It’s a disturbing era to be a young associate at a large law firm. In the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, many firms have dramatically cut back on their hiring and partner promotions. As work has dried up, firms began relying more heavily on contract attorneys and outsourcing overseas, giving those contractors work that would once have been given to junior associates. Those associates who remain behind may be concerned about their own careers. Even if they do good work and put in the demanding hours expected of them, they may no longer be able to rely on a smooth, unbroken path to partnership.
Fortunately, some of the ways to become partner haven’t changed. In good times and especially in bad, law firms value attorneys who can bring in new business. Many associates don’t see the need to start developing their own business until they’re near partnership or even already partners — but they’re missing an opportunity. By starting to cultivate prospects just a few years out of law school, associates can stand out from their colleagues. And luckily for younger attorneys who understand the Internet, many of those opportunities are available online.
Building a book of business is all about getting and keeping clients. That can be a daunting task for people who have only recently finished law school. Business development is not a skill that law schools teach, and not everyone is a natural rainmaker. Associates who were very good students and hard workers may know all about legal research and brief writing, but not have a single clue how to find clients.
One easy way to change that is to take advantage of your law firm’s mentoring programs. Most large law firms have formal mentorship programs for beginning associates, in which older attorneys at the firm make themselves available to help younger attorneys adjust. If you’re involved in one of these programs, or can sign up for one, take full advantage by asking your mentor for advice on building business. An older mentor will probably understand the challenges you’re facing, because he or she was in your position years ago. Chances are, your mentor will be delighted to share the strategies and ideas developed over those years.
If you don’t have a formal mentoring relationship, consider seeking out an informal one within your law firm. To do that, seek out an older attorney whose business development skills you admire. This doesn’t have to be someone in your practice area or even someone you’ve worked with before, although of course an introduction helps. In fact, it may be best not to have a direct supervisor for a mentor, although a good relationship from past work or something you have in common may help you get your foot in the door.
To get real benefits from a mentoring relationship, you should take an active role. That doesn’t mean just showing up to a series of scheduled meetings. Rather, think about tapping into this person’s experience as a rainmaker. You might start out by asking what has worked for him or her in the past, then seeing if you can apply that advice in your own practice. As time moves on, you can occasionally email or meet with your mentor when you have questions or concerns about your client development efforts. With luck, you might also find that you enjoy the mentor’s company and, if appropriate, work well together.
Internal networking also means taking advantage of firmwide networking opportunities. Large law firms frequently hold workshops, roundtables and retreats that bring together large groups of attorneys who may not work together. They may also have internal social network websites, mailing lists and other online groups to join. You may wonder at first how internal networking can give you external clients, but don’t blow off these opportunities. Introduce yourself and get to know your colleagues, because those relationships can lead to referrals and interesting work.
For example, if you’re an employment litigator, getting to know a corporate transactional attorney may seem more like recreation than business. But when that attorney’s client is ready to acquire a company with a pending wage-and-hour class action, that attorney will need to bring someone with your skills on board. If you have a good relationship, that someone could be you — and if you do good work, the client may remember you when it faces litigation in the future.
Of course, to apply your mentor’s rainmaking advice and develop your own clients, you’ll have to go outside the firm. Luckily, there are ample opportunities to do this both inside and outside law firms. One way to start is with the external networking opportunities provided by the firm. Law firms may hold their own client receptions or dinners, which bring together clients with the firm’s attorneys. This is an opportunity to “cross-sell” your services to a client that uses attorneys in another practice, or even a potential client. A business card and a few minutes of conversation is all it takes to make a good impression.
There’s no need to stop with firm-hosted networking opportunities. Look outside the firm to meet businesspeople who may be looking for a lawyer. You can frequently join groups like a local chamber of commerce, your alumni associations and political groups to expand your circle. If you belong to an affinity group within your firm, you can often join an outside version for businesspeople in your area. Local and specialty bar associations can help you meet colleagues who might refer work (or hire you) later.
And of course, if you already work with someone who may be a potential client, it’s vital to stay in touch with that person. After all, he or she already knows and appreciates your work and has shared experiences with you. Don’t discount your social contacts either. The other parents at your child’s daycare center may also be busy professionals, and some of them might need a lawyer. A personal relationship is one of the best and most lasting ways to get business. If you’re memorable, pleasant and clear that you’re available for work, they may think of you when they need a lawyer.
And then there are online opportunities. With online networking, there’s no geographic limitation, no rigid time constraints and no “rubber chicken” dinners in hotel ballrooms. The Internet allows you to reach out to more people, on your own schedule. One very good online networking opportunity is blogging on a legal topic related to your work. This has multiple advantages: it builds your credibility as an expert, requires you to keep up with your topic and connects you with others online who are interested in the same legal things. As you grow your blog, or blawg, you can add other bloggers to your blogroll and start commenting on their work, building your online connections in the same way you build them offline.
Along those same lines, another online networking opportunity is mailing and discussion lists built around a specific legal topic. These are conducted over email, so they come directly into your inbox. Polite, professional discussions you have on those mailing lists can build your reputation with people interested in the topic, including potential clients and referral sources.
And consider using social networking as a client development tool. Twitter, Facebook and legal networking sites put you in contact with your client development contacts every day and make it extremely easy to keep track of things like their birthdays and major work changes. This is networking gold, because the more interactions you have with potential clients, the better they will remember you. If you’re uncomfortable sharing your personal accounts with work contacts, consider starting new accounts — just be sure to use them to interact with people and post your work-related victories, media mentions and other professional news.
Keep Up With Your Contacts
Once you’ve developed professional contacts, it’s absolutely vital to keep up with them. Experts say it takes an average of seven significant contacts with a person over a year or more before you get any actual business. That means building your book of business will be a slow task — but one that eventually pays off.
Online, it should be easy to keep up with business prospects. The structure of social media sites and email discussion lists means prospects’ communications and news come directly to you (and vice versa). Blogs require a bit more effort, but provide deeper discussions.
Offline, your best bet is to make a plan for keeping up with contacts. Different strategies work for different attorneys, but your goal should be to ensure that contacts don’t fall out of touch. You might have lunch with the client every few months; send emails about new developments relevant to the client’s needs; or arrange to catch up at a convention. As you progress in your career, you’ll likely discover what works best with your personality and practice.
And whatever you do, don’t abandon the project. Bringing in business is one of the most important things you can do to be successful at any business, including a law firm. Working hard and producing quality work certainly matter — but if you’re trying to stand out as an associate, developing your business is a key way to do it. By planting the seeds of relationships early in your career, you’re growing potential clients who may be ready for harvest just as you’re ready to be considered for partnership.