During the past 35-plus years in the legal profession, I have seen some truly superstar producers in action. I have had the privilege of working alongside several, have been a client for a few during my in-house career, and have placed some standouts during my recruiting career.
One thing that every one of these lawyers has in common is that each is a great lawyer. I have heard more than a few lawyers say that some big-time producers are glorified marketers who really are schmoozers and not good attorneys. I have yet to see this. I would never have entrusted a lot of work to such a lawyer—even if it was actually being completed by others in a firm—and never heard of an in-house lawyer, when I was part of that bar, who would, either. The reason is that it would be a real disconnect to have someone of that ilk be the primary client contact. One could not trust his judgment in recommending others in the firm and there also would be great reticence to ever put that person in front of important senior executives (as typically must happen).
Unfortunately, it does not follow that a highly skilled lawyer will become a major rainmaker. In fact, quite a few such lawyers produce excellent work product and great results—which, of course—are important, but, nevertheless, have tepid origins.
Why is that? This is the age-old question that has bedeviled so many lawyers, especially as the legal profession has morphed into being populated now with firms that are run like the businesses they represent. I will address five traits that every super producer I know has and contributes to them bringing drenching rain. In so doing, we are taking legal excellence out of the equation, as it is a given and, as noted, doesn’t necessarily serve as a differentiator with all others.
They Are Specialists and Leaders in Their Fields
Some transactional and litigation attorneys with generalist types of practices can generate significant amounts of revenue. More often, though, I have seen the ranks of the super producers populated by those who have a narrower focus.
For example, this may include M&A lawyers who do most of their work in particular industries or with certain types of companies; litigators or regulatory lawyers who generate a lot of repeat cases, and those with niche practices (such as some benefits lawyers).
These lawyers are often leaders, in their home market, and, sometimes, nationally, where many regard them as being among the truly elite in their practice discipline. This level of recognition is an important foundation for their books. This leads to these lawyers frequently being contacted by the media (which burnishes their reputation) and they routinely may be asked to speak at marquee conferences in their fields. Those factors lead to companies hiring them, as they are much easier to find in a sea of competitors and are safer picks for in-house lawyers and executives who need to make defensible hires.
In essence, assuming such lawyers continue to perform well, there are self-perpetuating forces in play that keep this work flowing to them over lengthy periods of time. Their specialist or niche focus often elevates their rate, and those of others on their team, which also has a trampoline effect on their origins.
They Have Mastered the Art of Delegation
There may be many reasons to explain why a partner’s practice seems to plateau at a certain number. If he is not good at delegating, the size of the practice will often be limited to the amount of his receipts and maybe those of one or two other lawyers. White that quantum of business, it should be noted, is still impressive, it could be multiplied, many times over, if the lawyer could learn to trust others.
Those who generate much more significant numbers get there by learning the value of leveraging others’ efforts. These lawyers excel at building teams and seem to revel in doing so. An important predicate in this regard is learning to spot and develop talent, for, without excellent lawyers on the team, it is difficult to produce exemplary results.
Once those lawyers are in place, it is crucial that the leader becomes comfortable in entrusting others with responsibility. This entails letting go of the reins, in part, which can be a challenge, especially for those who are perfectionists or are overly controlling. The elite of the elite are those who surmount that hurdle and give others on the team the space to shine without them being manipulated like marionettes.
They Are Confident Lawyers Who Think Big and Take Risks
It surprised me, early in my career, to learn that not everyone aspired to be a rainmaker. It became quickly apparent that big hitters had the highest level of protection in the legal profession, but that doesn’t matter for some, as they are deterred by the pressure of being in the spotlight, struggle with a fear of failure (or success), or just simply prefer playing it safe.
I realized that, much like sports, you need all types to build a team, as not everyone can be the quarterback. As such, everyone can play an important role, but only a few may reach the highest level—at least with respect to origins—either by choice or due to skill sets.
The ones who do ascend to the top, without exception, are confident lawyers who, to stick with the sports metaphors, want the ball in their hands at the end of the game. While some may contend that such lawyers are cocky, I also dispute that, as such a trait, if it truly were in place, would be off-putting to clients. Gifted business developers have mastered the art of putting their clients first, which can be virtually impossible for someone who is inherently arrogant.
These lawyers routinely look a step ahead in trying to ascertain what the next trend will be that will help drive more business to their firms. In so doing, they often are not looking for incremental gains, but for the bigger play that, if successful, will yield much more impactful results.
To the chagrin of some of their partners, big hitters also will spend much more money on business development. I have found that these lawyers have devised well thought out plans for such expenditures which have served as a blueprint for success for them, and their firms, over time. Interestingly, quite a few managing partners have privately lamented that they wish that more lawyers would get out and use business development dollars, rather than routinely go home after work every night or just grouse at partnership meetings about expenditures of the big producers.
