Releasing a book may not bring you fame or fortune, but it surely brings you interesting e-mails. I devoted last Thursday’s column to an e-mail I received from a reader of the Inside Straight book asking whether law firms undervalue good lawyering. I’m devoting this column to an e-mailed reaction posing a different question: Must a lawyer specialize if he or she hopes to develop business effectively?
My correspondent (who again is a partner at an Am Law 100 firm and again gave me permission to edit and reproduce his or her words anonymously) wrote: “Your case study of how you developed a pharmaceutical product liability practice (when you worked at a big firm) says as much by implication as it does expressly. You’re implicitly asserting that one develops business more effectively by showing that you’re a specialist in a field the client needs rather than saying that you have a fungible skill. But I suspect that your true value as a lawyer was largely unrelated to your business development pitch in which you pretended that you were a specialist.
“Ultimately, what you brought to the table in private practice wasn’t a nearly 30-year career in pharmaceutical products law. You brought a vast wealth of experience gleaned from cases that had nothing to do with the area of law that, at a particular time, happened to govern specific cases.
“It pains me that lawyers feel compelled to become specialists — or, at a minimum, to pretend that they’re specialists — if they want to develop business . . . . ”
“The problem is that I think you’re right that business development is most successful when it focuses on things other than providing the best, most efficient lawyering. It is very hard to sell the point that I am a better lawyer than the next guy – even if I think that’s true – because saying you’re a good lawyer sounds like pablum compared to saying ‘I wrote 20 articles on the Snidwheelze-Gezundheit Act.’
“I go back and forth between feeling that I should become the hyphenated lawyer people seem to value in marketing (antitrust-litigator; securities-litigator; insurance-litigator, etc.) and figuring that what I should be marketing is me — not just what I can make myself appear to be. Unfortunately, I have this honest streak, fueled by the unjustified but annoyingly persistent hope that at least someone should be hiring lawyers based on how good a job the lawyers will do for them.”
So what’s the answer? Must you become a specialist if you want to develop business?
Let’s work backwards: How do you get business?
Years (maybe decades) ago, your law firm would naturally bequeath to junior partners the firm’s institutional clients. You became a rainmaker simply by working diligently over the course of a career; eventually, some of the firm’s clients became yours.
Even today, senior partners often have the ability to bequeath clients to favored junior partners, although many senior partners choose not to do this until the instant they’re retiring, for fear that sharing clients will cost the partners negotiating leverage with the firm.
But suppose you’re not one of the lucky ones; neither the institution nor your senior colleagues are giving you clients. How do you attract business?
The best way to get a corporation’s business is to be competent incumbent counsel. The client is already working with you, respects the quality of your work, and prefers not to ruin a good thing. You can thus continue to do that client’s work; there’s no need for you to specialize in anything (unless the demands of the client require it).
If you’re not incumbent counsel, what’s the next best way to get a corporation’s business?
Have a relationship with a corporate insider who’s involved in selecting counsel. If you’ve worked with the general counsel before — when she was in a different job, or when you were both at the same law firm, or whenever — and the general counsel knows and respects you, then the general counsel may think to retain you if an opportunity arises. That requires relationships (and competence), but it does not necessarily require specialization.
Rule out incumbency and relationships, and how can you attract a corporation’s business?
This is the hard one, and it’s where specialization counts.
You can try to convince the corporation to call you if the company’s usual counsel has a conflict of interest. But why should the client call you? Apparent expertise is a good place to start.
How do you acquire apparent expertise? In addition to practicing in a field, you can raise your profile in a particular area of law — giving talks, writing articles, and otherwise making a name for yourself. You can then try to parlay that into retentions.
But that’s almost the definition of specialization: You’re practicing, speaking and writing in a particular field.
If you’re lucky, you’ll eventually be invited to compete for a piece of business – either because the client’s usual counsel had a conflict or because your business development efforts generated some other lead. My correspondent is almost certainly correct that specialization then becomes terribly important: If a prospective client is choosing between retaining lawyer A, who says that he’s a great lawyer, and lawyer B, who also says that he’s a great lawyer, but has written and spoken widely in the relevant field, who do you suppose wins? All other things being equal, the specialist looks better. (You may not have to specialize exclusively in a particular field, but your deal — or case, or article, or whatever — list in the field must be sufficiently impressive to keep you competitive.)
Specialization is thus not essential to developing business. You can be incumbent counsel. You can obtain business from people you know and have impressed. And a very few lawyers can develop business by virtue of a general reputation — perhaps being widely perceived as one of the half-dozen premier trial lawyers in the country.
But for mere mortals, specialization counts. I’m not sure that being a specialist always makes you a better lawyer, but I’m fairly certain that it makes you better able to sell your services as a lawyer.
Sorry about that, correspondent. (But thanks for writing.)
Mark Herrmann is the Chief Counsel – Litigation and Global Chief Compliance Officer at Aon, the world’s leading provider of risk management services, insurance and reinsurance brokerage, and human capital and management consulting. He is the author of The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Practicing Law and Inside Straight: Advice About Lawyering, In-House And Out, That Only The Internet Could Provide (affiliate links). You can reach him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.