New lawyer skills focus: client development by cross-selling

Every lawyer working in a law firm is aware that she will someday be expected to bring in new clients.  Rainmaking is a key skill for professional advancement, and it’s never too early to begin building those skills.

New lawyers face particular challenges in beginning to build a business development program, simply because they’re new.  It’s tough to promote a firm or its lawyers without knowing the lawyers fairly well, knowing who cover what area of practice and what experience they have, and even how the firm approaches potential clients or how it handles new engagements.

Networking is the place to start.  There are two basic kinds of networking for lawyers: internal and external.  I alluded in an earlier post to the concept that all lawyers have internal (i.e., in-firm) clients in addition to the external clients we normally refer to as such.  New lawyers need first to learn about the internal clients: who handles real estate work?  Is her practice limited to commercial real estate?  Who are representative clients?  Some of this comes naturally as you get to know other lawyers, but particularly in a large firm it can take quite a bit of effort.  Best ways to begin learning:

  • Go back to the firm’s website.  Read, carefully, each lawyer’s profile.  Yes, you probably did this when you interviewed, but now you’re reading so you know who to call when a potential client needs to talk to someone in another area of practice.
  • At all-attorney meetings or cocktail parties, or over informal lunches, make it your habit to learn more about at least one lawyer’s practice.  Ask good questions, keep the lawyer talking, and you’ll be regarded as a sparkling conversationalist — because, after all, we all enjoy talking about ourselves, and lawyers love telling their war stories.  A terrific question to ask: “Who is your ideal client?”  Or, “How would I know that someone I’m talking with would be a good client for you?”  (Caution: be sure that you’re really engaged in the conversation and genuinely curious.  Otherwise, this question will sound fake and uneducated.  Common sense required.)
  • If your firm publishes a newsletter of recent developments, read it.

These tips will help you to develop your awareness for cross-selling opportunities.  So, if your client mentions a problem in another legal area (say you practice IP and your client mentions an employment issue) you can be ready to suggest exactly which lawyer in your firm your client should talk with, and you can make that connection.  Cross-selling to satisfied current clients is probably the easiest kind of client development you can do.


More on loyalty (or the lack thereof) between associate and firm

Associate retention continues to be a hot topic, especially as law firms seek ways to hold tight to the associates they’ve attracted at least in part by paying top dollar… and as associates eye the rising pay scales.

Arnie Herz of Legal Sanity has posted an interesting discussion (no longer available) on the disengaged employee, using a lot of buzzwords to suggest, I think, that legal employers need to focus on leadership development and employer/employee relationships.  He cites several reports for support, including a Deloitte report entitled, It’s 2008: Do You Know Where Your Talent Is? (no longer available)

I find it interesting that relationship seems to be in vogue now, and I wonder whether the trend will continue.  Are we moving toward a softer, gentler business environment?  And if so, what will be the effect of the softness on the business?  Is this just the current version of Emotional Intelligence?  I suppose only time will tell.  What I do know for sure, though, is that genuine interest is what will help the legal profession.  Lawyers need to be genuinely interested — invested, even — in their clients’ aims.  Associates need to be genuinely interested in the goals of their law firms.  Partners need to be genuinely interested in the associates’ development and their goals.

And money… Associate loyalty can’t be bought.  Although it’s less often discussed, neither can partner loyalty — as is illustrated by the large number of partners who now jump from one firm to another (and perhaps back), something that would have been anathema only a few years ago.  It’s possible to purchase a widget, to purchase a set amount of a lawyer’s time.  But retention requires much more.

Underpromise and overdeliver

One of the most critical parts of establishing a career, as well as finding work/life balance, is conducting oneself in a way that lets others know they can rely on your word.  We’ve all had the experience of counting on someone to carry through on a promise and discovering that they didn’t.  Even when there’s a great reason, the next time we have an opportunity to count on them, we may well choose not to, or to build in a backup plan just in case.  Being a professional requires on-time delivery; life requires flexibility.  So how to manage?