They Excel at Building Loyalty in Their Teams
Continuity in a team can pay big dividends for strong teams. In fact, if you examine a group that works for major producers, the odds are good that you will see considerable longevity practicing together.
Clients love this, as they grow comfortable working with lawyers they are familiar with, and this is only furthered by knowing that they will not continually have to pay to get new lawyers up to speed about their business and matters. This holds true inside firms, too, as greater efficiencies result in not having to waste nonbillable time on recruiting and training new lawyers.
No one would likely disagree with this principle, but applying it is far more difficult today, as lawyers, especially younger ones, are switching firms, going in house, or are moving into other fields, at much higher rates than we’ve ever seen.
Big producers realize why grappling with this issue is so important and appreciate why building loyalty in the team is a big part of the answer. This can be done by giving other lawyers good work and a lot of responsibility, as these are two factors that lawyers covet. It is incumbent, also, for the leader to push, when merited, for his troops to be fairly compensated, to be made partner when that time arises, and to otherwise be well positioned in the firm.
Moreover, in this era in which metrics play such an important role, the biggest producers realize the value in shifting some of their origins, billing credit, or other key criteria to others on their team. This is anathema to some lawyers, but those who do this understand that it is a winning strategy. Those who receive such credit are eternally grateful and typically will work even harder to show their appreciation, which really ties them to the team and firm. Leaders of firms and compensation committees also note such actions and can look behind the numbers to reward leaders who practice such team and firm-first behavior.
Additionally, leaders also look for opportunities to recognize others, and this goes beyond just mentioning them in newsletters or internal firm emails (which still are important). Expanding someone’s role, when the time is right, is hugely important to a lawyer, and, from a dollars and cents perspective, costs the leader, and the firm, nothing.
This can happen in a variety of settings. One example is not only bringing someone to a client pitch, but, if he will play a key role in the matter, giving that lawyer a chance to talk during the meeting. It can sometimes be hard for some leaders to do this, as they may feel that only they can snag the business.
I can attest, as to when I was a client, that I more often was interested in hearing what the midlevel lawyer, who I was more likely to deal with daily, had to say. To the extent that such lawyers were dwarfed by the head lawyer, I often worried that our bills would be too high if that lawyer had to be all over every aspect of the case, if I saw that type of behavior during the pitch.
They Institutionalize Clients but Still Stay on Top of Important Relationships
In this era of significant lateral partner movement, it can be tempting for a partner to essentially keep his arms around his practice. This entails restricting client contact to himself, or just a few other trusted team members. In so doing, this seemingly would inoculate his client base from being poached from within and would keep the leader in a position where he could easily move at any time.
Lawyers who adopt such a strategy do not join the ranks of the super producers. Setting aside a fundamental precept that institutionalizing clients is the type of behavior that is the backbone of great firms—and is rewarded—such restrictive conduct also limits the size of one’s practice. The more touch points with a client—assuming those doing the touching are good lawyers and also embody firm-first behavior—the better, as it helps generate much more business from a client and fosters deeper, longer-lasting ties. As discussed, above, this strategy feeds into team building, also, as it inextricably ties lawyers to the client, the team and the firm.
The art is for the leader to put others in those positions with a client, but, at the same time, to not lose contact with important decisionmakers in the company. The lawyer can’t trample on the relationships that others have formed, but, nonetheless, he needs to stay on top of what is going on.
What often happens, over time, is that decisionmakers in a company change, with the result being that many of the leader’s contacts may be gone. If the leader has stayed on top of what is going on with his client, he hopefully will have been introduced to new players so that the overall client relationship can be perpetuated.
Some super producers accomplish this by making yearly (at a minimum) trips to see clients. Savvy leaders bring other team members with them if those lawyers play important roles with those clients. This demonstrates respect to those lawyers and also sends a crucial message to the client that those other lawyers are valued by the leader and the firm. The most successful rainmakers don’t bring these other lawyers as adornments who just smile in those meetings; rather, they give them important opportunities to contribute and frequently lead discussions.
Losing touch with clients, and only hearing about important developments derivatively through others, is not a game plan for long-term success. Elite rainmakers don’t let that happen and neither should you, even if you are only starting down the path toward hopefully becoming a big producer.
Frank Michael D’Amore is the founder of Attorney Career Catalysts, a Pennsylvania-based legal recruiting and consulting firm that focuses on law firm mergers and partner placements. He is a former partner in an AmLaw 200 firm, general counsel in privately held and publicly traded companies, and vice president of business development. Contact him at email@example.com.