This is an interesting time in the legal industry. In the past few months, we have watched the lay-offs of many strong associates and counsel. If you are one of the gainfully-employed associates, what can you do to secure your position at the firm? How can you prevent becoming a casualty in the future? By embracing the changes in the market and increasing your value to your firm!
When I was a junior associate, no one ever contemplated getting business or preparing to do so. Perhaps naively, we didn't consider that law firms were businesses. We thought that, if we did great work, there would be a place for us at the firm. We all wouldn't make partner, but we'd get fabulous experience and then move into an in-house position or a law firm outside of the top 20 who would cherish us for our legal skills and training. Although that was only ten years ago, it might as well be one hundred given the changes in the legal market. Today, associates at all levels need to demonstrate value and the skills that will sustain the firm's business in the future.
Business development is about building relationships. You want to get to know people and have them know you. It is all about building a network of contacts that you can leverage in the future. No one expects a junior or mid-level associate to go out and land a Fortune 100 client – that's not how it works. At your level, you should be building contacts and legal expertise, both of which you'll need in the future. You should demonstrate to your firm that you have a potentially bright future in rainmaking.
Here are some basics for venturing into business development. The earlier you begin to build skills in this area, the more successful you will be either at your current firm or your next one!
Increase Your Profile
- Meet your colleagues – especially in other practices. Believe me, they are a great source of future business. Make sure that you know as many attorneys at your firm as you can. Attend firm events, lunches, and presentations. If possible, give the presentation!
- Attend professional events outside the firm. Try to attend legal conferences and other professional events. Breakfast meetings and CLE presentations are useful both for contacts and information.
- Get the word out. Tell friends and family (especially non-lawyers) what you do for a living. Practice your 30-second “elevator pitch” - summarizing who you are and what you do – on them. Definitely practice the pitch and the delivery. Don't sound over-rehearsed!
- Write articles. As a junior and mid-level associate, you should be offering to co-author articles with partners and senior associates. These articles can be as simple as a posting on your firm's blog, a client alert or as complex as a PLI article on a novel aspect of law. All published works increase your profile.
- Get out of the office and meet people. Engage in activities that you enjoy and meet like-minded folks. Increase the amount of people who know you.
- Keep in touch with your classmates and former colleagues. Many of your classmates and colleagues are future clients or a future source of referrals.
- Join LinkedIn and other social networking sites. LinkedIn is a terrific way to reconnect with former friends and colleagues, as well as to meet new people through its many groups. Best of all, you can network at your desk or late at night after you have left the office. I am a big proponent of social networking. It offers so many opportunities for new business and new contacts.
- Join groups like alumni groups and boards of nonprofits.
Learn from Others
- Each firm has partners who are famous for their rainmaking ability – some are even legendary. Study how these partners get business. Many of them are probably experts in their field and sought out by clients.
- Study how senior associates and junior partners manage their business development efforts, as their strategies might be more suited to you.
- Pay attention to how partners and senior associates interact with clients. Client service is so important.
- If your firm offers seminars on business development, make sure that you sign up.
- After observing others, find a style that works for you.
Be Helpful, Responsive and Pleasant
- You can accomplish so much by being helpful, responsive and pleasant. If you can think of how to help a contact (add value), that is terrific. It can strengthen your relationship.
- One of my former colleagues tells a story about how he first secured business as a second year: He was a junior corporate associate (admittedly with 5 years of prior business experience) who was asked by a partner in a foreign office to help two VCs on a tiny matter in Northern California. A tiny matter. The two VCs came to the office and the associate helped them process a few basic forms. While they were completing the forms, they told the associate about a project that they were contemplating. The associate had recently read something on the subject, and later forwarded the article to the VCs. Months later, when the VCs decided to work on the project, they contacted the associate and brought the matter to his firm. $2M in fees - all because of an article and a conversation! It amuses the former associate (now general counsel) to this day. You truly never know how new business might originate.
Develop Substantive Knowledge
It is never too early to lay the foundation for business development. As an associate, business (and potential business) increases your value to your firm. In addition to providing current job security, a book of business will open many doors for you later in your career.
- Before someone will give you business, they'll want to know that you are a skilled attorney. You must know what is going on in your practice, what the hot issues are, etc. Your conversations with future clients will undoubtedly be substantive. Make sure that, as you are progressing up the associate ladder, your knowledge base is as well.
- As noted above, writing articles can help to increase your profile and, more importantly, to position you as an expert. Some of my former tax colleagues are prolific authors on complicated and arcane topics and are published in every type of publication – BNAs, PLIs, tax periodicals, etc. Each of these noted experts is often the first attorney to receive a call from a company who needs advice in that specific area.
- As you are developing substantive knowledge in your practice area, you should also try to develop general business skills, too. If you are a corporate attorney, knowing the basics of accounting, tax and finance can be a huge plus. Gaining knowledge of an industry is also valuable. Business knowledge can improve your awareness of the needs of the companies that will, hopefully, be your clients one day.