In big law firms, partners traditionally bring in the work; senior associates manage the work; and junior associates do the work. When new partners are promoted they must acquire a whole new skillset. They have to market themselves and build client relationships without really knowing how, as this was not part of their job before they were promoted.
We oversimplify of course, but not enough firms focus on the development of skills needed to build client relationships. Perhaps it is not consistent with a business model to invest in that development. But for many firms it is imperative that they invest in inter-generational excellence and train young lawyers to focus on what lies ahead. In the 21st century, no one can take client loyalty for granted; we have to earn it continuously.
Of equal importance, junior lawyers should not wait until they are up for partnership before going out and building business. With this in mind, here are 10 tips for junior lawyers that should assist in laying the foundation of a successful practice.
Play the long game
Client relationships are at the heart of any thriving practice. Obviously, everything we do stands and falls with the quality of our work product, but those are table stakes. It is what gets you through the door in a major firm. What distinguishes a commercially successful partner is that they can couple this technical ability with relationships to clients who appreciate it (and are willing to pay for it). Clients want lawyers who show that they understand their business and listen carefully to their needs.
Client relationships, like all relationships, take time to build. We cannot bank on being given work by someone who does not know us. As one senior partner put it: ‘Much of my business comes from people I met when I was a student.’
So if you are a junior associate reading this, now is the perfect time to make the connections that will be the core of your client base. For example, many of the people you went to law school with will wind up as in-house counsel. The biggest source of work for major firms, by a wide margin, is in-house lawyers. So maintaining the relationships you have in your peer group now will be an invaluable asset later on in your career.
Keep in touch with these people. It is much easier to keep relationships going than to re-establish them once you have lost contact. Keeping in touch is not difficult, once you get into the habit. There is no ‘right’ way of doing it. Personally, we swear by an up-to-date address book. And we contact each person in that book at least once a year. We write a lot of holiday cards and personal notes.
You have made a start, reached out to all of your contacts in the legal world and pushed your firm. But no work comes in. You pitch for a deal or a case and you are rejected. The instinctive reaction would be to give up. Don’t.
To build business you will have to be able to metabolise failure. Not everyone you approach will give you work. And those who do will usually take a long time to get to know you before they trust you with their legal issues. A sales consultant reported that on average it takes eight meetings or ‘client touches’ to generate one sale.
So persistence is key. It is crucial that you do not just stop part-way through the relationship-building process. This mistake is made more commonly than you might think. A general counsel once complained that lawyers will contact her, establish a relationship, take her out to lunch and then, just when she is ready to instruct them, stop getting in touch. She concluded that these lawyers did not authentically care about the client, but cared more about bringing in business.
The days of ‘silos’, of partners viewing client contacts as personal property, are over. Modern law firms can only thrive as collaborative enterprises. If your law firm has not cottoned on to this fact, there is something seriously wrong with the way it is run, or it is being built without sufficient regard for intergenerational success.
So embed your business development efforts as deeply as possible within your firm. Bring colleagues in on your relationships. Link your contacts with colleagues from other practice groups who have experience your contacts may need. This will strengthen your client’s relationship with your firm and thus with you. And it will boost your standing within the firm, which is a huge factor in career progression, especially at the junior end. So by helping others in your firm build business, you will help yourself. If that is not true, you are at the wrong firm. It is that simple.
This does not only apply to your own contacts. Look out for cross-selling opportunities in relation to your firm’s existing clients. As a junior associate, you will often be better placed to do this than partners.
Know what you are selling and to whom
Generic sales pitches are rarely successful. To spot cross-selling opportunities you need to match a client’s particular needs to the particular strengths of your firm. In other words, know your client’s business. Read their public filings. Also, know your firm. Introduce your clients to what your firm does well authentically and build a relationship of trust from that starting point.
