Anyone who has been around children is familiar with the challenge of getting them to eat what you want them to eat. “My daughter won’t eat vegetables.” “My son only eats cheetos.” Like a lot of parents, I find myself frustrated by this dynamic. But I also have to laugh, because I know the solution is so simple. If someone is hungry enough, they will easily overcome their aversion to whatever particular food they think they don’t like.
For example, you might not like broccoli, and you swear you would never eat broccoli under any circumstances. But if you were on a desert island with nothing to eat except broccoli, it would not take very long for you to overcome, or at least overpower, your distaste. So, if you really want your kid to eat X, then just don’t allow them to fill up on not-X. Nature will take care of the rest. We’ve all got to eat, and a child won’t die from voluntary starvation any more than someone can kill themselves by holding their breath.
Like a lot of kids, mine have a very narrow range of food that they profess to like. Dinner, therefore, has a familiar refrain. The kids insist they don’t like X, and I tell them, “That’s fine. I understand you don’t like X. No one can tell you what you should like, and what you shouldn’t. You don’t need to like X if you don’t want to. Now shut up and eat it.”
Thus, “You Don’t Have to Like It” has become something of a mantra to me.
What does this have to do with succeeding in a small law firm?
In a small firm or solo practice, lawyers have to wear many more hats than their Biglaw counterparts. A small firm lawyer needs to become proficient not only in the law, but in all the various aspects of running a business. Some of these hats are likely to be more comfortable than others. I agree that if you do not fundamentally enjoy running a business, opening your own firm likely is not the right move for you. But you need not love each and every discrete aspect of running a business in order to succeed.
When my firm was new, for example, I found it somewhat uncomfortable to discuss invoices and billing with clients. Talking about money struck me as unseemly and crass. But I knew it was necessary, and time has only emphasized that. I had several mentors tell me to confront the topic directly and unabashedly, and I tried hard to follow their advice. With practice, I’ve been able to overcome my trepidation. I still don’t especially like talking to clients about their bills, but I’ve learned to do it.
Nowhere is this concept more poignant then in business development. So many attorneys eschew business development because they think they’re not “people persons,” or they are shy, or they don’t like crowds, etc. I felt the same way once, but I have learned a critical lesson these last few years: You don’t have to love people to be good at business development. You don’t have to be gregarious by nature to be successful. Instead, you just need to figure out what has to be done, and do it. You don’t have to like it.
One important caveat is that business development can take many different forms. So if one particular approach seems too onerous, you can still be successful by trying something different. You have to recognize your strengths, and your likes and dislikes, and try to capitalize on those aspects of your personality. So, to that extent, I wouldn’t suggest you disregard completely your distaste for some particular bus dev approach. But if you find yourself thinking that you simply dislike business development altogether, then that is the point at which you have to shut up and eat your broccoli.
When attorneys move from Biglaw to small, the cases they work on might have a lesser amount at stake, and they might log fewer billable hours, but the pressures on the attorneys increase on virtually every front. With fewer attorneys working on a matter, each attorney bears more of the overall responsibility for every aspect of the case. Lawyers at small firms like to boast about the superior hands-on experience they get earlier in their careers, and it’s true that small firm attorneys generally will sink or swim much earlier in their careers than their Biglaw counterparts.
This sink or swim pressure can be positive. To add another aphorism, necessity is the mother of invention. Business development can be especially difficult when your income is not dependent on it. When you are making a generous salary, and have a surplus of billable work that can be done, it seems hard to find the time to do all the extras that are necessary for business generation. But if you need to generate work to feed your family, you might surprise yourself with your resourcefulness. You might find yourself “working a room” of strangers even if you were always the type to cower in the corner.
From infancy to adulthood, success depends on mastering a variety of tasks we don’t necessarily love. I understand the appeal of a “do what you love” philosophy, but doing only what you love strikes me as an indulgent recipe for disaster. For attorneys, transitioning from performing tasks, to running cases, to generating new business are challenging but critical benchmarks to meet. Business development is especially daunting for small firm attorneys who don’t fancy themselves to be particularly outgoing, or who have come to believe that they simply don’t like the prospect of marketing themselves or their firm.
If that is you, take comfort. No one can tell you what you should like, and what you shouldn’t. Yes, you absolutely need to focus on business development for your firm to succeed. But that doesn’t mean you have to like it.
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 [email protected].