Underpromise.  Overdeliver.  Every time.

If you’re asked when a memo will be ready, figure out what’s a reasonable amount of time, add some breathing room, and deliver before you say you will.  If you mention an article that might be helpful to someone and they respond, don’t stop there — send a copy to them.  (This is a good networking skill, too.)  If a more senior lawyer asks for the stack of cases referenced in a memo, go the extra mile: create a table of contents, including a few words about the key proposition of each case, so it’s easy to see what’s in the stack and why.

It’s about time and presentation.  Excel in both.

Now, the caveat: know when it’s appropriate to surpass a request and when it isn’t.  If someone wants bullet points as an outline for a telephone hearing with the court, writing out narrative paragraphs won’t be helpful.  Always use common sense to figure out what would be useful, and be sure to make your evaluation using the “Platinum Rule”: do unto others as they would have you do unto them.

And if you’re wondering why this has anything to do with work/life balance, think about this.  Suppose an associate works from home a couple of days a week.  Wouldn’t you feel comfortable with this only if you know that associate will deliver every time and will meet (and probably exceed) your expectations?

This level of professionalism opens doors.  It establishes a reputation that will serve you well.

New lawyer skills focus: Are you losing time?

I don’t know a single lawyer who enjoys billing.

I do know a bunch of lawyers who leave completing their time sheets until the end of the month.

That means that I know a lot of lawyers who lose time.

It isn’t a sexy topic .  There’s no way that billing can be sexy, unless it’s at the heart of a criminal case that brings a lawyer down — but that isn’t the kind of sexy any of us wants to experience.  None of us wants to work without billing for it, though, so it is an important topic and one that’s simple in the abstract but challenging for many of us.

So, what works?  Plenty of legal management programs offer billing software that allows you to enter your client and a description of your work and then to monitor your time when you click start and stop.  It can be a pain, but if you get in the habit, it works beautifully.  I was able to track my time far more accurately by using software and increased my billing (legitimately) by about 10%.

If you don’t like software, make your own time-tracking sheets.  You (or your assistant) can make up a table with each of your active cases and a space to track your time and a few notes about what you’re doing.  Just making brief notes throughout the day will help, especially if you then transfer that data to your “real” timesheets.

Or get a calendar that divides the day into 15-minute increments, mark what you worked on every 15 minutes, and use your calendar as your timesheet.  Of course, that really only works well if you bill in .25-hour increments; otherwise, it gets messy quickly and whoever transcribes your time (especially if that’s you) will not be happy.

I think the best tip of all, though, is to make it your habit never to go to bed without making sure you’re current on your timesheets.  Don’t go to bed angry with your spouse, and don’t go to bed with your time unrecorded.

Relationship or one-night stand: how law firms view associates (and clients)

David Maister wrote a fascinating article titled, “Do You Really Want Relationships?”  He suggests that lawyers generally say we want relationships with our clients, long-standing interactions that tend to lead to more work in the future, more referrals, fewer challenges on billing, and more effective working relationships.  This, Maister describes as the “romance” view.  However, in practice, lawyers often act on the transactional view of client relations — “one-night-stands” — in which there’s little commitment beyond the immediate project, little trust, and an understanding on both sides that it’s “us” versus “them.”  Do read the article for a fuller discussion of this very interesting topic; it’s a terrific eye-opener.

What I want to talk about today, though, is a short section of the article that discusses viewing firm personnel in the relationship or transactional mode.

“Are you saying,” they ask me, “that I need to show an interest in my subordinates as people and care about their career ambitions?”

“Only if you want them to respond to you,” I reply.  “If your subordinates feel that you are prepared to work at a relationship with them, ensuring that both sides benefit, then they will give you more of what you want.  That’s human nature, not a political or religious point.

