For those of you who haven’t heard all my lawyering tales of woe, some of my most hilarious and terrifying stories come from the time I was a fourth year attorney (barely) and was hired by a competing firm to build and chair my own practice group from the ground up. Why, pray tell, would a reputable firm trust a 29 year-old associate with such a task? The practice group had previously been a group of one and that partner had left for a competitor and taken most of his clients with him. Add to that Obama’s health care reform bill and the fact that ERISA attorneys are hard to find — what can I say, we’re an odd bunch. Check out the full story of this chaotic time in my life here.
Today, I want pass along some of the interesting and surprising things I learned during my time building and leading my own practice group.
Everybody answers to somebody (and that includes you).
I thought having my own practice would free me from the incessant demands and pseudo emergencies attendant to being an associate attorney. I was woefully misinformed. No matter where you are in the lawyering ladder, you answer to somebody. I had to answer not only to my clients and my team but also the firm’s Board of Directors, the firm President and various other partners who had much more political clout than I had.
I won’t have to deal with any more ridiculous emergencies! Hooray! Wrong. Emergencies continued to harass me but they just came from different places–that partner down the hall who was always disorganized and making promises on my behalf to his horrible clients, the Board who wanted an update on my financial projections for next year, the associate who was having a meltdown in my office, the client who forgot about an important IRS deadline, the paralegal that always seemed to show up at the wrong time to have a long chat about a menial project. There will always be random, unforeseen emergencies. Being in charge and paving your own way will never change that because when you deal with humans, you get drama, poor planning, and frustrating people, no matter what you do for a living.
Getting clients is about relationships not about your skills.
People want to work with someone that they know, like, and trust; it’s that simple. You don’t need some fancy pitch prepared, you don’t have to sell them on the services that you specifically offer. At it’s core, a potential client first wants to know that you will meet them on their level. That you will talk to them like a human, be available to support them, and be willing to support them to resolve any problems they may be having. From there, it helps to be able to provide details about how you might help them but until you have gotten to know them as a person, don’t go there. It’s not hard to find lawyers who can do the job. People hire attorneys not because they can do the job but because they like them as a person, the fact that they can do the job is just an added bonus. When I moved in-house with a Fortune 300 company, the lawyers that I gave work to were the ones that treated me like a colleague and spoke to me plainly and simply. The lawyers I stopped working with were the ones that buried me with their credentials and posturing and refused to give me straight answers on anything. It was simply junior high politics–some attorneys made me feel good and others annoyed me. I couldn’t tell you where any of them went to law school or what credentials they held. They got the work if I liked them and connected with them. That’s it.
It’s never just about you.
When you work in a big firm, it is likely that you will be in some type of a niche practice area. One of the hesitations we often have with selling our services is that not every client needs our specific skills. That doesn’t matter. When you’re selling your services, you are really selling the firm. You’re selling a package of technicians that together can solve any problem the client can throw at them. That is what it’s about. People want the easy button. They want one person they can go to with all their problems who will line up the right people to solve it. They want someone they can direct all of their colleagues to when they have problems. They want a multipurpose tool — that’s the firm. You just have to sell them on your ability to operate that tool on their behalf to make their lives easier. Sell them on the breadth of the firm’s skills and leave your niche elevator pitch at the door unless it is specifically requested.
Act like you mean it.
No matter what type of pitch or informal meeting you have on the docket, make sure that you come prepared. Bring marketing materials. Never let the client leave empty handed. Bring business cards, bring pertinent firm overviews and bios of key players. Show them that you want it but you aren’t going to bury them in formalities and sales pitches unless they ask for it. Give them something they can take with them to show others what you have available. Give them the tools they will need if they ever find themselves asking: Who should I call for questions on this issue?
Everyone has potential.
Get out there, meet people, tell them you’re an attorney and offer to support their business and the business of anyone they know. This means scheduling breakfast, lunch, dinner, coffee, drinks, etc. with every person that you know. Literally. You never know whether their friend, or their friend’s friend, or their spouse, their spouse’s friend or family members may need support. The more people you meet, tell them what you do, and offer to help them, the more likely you are to find clients. Spread that word far and wide and reap the benefits. It’s like planting a garden. You aren’t going to just put one single seed for each vegetable you want into the ground and expect a bountiful harvest. You have to plant multiple seeds for each vegetable and see how things play out.
Practicing law is a business after all.
When building your firm or your practice group, there will always be administrative tasks. Practicing law and being the boss is about so much more than actually doing the legal work. Make a decision early and firmly about how much you want to work and how much you’re willing to spend running the business. You cannot do both 100%. (Read that again.) Start making decisions about how much time you want to practice, what that practice will look like, and how that fits within your obligations of running the business.
Many of my clients start their own firms because they want balance and more freedom to do the things they want–spend time with family, travel, etc. But what they overlook is that when they run the show, they cannot continue to practice at the same pace they would if they didn’t have administrative and operational duties. You must get very clear about what kinds of work you are willing to keep on your plate and what you are willing to let go of in favor of running the business (and having a life). With that vision is mind, the evolution of your practice will occur seamlessly, always guided by your ideal future state.
Photo by Tima Miroshnichenko