Q: I hear and read a lot about partners’ “book of business” and “portables.” While I understand those terms, I am not involved in the hiring process at my firm, have spent my entire career here, and do not know about the realities of how the numbers really play out. I ask, because I have begun to more carefully think about moving to another law firm. Are there any guidelines that I can use in formulating what my portables are? This is tricky for me since I work with a lot of companies that have relationships with multiple partners in my firm.
A: The short answer is that there is no magical equation that answers your question. One of the best ways of tackling this issue is to put your client relationships in three categories. Category number one is an easy one to define. As you know, law firms like to espouse the maxim that clients hire a firm, and not an individual lawyer. In many situations this is true, especially where there has been a long-term relationship with the firm or the clients needs are handled by quite a few lawyers in the organization.
Clients in this category, as you would fully expect, are likely to stay with your firm, so you should determine the value of that work and put it aside. Conversely, there are many in-house lawyers who are quite open about their propensity not to hire law firms, but to retain individual lawyers who they trust and respect. My guess is that you probably have some clients of that ilk.
In this scenario, which we’ll label category number two, the partners who enjoy those type of relationships can safely put the business they originate from those clients in the portables column.
Category number three is the indeterminate realm that is at the vortex of the competing interests of institutionalization and personalization of client relationships. This category includes clients that you may have originally brought in, but who now have relationships with other lawyers who have handled some of their work, and “firm” clients, or clients of other lawyers with whom you have forged an especially good relationship through the work that you have done for them.
So, to turn to your question, it is important to review your origination and working receipts numbers for the past three years (or five, if possible) as this length of time evens out particularly good or bad years, and will allow you to derive an average number. I recommend that you eliminate all business that falls into category one and include that business that comes from category two.
More conservative attorneys may discount some of the category-two business, perhaps by 10 percent or so, since one never knows, for sure, whether all of that business will follow. The hard work lies in category three. Ethical rules prevent you from calling clients to ask them if they would accompany you in a move, so you must carefully consider how strong your relationships are with these clients.
I have found that partners who are painstaking and brutally honest in making these assessments normally are accurate in predicting what business will follow them in this category. These partners often are also pleasantly surprised by the “bonus” clients, who they assumed would not come, but who ended up making the trek with them to their new firm. Adding the final numbers from categories two and three should provide you with a fairly reliable projection.
I would caution you, though, to the extent there is uncertainty, to err on the side of understating your numbers. It is much better for you to out perform your numbers, especially if a fair compensation plan has been negotiated, than it would be to produce below your projections.
Q: I am the general counsel at a midsized private company. I really like my position and company, but I am concerned about the company’s ongoing prospects, as we have been selling off many of our assets. I am very involved with professional committees in one of my practice areas and try to attend functions related to my field. I don’t want to endanger my current position, but I struggle in how to let people know that I am open to exploring other opportunities. I would appreciate whatever advice you could provide.
A: You have touched on a topic that beguiles all employed job searchers who need to protect their identity. Since most attorneys, particularly those who pursue in house positions, tend to find them through networking, you have honed in on a very important, and tricky, point.
I would first focus on your closest friends and colleagues; in so doing, compile a short list of those you implicitly trust and believe can, and will, act with prudence and caution. You should openly tell such persons to keep you in mind if they hear of appropriate opportunities, as this will significantly increase your odds of finding something.
There may be a select few in this group who could help you just a bit more. In this regard, if your relationship with a few in this tight circle is especially strong, you could consider asking them to selectively be “out front” for you. These persons could potentially be asked to refer you to others they know who may be key contacts for you in your search. They could also, in some limited circumstances, contact a particular person in a company that interests you.
Your close friend can describe you (without revealing your identity) and can also attest to your abilities. At the risk of belaboring the obvious, you must pick your spots with such colleagues, as you do not want to overstep the bounds of friendship. I would caution you to be much more careful with all others, especially those who you meet for the first time.
Your goal should be to develop deeper relationships with others. In so doing, adopt the credo that networking will not be about you; rather, it will be focused on learning more about others and trying to figure out ways in which you can help them. If you can do this, you likely will find that you will have developed a new circle of persons who will want to return the favors you did for them.
Your relationship with this group will likely not have evolved as deeply as your inner circle, so you cannot so openly discuss your job goals with them. However, it may be such that you can, off handedly, note that although you are very happy right now, you always like to hear about other opportunities, especially since they could also be of interest to friends and other lawyers you know.
Although you have introduced some risk, such persons, who, again, now want to help you, should be able to decipher your message and should also appreciate the need to protect your identity. Adding this second group of persons to your job search network will infinitely increase your odds of hearing about opportunities and hopefully landing a new position. Good luck.
FRANK M. D’AMORE is the founder of Attorney Career Caytalysts, www.attycareers.com, a Pennsylvania-based legal recruiting, consulting and training firm. 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. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.