“But if they think that you, their superior, are just trying to get out of the deal more of what you want from them?  Harder work, more billable hours, whatever?  Then they will respond in kind.  They will view you as you are viewing them: useful only to the extent that they can get out of it when they want in the short run.

“There will be no long-term loyalty and no commitment to the larger interests of the firm, because you have set the patten that this is truly a temporary transation, not a relationship.  If you treat people as THEM, as objects, or as ‘other,’ they in turn will treat you instrumentally.”

And that, my friends, is the crux of the associate retention problem in big firms.  Maister nailed it, in my opinion.  Associates view partnership as a distant, likely unattainable goal, perhaps even a goal they don’t want to attain.  Firms offer money as the short-term benefit, “greedy associates” are born, and associates become eager to move on to the high bidder, to the firm where they can get the most short-term benefit, figuring that at some point they’ll end up in a firm where they can and will make partner — but that’s down the road after they’ve switched firms a few times.  (Of course, there’s nothing that will motivate a lawyer toward money like facing $100K or more in law school debt, but that’s another thread.)

What can law firms do to encourage good associates to stay?  Create a sense of mutual loyalty.  Pay attention to associates’ professional development, career satisfaction, and concern for the person.  Make sure associates know that they’re not fungible, that they’re part of a team, that they contribute to something important.  Help them recognize meaning in their work — and I’m not talking the do-gooder kind necessarily (though that often keeps lawyers working in public interest despite low pay, lack of resources, etc.), but the kind that comes from practicing an an area of law that fits, taking on advancing responsibilities, receiving appropriate guidance that promotes professional growth.  Say “thank you.”

If law firms do even some of these things, I suspect that associates who fit in the firm will be motivated to do their best and that they’ll want to stick around.  Am I wrong?  I’d love to find out.

More on (some) partners’ view of work/life balance

I recently posted about the negative view that some partners have of associates seeking work/life balance and suggested that perhaps transparency in employment is one answer to ensuring that those who want a “balanced” lifestyle (whatever that may mean) are able to find it in law firms composed of other lifestyle-focused lawyers.  I wondered whether that’s an overly rosy view.  Perhaps not.

An article from the Wall Street Journal (no longer available) discusses the perks and drains of working in a large law firm, stating that big-firm associate attrition is at record levels.  The story goes on to report a law student’s experience in interviewing with Cesar Alvarez, president of Greenberg Traurig:

Last fall, Cesar L. Alvarez, president of Greenberg Traurig, was interviewing a student at an Ivy League law school. The interview was just beginning when the student asked Mr. Alvarez to tell him what the “lifestyle would be like” at the firm.

The student didn’t get a “call-back” interview. “I told him that if he’s going to work at a large law firm, that mind-set isn’t going to get you very far,” recalls Mr. Alvarez, who is based in the firm’s Miami office. In his opinion, the question reflected the attitude of more and more young lawyers. “A generation ago, nobody would have asked that question, even if they’d thought of it. But there is a difference in people coming out of law school now.”

That’s transparency.  Granted, I would not have suggested the student ask that question early on (at the on-campus interview or when the interview was “just beginning”), nor would I have suggested that he ask it of the firm’s president.  But, assuming it was a conscious decision, the student evidently wanted to know about lifestyle as a litmus test on the firm; Mr. Alvarez’s response suggests that the question itself is a litmus test on the student.

The trick, of course, is whether transparency exists on the other end of the spectrum.  It’s far less risky to avoid focusing on lifestyle needs or desires during the interview, but the pain comes when the workload and hours required exceed what the associate expects.  (But do note that the article quotes Claude Millman, a Proskauer Rose partner, as being honest with lifestyle-conscious associates about the increasing client demands that comes with advancing seniority.)

And, as usual, the answer almost certainly lies in how the question is posed.  If work/life balance is billing 1300 hours annually, not many firms are going to be supportive.  If it’s billing 1800 or 2000 or 2100, that may be different.  The devil is in the details.

