Can associates engage in client development?

One of the most challenging parts of practice is figuring out the business end of being a lawyer.  In a midsized or larger firm, that usually boils down primarily to client development.  And associates frequently view client development as an activity for partners and senior associates.  It’s pretty common to hear more junior lawyers saying earnestly that they’re just there to do the work and that it’s up to the firm to land the clients.  It’s an understandable mistake… But it is a mistake.

From the firm’s perspective, worker bees are rather fungible.  Sure, it’s easier for firms to hang onto the associates who know the clients, know how the partners operate, have already hit the crest of the learning curve.  But for every worker associate in a firm, many others are available on the market.  Legal proficiency, reliability, client service skills, integrity, and a sufficiently pleasant personality are basic requirements for most firms (though perhaps we can argue about acceptance of personality quriks)… But what makes an associate truly valuable is the ability to contribute something above and beyond ordinary work.  An associate who adds substantially to client satisfaction by becoming the client’s go-to person is useful.  An associate who brings in new clients is worth her weight in gold.

This month’s ABA Journal features an article that’s subtitled, “Associates Can Contribute More to Client Development Than They May Think.”  (Regrettably, this article isn’t available online… So trot out and get yourself a copy of the July 2006 ABA Journal.  You’ll find the article on page 26.)

The article quotes Hughes & Luce chief marketing officer Rick Davis describing associates as the firm’s “secret weapon,” able to harness their flexible, energetic attitude and their contacts with lower-level corporate employees to get the inside track for presenting a business proposal. The traditional client pitch is made by partners who focus on themselves, their past successes, other lawyers in the firm, and their familiarity with the area of law at issue.  Using knowledge about the prospective client mined by associates prepared to make the most of their contact with the client’s employees allows the firm to target the pitch to the prospective client and to make the client’s needs the center of the pitch.  To prospective clients, legal proficiency, reliability, client service skills, and integrity are basic requirements (this should sound familiar….) and lawyers/firms who actually care enough to understand the client’s needs, who communicate effectively with the client, and who offer value are worth their weight in gold.  Nearly 70% of clients are dissatisfied with their lawyers.  That’s a tremendous opportunity.

So, what’s an associate to do?  Network.  When you meet someone who’s an employee of a potential client, develop that contact into a relationship.  (Be aware of what kind of companies are potential clients by knowing both the scope of your firm’s practice and who engages in various areas of practice.)  Business rarely, if ever, results from a single, shallow contact, so it’s important to follow up.  Send articles that would interest your contact, invite him to lunch or a ball game, look for ways to be helpful.  And be sure to put the focus on the potential client so you can learn important information such as how the company operates, what it needs, and the identity of key decision-makers.

Although an associate generally lacks the track record necessary to present the traditional lawyer/firm-focused client pitch, sheer likeability and common sense can carry the conversation a long way.  Do find lawyers who can mentor you in client development — at least one of whom should work at your firm so she can guide you on the firm’s policies for client development and so you’ll have someone to ask about ethical boundaries in business development.  And strategize how you’re going to identify and approach the potential clients you encounter.  As the saying goes, chance favors the prepared mind — but don’t leave your contacts to chance.

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