Associate Advice, Biglaw, Money, Small Law Firms

From Biglaw to Boutique: Looks Like Rain

Tom Wallerstein

Success in Biglaw often is measured by the size of an attorney’s “book of business.” Not surprisingly, having a book of business is also the best way to ensure the success of a private practice. The bigger the book, the greater your exit options. So whether your goal is to make partner or to open your own firm, everyone knows that the key is to develop a book of business.

That is easy to say, but virtually impossible to do in a big firm setting. Many big firms handle only matters in which the amount at stake is in the millions of dollars. This means that the prospect of an associate landing such a case is slim; a client would never entrust a multi-million dollar dispute to an un-tested associate. Associates are told to attend networking events, but what is the prospect of meeting someone who just so happens to have a ten million dollar dispute laying around, and who has not yet staffed the matter, and who is willing to entrust the matter to a junior associate he just met?

Once upon a time, mentoring relationships were strong, and firms were loyal to their associates. A loyal associate could hope that the partner for whom he or she worked would encourage clients to develop a relationship with the associate and allow the associate to claim ownership of future engagements from that client. If nothing else, a loyal associate could expect to inherit clients from a retiring partner.

Alas, the traditional method of building a book of business no longer works for most associates. Firms now sometimes go so far as to actively discourage associates from forming too-strong relationships with clients, lest the associate leave and take the client with them. And even if an associate is fortunate enough to get client contact, clients are likely to develop loyalties to the partner on the matter, even if the associate is doing most of the work. Unfortunately, just because you do good work doesn’t mean that over time you will magically develop that elusive book of business.

To make matters worse, it’s often impossible to predict future business, especially for litigators. If a client hires you for a patent dispute and pays you $1 million in fees in 2011 before the case settles, does that mean you have a $1 million book of business, even if you have no reason to expect any business from that client in 2012? How can you guarantee repeat business from any client, especially in litigation? Do you need a three or five year average? Those are long time frames for associates.

With all these challenges, how can an associate ever hope to make the rain they will need if they want to open their own firm?

I suggest that instead of trying to build a book of business, associates focus on building a book of relationships. Business is an engagement, a lawsuit, a transaction; it is measured in money. A relationship is a connection with a human being. A book of business is virtually impossible for an associate to build. A book of relationships is available to first year associates and partners alike.

It is no coincidence that historically the best rainmakers had the largest Rolodexes. Today, we are more likely to talk about Outlook contacts, but the concept is the same. Clients send work to attorneys they know and like on a personal basis. The quality of the attorney is often secondary because there are so many good attorneys to choose from.

Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter all can play essential roles. So, too, can holiday cards, as a once-per-year minimum target for sustaining contacts. The reason these tools can work so well is that the key to business development is the quantity and quality of the relationships themselves, as opposed to soliciting business. Facebook, for example, allows you to connect with people on a more personal level, which is a key to developing business down the road.

Even if you spend no time soliciting work from your relationships, the relationship is a necessary prerequisite for any business. In fact, to some extent, putting aside the focus on business is a key to more successfully building the relationships in the first place.

The focus on people instead of business also determines the relationships you should try to build. Don’t worry about whether a particular person is or is not an obvious source of work; i.e., don’t ask “what’s in it for me”? Potential contacts are everywhere: partners and associates at your firm, opposing counsel, law school classmates, clients and witnesses, vendors, cabdrivers, secretaries, etc. Your business will come from the most unexpected sources, and trying to predict those sources years in advance is futile and counterproductive.

You also should use each relationship to expand your network. As soon as you have a connection with someone, explore whether they can introduce you to others. If you are correctly eschewing a “what’s in it for me” agenda, that can happen naturally and easily.

If you manage to follow this advice from law school and beyond, by the time you start your own firm you will have personal connections with thousands of people. Partners at your old firm can refer you cases that are too small for the firm, or for which the firm has a conflict. Partners and associates will scatter to other firms, expanding your network. Law school friends will become in-house counsel.

There is much more to say about how to actually form and maintain the kind of relationships I’m talking about. And, ultimately, you will need to learn how to solicit work from your network. But that really is secondary to building a far-flung network of quality relationships. This is something even junior associates can do. Especially if you think you might someday open your own firm, you shouldn’t wait another moment to start.


Tom Wallerstein lives in San Francisco and is a partner with Colt Wallerstein LLP, a Silicon Valley litigation boutique. The firm’s practice focuses on high tech trade secret, employment, and general complex-commercial litigation. He can be reached at tomwallerstein@coltwallerstein.com.

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