Why women are leaving law firms — and why they’re staying.

Red letter day here: two posts in one day.  This is a short one, though, just linking to an article worth reading.

Remember the much-discussed New York Times article titled, “Why Do So Few Women Reach the Top of Big Law Firms?”

A BCG recruiter has written an article that purports to recount a conversation among several counsel/partner-level women asking instead, “Why Are So Many Women Reaching the Top of Law Firms?”  Check it out.  Interesting stuff.

Work/life balance: the partners’ perspective

The May 2006 ABA Journal is full of interesting articles.  The most fascinating to me is titled “The Great Divide: Partners and Associates Are at Odds over Opposing Approaches to Work, Play and the Practice of Law.”  Unfortunately, the article is not (yet?) available online.  Get to your closest law library, if you aren’t an ABA member, and read this article.

Its thesis is that many partners believe there’s a generational conflict between themselves and young associates — Gen Y.  An unnamed partner at a New York-based national firm says that few young associates remain in the office after 5 PM, that few are motivated to work hard, that associates don’t appreciate the training and opportunities (not to mention high salaries) that firms shower on them.  Karen Turner McWilliams, of Reston, Virginia, is quoted as saying, “When I was coming up, associates did anything and everything they could to appease the partners.  That is no longer the case. . . . They really have bought into this work-life balance phenomenon that is pervading all industries.  So they are not willing to work as late, be on call, work weekends.  That is the mentality . . . It’s really not a bad thing.  I honestly can see both sides of the argument.”

Wow.  (I have to add that those comments don’t in any way reflect my experience.)

On the flip side, the article also describes young associates’ observation that unflagging enthusiasm for work is too often rewarded with layoffs or early retirement.  Accordingly, associates want to have a rounded life rather than being willing to work all hours for a higher profit-per-partner ratio, particularly now that partnership is a less certain reward and of less certain value than in the past.  Peter Ellis, an associate in the Chicago office of a large, international firm, argues that his peers do work hard in the office and that they carry work with them via BlackBerry, cell phone, and laptop when they’re away from the office.

What’s most striking to me in this story is the disconnect in viewpoints.  Of course, absent that schism, there would be no story.  But there must be at least a grain of truth to the descriptions — and they do in fact ring true.

In considering the merits of the two positions, I’m left with a quandry: is practice an either/or?  Is it a choice between being a 24/7 drone or being a work/life balance spoutin’ slacker?  And how do we measure this stuff, anyway?  Money, generally produced by billables, is the traditional measurement, but that seems to predetermine the conclusion since anything that reduces the number of hours that could otherwise be realized is detrimental under that scheme.

Perhaps there’s a tipping point between hefty-but-healthy hours and income and the hefty-but-unhealthy path to burnout.  Perhaps that’s where we’re headed.  In 1994, then-Chief Justice Rehnquist said that average billables in the 1960s were about 1450 per year as compared with an average of 2000 annual billable hours in the 1990s.  As always, the devil is in the details.  Is the tipping point 2050 average annual billable hours?  (Evidently not!)  Is it 2400?  Who gets to decide?

I’d submit that each group of lawyers, i.e. each firm, as well as each individual lawyer gets to decide and that in fact, we’re all deciding right now.  (And for the purposes of this discussion, my comments are limited to lawyers in private practice.)  If a lawyer is deciding between Firm A, which pays a high salary and has a mandatory minimum of 2000 billables, and Firm B, which pays an exhorbitant salary and has an unwritten goal of 2500 billables — doesn’t the lawyer get to decide?  She won’t be forced to either firm, though of course the weight of her law school debt may exert substantial pressure.  She has the ability to decide what she wants her work/life balance to look like, and as long as the hours in the work part of the equation is at least as high as the partners of her chosen firm expect, it’ll work.  (And if they are higher than expected, higher than her colleagues, the system will adapt or she will choose to leave for a firm with a commensurately higher pay scale or better opportunity in some other way.)

