As the national economy continues to struggle through slow growth in the aftermath of the 2008 recession, employment opportunities for new graduates and young professionals are at a premium. Lawyers and law firms have certainly not been spared. Reduced job opportunities, attorney layoffs, partner de-equitizations and even firm bankruptcies have been reported with increased regularity. Although the law may be a privileged profession, it is also a business and subject to the same market forces as other private enterprises.
In light of these economic uncertainties and reduced job opportunities, now more than ever, young lawyers need to allocate significant time and energy to business development. Unfortunately, business development is rarely taught or even mentioned in law school and law firms systemically fail to provide proper training or guidance to young associates. Therefore, it is incumbent upon young lawyers to take the initiative in establishing a future client base. This article explores ideas and opportunities young lawyers may consider in laying the groundwork for future business development.
The tried and true methods of generating business should not be discounted: networking, joining organizations and attending seminars and conferences are crucial to establishing a presence in the industry. But there are other ways of generating business that benefit society and improve the legal community, such as volunteering, pro bono and charitable work, or simply participating in community events. These endeavors are not only personally and socially rewarding — they often foster meaningful relationships with people who will then be more likely to remember your name the next time they need to refer a legal matter.
In writing this article, we are of course cognizant of the fact that bringing in a client means different things to different people. Being hired by an individual seeking recourse for a personal injury is materially different from being selected to represent an insurance company in defending a claim or landing a Fortune 500 corporate client. To this end, we attempted to target our suggestions to all young attorneys, regardless of practice.
START WITH WHAT YOU’VE GOT
Before getting into the specifics, a disclaimer is in order: If you want a successful practice, you start with the one you have and if you want to attract more clients in the future, it is imperative that you provide excellent service to your current clients. It does not matter what area of the law you practice in — current clients are a great referral source for future clients. If you provide clients with top-notch service and favorably resolve their legal issues, they are far more likely to come back to you in the future and recommend you to others. Providing great service requires both legal expertise and non-legal consideration like returning calls promptly and accommodating a client’s schedule. It also means continuing to nurture relationships by staying in touch with clients, even after a matter resolves. Current clients are arguably a lawyer’s most valuable asset and they should be treated that way. So before spending time and money finding new clients, take care of the ones you already have.
HAVE A PLAN
To ensure future clients, the most important step for a young lawyer is to have a plan. The second most important step is to stick with it. The plan is paramount and should be one of the first orders of business for a new lawyer. Your business development plan does not need to be elaborate, sophisticated or expensive, especially early on. However, our guess is that almost all attorneys five years out of law school will admit regret for not developing and implementing a plan from the start, present company included. As discussed in more detail later, one of the primary goals of a business development plan should simply be to get other people to know who you are. Join the young lawyers division of your local bar association and attend events. Try to eat lunch with someone outside your firm once a week. Attend social events and be active in your community. To make your commitment more concrete, put these activities or events on your calendar and schedule around them.
This is not to suggest that sticking with a plan is easy. Like most worthwhile pursuits, it takes time, effort and persistence. It is easy to get discouraged when the financial and time commitment necessary to effectuate a business development plan does not yield immediate results. Indeed, it can take a number of years before any new cases or clients begin coming through the door. This is where persistence becomes essential. Young lawyers need to approach business development as a long-term undertaking that requires a steadfast commitment. After all, if bringing in business were easy, every attorney would be a rainmaker. Attending a conference or bar association meeting when your work schedule is jam-packed takes discipline. So does volunteering for a legal clinic on a Thursday night. Business development, thus, should be treated like a crucial component of a young lawyer’s job, no different than getting a brief filed on time or preparing for an important deposition. Treating client development as a mandatory part of the job, not just extra credit, makes it easier to stay motivated and engaged over the long term.
BE AN EXPERT AND MAKE SURE PEOPLE KNOW IT
Another crucial step in generating business is developing an expertise in your chosen area of law. If you want to attract clients, you need something you can sell. A thorough understanding of the legal issues your client currently faces, or may face in the future, and an ability to favorably resolve them is a tremendous asset. So study your area of the law and be up-to-date on all current developments. Also understand that it is not necessarily enough to be an expert in your field — you need people to know that you are an expert.
