Also, recognise that at other times they will want you to give them an informed, objective view. What differentiates assistants is their accessibility, availability and the commercial advice they give.Get this right and you will be able to realise the things that your contact finds valuable - and, they will come to trust and remain loyal to you. nJohn Timperley is the managing director of The Results Consultancy.
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