So then, isn’t the answer to have a completely open legal market, in which sweatshops admit to being sweatshops?  In which other firms establish their goals and identify which goals are truly aspirational and which are required?  In which candidates for employment say upfront that they’re unwilling to work weekends or to bring work home?  Ideally, I think that’s a part of the answer.  But the world doesn’t work that way.  And so we’re left with unstated expectations, the more senior lawyers’ sense of having stretched themselves in ways that the new crowd is unwilling to do — they don’t make ’em like they used to, you know — and younger lawyers torn between the siren song of more money, more more more, and the quieter but (at least for some) more fulfilling vision of a life.

And of course the intangibles remain: what value do younger lawyers place on training?  Mentoring?  An apprentice-style start to their career?  What value do more senior lawyers place on these same aspects?  And what’s the financial bottom line?  Not to mention the role of technology, though I do hope the article is dead wrong in reporting observations that senior lawyers don’t believe it’s possible to be working without being physically present in the office.

More answers than questions.  But the one answer that emerges crystal clear: it is incumbent upon each lawyer to know why he’s decided to practice law.  If it’s money, that’ll dictate one branch on the career path.  If it’s social justice, that’ll be another.  If it’s to help people, refinement is necessary to crystallize exactly what that means.  But without these markers, the young associate stands all too high a chance of ending up in a practice setting that can’t and won’t meet his vision for his career.  And then, the least damaging result will be a disconnect between his perspective and his senior partner’s.

Networking skills

Today’s post is for those of you who are fairly new to the practice and those who hate the idea of networking and business development more than anything else you can imagine.

Is anybody still reading?

Second (perhaps) to legal competence, business development is king of practice.  And to bring in business, it’s important to have a network of contacts who have — or in the future likely will have — legal issues you or your firm can service.  This is not news.

I’ve been doing a lot of networking lately, the formal kind where you go to a meeting armed with business cards and a smile and you leave with a stack of other people’s business cards and a serious question about whether the smilefest was worthwhile.  My take on it is that no “networking” event is, in and of itself, worthwhile.  It’s what happens afterward that makes the difference.  Networking isn’t about getting business on the spot, it’s about developing relationships that will lead to business, directly or indirectly, down the road.  Networking almost always requires the long-term approach. (A foreshadowing: I’ve recently found and will be posting about an article that suggests the relationship view of networking is popular in discussion but almost universally disliked by lawyers in fact.  But that’s for another day.)

A few thoughts on how to network well:

  • Make time and do it.  “Someday” and “later” have a way of never happening.
  • Be prepared with something to say.  Know what the big news story is, the key sports results, and have a positive or thoughtful comment.
  • Be prepared to introduce yourself in 15-20 seconds.  Without stumbling.  This is usually called the “elevator speech.”  Make it interesting.  If it’s boring to say, it’s boring to hear.
  • Carry business cards and have them easily accessible…..
  • ….But don’t offer indiscriminately them at the beginning of a conversation!  It’s far better to chat for a while, to know someone about the person, and then to ask for his or her business card.  What if, horror of horrors, they don’t reciprocate and ask for yours?  Not a problem.  Send them one when you follow up after the event.
  • When someone offers you a business card, look at it before you put it away.  A card is our tangible persona.  Notice it, accord it due respect, and then carefully put it away.
  • Pay attention to the conversation.  Don’t be one of these “power networkers” always looking over the shoulder of your conversational companion, looking for someone more interesting.  YECH.
  • Listen.  That deserves a separate bullet point.  When your companion is talking, that’s your signal to listen to what they’re saying, not to be composing your witty rejoinder.
  • Think about how you can help the person you’re talking with.  Make a contact, offer a lead, or just ask how you might recognize a terrific potential client/customer for her.
  • Don’t assume someone you’re talking to can’t help you.  A conversation may not lead directly to business, but you have no idea who that person may know or where they’ll end up next.
  • Set your intentions before you go (i.e., I will leave with 3 business cards of people I plan to contact again).  And aim for quality over quantity.
  • Follow up afterward.