So make an effort to talk about your work. Speaking at a CLE or conference is a great opportunity to develop name recognition, but don’t stop there. Tell your friends and family about what you are working on, as they can be a great built-in referral source. Young attorneys have a tendency to think that their close friends and family already know what they are doing and will have an ear open for potential clients or cases. This is not necessarily true, so make sure you keep your friends and family apprised of your specialty and that you are always accepting new clients. Also, when speaking about your work, show enthusiasm. Enthusiasm is an attractive quality and the simple truth is that people are more likely to remember who you are and what you do if you are passionate about it.
In addition to speaking about their work, young lawyers should also make a commitment to generating written content on their chosen areas of law. Using print and social media to distribute legal articles or observations is an excellent (and cheap) way to educate both the public and other practitioners about developments in your field and to establish your expertise. Young lawyers should commit to write and submit at least two articles per year to legal publications or trade magazines. This commitment should be backed up with periodic reminders in your calendar to keep you on track.
Another valuable and less formal opportunity is generating content that can be used for a legal blog. Many firms today have their own blogs and there are many private blogs that will accept submissions. Although the number of consistent readers may vary, blog content will show up in Google searches and you never know who may stumble upon your article. It is not unusual for our firm to receive calls from potential clients and other practitioners concerning the content of a blog entry.
As referenced above, networking is a crucial component of any business development plan. It is also an area many young lawyers greatly neglect. Right or wrong, networking has a number of negative connotations these days. A lot of lawyers view it as artificial and contrived and therefore shun it as undignified or not worthy of their time. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Networking is a crucial component of a business development plan and does not need to be an empty or artificial exercise. In fact, it shouldn’t be. Networking is not simply about meeting people or shaking hands; it’s about forming meaningful relationships.
There are many forms of networking, but in our opinion, the most rewarding and impactful occurs when you reach out and help someone without any expectation of receiving something in return. Volunteer work, pro bono representation and other forms of selfless contribution are not only civically, socially and professionally commendable — they provide unique opportunities to get to know different people, in different places that you might not otherwise have come across. Although these interactions are not motivated by personal gain, the connections you make along the way might very well lead to compensable work down the line. Recasting networking from a contrived, artificial activity to a secondary benefit of meaningful, voluntary contribution makes it a far more palatable business development activity.
At some point, most young lawyers will sit opposite an attorney whose strategy is to demean, bully and attempt to dominate the litigation or transaction. While the antics of such an attorney may leave a lasting impression, it is certainly not a favorable one. Too often, attorneys treat being unreasonable as a substitute for good lawyering. The result, in addition to offending opposing counsel to the point of not wanting to refer you future clients, is that you will be looked upon more as a caricature than as a skilled professional. True, we have chosen an adversarial profession, but we should never surrender courtesy to our colleagues. Showing respect is not a sign of weakness; cases are won in the courtroom and in motion papers, not by striving to be the least accommodating litigant.
There is an infinite number of ideas and strategies lawyers can use to generate business, many just as good as or better than what we have suggested. Effective business development strategies can be highly individualized and you should certainly experiment with what works for you. Nevertheless, it is imperative that young lawyers start thinking about and implementing business development plans from the very start of their careers. In reality, the surest way to ensure job security in today’s economic climate is to have a book of profitable business and don’t believe anyone who tells you differently. Although it can be hard work, tiresome and at times dispiriting, in the long run, lawyers will be far better off professionally if they focus on strategies to generate business from the start of their careers.
James P. Goslee is an attorney at Cohen, Placitella & Roth. He specializes in personal injury, medical malpractice and complex litigation.
Matthew T. Stone is an associate at the firm. He specializes in medical malpractice and complex litigation and was recently elected to the executive committee of the Philadelphia Bar Association young lawyers division.