This sounds trite but it is harder than you think, especially when it comes to your own firm. Major law firms today are often huge. Our firm, for instance, has more than 2,000 lawyers across 46 offices with experience in a vast number of practice areas and types of deals and disputes. It takes effort to keep on top of what the firm does and does not do; what it is good at; how it operates. So absorb as much information about your firm as possible. Read up on it and follow it in the legal press, for instance. And do not ignore those internal update emails we all get (tempting though that sometimes may be).
Learn from others
Business development is like any other aspect of our job: to get good at it, you have to learn the ropes. You can teach yourself, of course, but in our experience it is much better (and more rewarding) to learn from those who are good at it already. So identify potential mentors: partners who you know have a strong business focus. Also reach out to your firm’s business development support team (they are extremely useful people to get to know). Explain to them that this is something you are interested in and ask them how they do it. Many senior people like to be asked for advice (it is flattering), so they will be happy to teach you the tricks of the trade.
An even better way of tapping into the knowhow of colleagues is to help them with their business development. For instance, if you know that a colleague is about to pitch for a deal or deliver a seminar to clients, offer to lend a hand with the presentation slides. They will be glad to have some help and you will get a real-life insight into the process.
Few lawyers can build a sustainable practice solely on the basis of the contacts they made at school and university (vitally important though they are). Expanding your network is a must. That is why we make a point of mingling with potential clients on a regular basis (at least every couple of weeks). We attend a seminar, client party or drinks event, even if we would rather go home after work.
Bear in mind a few rules. One, it takes time to build relationships. Never go to an event expecting to get work. View these things as merely the first step. Following up with new contacts and establishing a real relationship is just as important.
Two, be relaxed about networking. If you go to a social event consumed by the thought you ‘must get business’, people you talk to will pick up on it. ‘New age’ though this might sound, you need to send out the vibe that you actually enjoy people’s company.
Three, you are likely to be able to generate business from many sources. So think outside the box in terms of the contacts you make. Seminars to do with your chosen field and membership in specialist organisations are a great way to expand your network, but so is being active in the alumni association of your university or sports club, and a vast number of other places besides. Some of us have had great success by involvement in charitable or community service efforts. When clients see you passionately fighting for a cause, they may want to enlist that passion in other endeavours.
Remember: colleagues are clients too
Law firms usually have a confederate structure, with partners enjoying a good deal of autonomy. Much of our work comes in through individual partners and teams, and whoever brings in the work will have a big say in how it is allocated.
They, like external clients, often turn to people they know. In a very real sense, therefore, colleagues are also clients. It is important to build and maintain a network within your firm. As today’s law firms can be so large, not even partners have guaranteed name recognition throughout the network without making an effort.
So treat colleagues in other practice groups and offices just like you would a potential client. Try to get to know them; keep in touch; make it known you are available to help; assist them with identifying new opportunities. In short, be as helpful as possible.
Do not think you are too busy
It is natural to think ‘I’ll leave the business development stuff for when I have a bit of spare time’. However, it does not work that way.
There is no denying it: the busier we are, the more value we add to our firm. As a result, for many lawyers (including the authors), how busy we are directly affects how well we think we are doing our jobs.
We are best when we are confident. That is more true of business development than pretty much any other aspect of lawyering: to sell your services, you have to be convinced they are worth buying.
So the best time to make an effort to network, build relationships and pitch for work is when we already have lots of work. Of course there is a cut-off point beyond which you are just too busy. But apart from that, we have found that this is an astonishingly accurate rule of thumb.
We both enjoy the business development part of our job. We suspect that, like projecting self-confidence, this is a vital ingredient of success. It is possible to be good at parts of this job you do not like. For example, it is difficult to enjoy the disclosure stage of litigation, but it is far less difficult to excel at it. It is much harder to imagine being a successful business generator if you do not enjoy generating business.
So try to have fun. Enjoy connecting with people, enjoy learning about new areas of business and the law and do not be discouraged or change your perspective if your new strategies do not reap immediate rewards.
Craig Budner is a partner and Hendrik Puschmann a senior associate at K&L Gates