To make the most of a networking event, it’s important to follow up with the key people with whom you speak.  Because I’m getting awfully tired of breakfasts, lunches, and coffee meetings, I’ve started thinking about other ways to cultivate business relationships (and the perhaps even more valuable social business relationship).  Golf is terrific — for golfers.  But for the rest of us…..

  • Golf.  It’s a cliche for a reason.
  • I like to follow up in writing with some of the people I meet at a networking event.  And yes, I do mean handwritten snail mail, tailored to the individual.  And then I follow up on my follow-up with articles, etc., that are relevant to that person.  Not so much that it’s obnoxious, but enough to make the person feel that I’ve really taken an interest in who they are and what they’re doing.
  • Reserve a table for 6 or 8 for lunch or dinner after your event (if it’s a cocktail party, for example) and invite several of the people you meet to join you.

More soon.

In defense of law firms

I woke up very early this morning, still thinking about the Young Lawyer’s Conundrum (article no longer available) I posted about yesterday and Schiltz’s concept that lawyers who go to law firms will end up engaging in unethical practice — indeed, living unethical lives — because of the law firm culture that pushes endlessly for more money, more billing, dangling the alluring lifestyle that no lawyer ever really has time to enjoy.  And now, here it is well past midnight, and I’m still thinking about it.  With the recognition that Schiltz almost certainly doesn’t mean all law firms have a money-lust culture or that all lawyers who work at law firm with such a culture end up in such a sorry state, I disagree.

Because I believe that perspective is built on past experience, at least to some degree, let me note that I worked in a BigLaw firm for almost 6 years.  A stepchild office, not particularly beloved by the Empire, but BigLaw nonetheless.  Overall, it was a great experience for me, and certainly a learning experience.  And when I left, I went to a mid-sized boutique firm.  Again, a strong learning experience.

There’s a perception that BigLaw lawyers are soulless creatures, rummaging about for more hours in which to cram work, leaving divorce and lonely children in the wake of what ordinary people would call a personal life, what these sad attorneys call a distraction.  But most of the BigLaw people I knew — partners and associates — had marriages about as happy as the rest of us.  They’d leave at 4 sometimes to catch a child’s softball game; they’d take vacations and be essentially unreachable for days on end.  True enough, they’d make up the time by working early mornings and late nights, and it’s certain that they billed an impressive number of hours each year.  But they’d live their lives.  I observed the same thing in the midsized firm.

No doubt the pressure on these lawyers is intense.  No doubt that billing targets (managing “unoptimized time,” in FirmSpeak) continue to rise.  But plenty of evidence exists to prove that not all lawyers get caught in the money/time vise.  Some choose to, like the firm legends who bill 3000-3500 hours a year every year.  Some happen to get trapped, like an excellent lawyer I worked with for a time who did such good work that partners felt he was indispensable on each of his cases, leading him to make super-elite frequent flyer status (over 100K miles) by late February and to leave the firm that spring when he realized that he was too often limited to seeing his family at the airport between trips.  The great majority work hard, really hard, and strive to find some sort of work/life balance that allows them to play as hard as they work.

So why am I defending law firms?  I suppose, at the end of the day, I’m not: I’m defending the individuals who associate and form law firms.  For every firm out there with attributes at all similar to those described in John Grisham’s novels, I’d be willing to bet there are literally hundreds that bear no such resemblance.  Sure, some lawyers become unethical, become people who pad bills and lie whenever it’s expedient to do so… But most simply work harder, play harder, and look for legitimate ways to make some sense out of life at the bar.

That’s why the profession survives even as law itself becomes more and more a business.  And that’s where lawyers are seeking to redefine their practices and habits in view of their values, trying to bring their personal and professional lives together into a single, sustainable, satisfying existence.