Biglaw, In-House Counsel, Partner Issues, Practice Pointers

House Rules: Standing Corrected?

I wrote last week about ideas to build a book of business. My main point was to start small and branch out from there. I mentioned how, as a young and naïve (ok, ignorant) associate, I was quickly disabused of the idea that I would soon be able to waltz into Pfizer and pick up some strands of litigation.

Then I received the following email in my Gmail account. It is a well-written counterpoint to my argument. A partner in New York City argues that starting small is a recipe for staying small.

I reprint his email (largely unedited) below….

“As someone who developed a $500K+ annual book of business from $0 in about two years and continues on that path, I am compelled to tell aspiring rainmakers that you (Mowry) are wrong on a few key issues. Here are a couple of points.

“Forget about family, friends (unless they run the world), or starting small. If you start small, you will stay small. Do it the old school way. Eat rice and noodles if you have to and work hard to establish your expertise — through publishing, social media, interviews, conferences, leadership positions, webinars, you name it. Starting small means not getting paid. Let me give you an example. Working for start-ups is one of those things that sounds awesome and sexy, but actually sucks. It’s like buying an old Jag. You think you’re going to cruise in it in high style, but once it arrives at your garage door and you take it for a spin, you hate the heavy steering, the squishy brakes, the smell of oil and notice a transmission fluid leak. You quickly wish you had bought a new Volvo (as an aside, the right decision here is to buy a 70’s or 80’s classic). Start-ups and other small players have no money unless they are funded. And if they are funded, they act the same as large companies in hiring counsel, so as outside counsel you need to be at the same level as you would if you were approaching a large company. With those start-ups, there is no advantage to being a small player. Start-ups have tons of issues, which is awesome, but are super sensitive about bills and counsel expenses in general, and may leave you when/if they are acquired by big players.

“Another point. Don’t ask for business. Make people come to you because you have what they need. Clients hate lawyers asking for business. One you’re in the door, you can ask for more business. If you make 699 calls, you will likely waste your time. The in-house world is becoming more and more sophisticated and in-house counsel’s asses [are] on the line for quality and cost. You and others in-house today are much less interested in giving work to buddies who treat you to an expensive lunch, as it turns out, unless the buddy is also good (or excellent). In-house lawyers are more and more focused on giving work to lawyers who are good, give sensible advice, are responsive, think about business impact of their advice and offer solutions rather than regurgitated problems or lists of legal issues ‘that you should consider’ (they consider them for you). As an in-house lawyer, you will see that aspiring rainmaker speak at a conference, write a post or lead some panel (likely all of the above), and you will then think, ‘Aha! This attorney is someone whose advice I must have because he/she will help me solve X! Let me go up the ladder, and take all the pain in the ass steps that I must take to add the firm to my approved counsel list, because the pain of doing that is worth for me to have their advice.’

“And at that point, the aspiring rainmaker who got into the system will have developed a slice of business. Or rather given birth to it because it was hard and grueling. And that’s just the beginning of the relationship….”

I thought that this partner made enough good points that I wanted to re-print their comments, and I asked if I could ask some follow-ups. This person was more than willing to answer a few questions.

1. You have a disagreement with my strategy of starting small; you say “start big” – how do you suggest that associates successfully approach a large company like mine and break through that network that exists among the many in-house attorneys and their numerous and assorted colleagues around the world?

First, depending on the context, associates may have an additional hurdle in developing business because clients, rightly, want to deal with senior counsel or partners. But your question is equally relevant to newly minted partners. The answer though is that if you don’t have connections, you have to start with prospecting… You do it by developing and establishing expertise through speaking engagements, bar memberships, etc. For example, early on I started working with a web conference company that was looking for content. It was an opportunity to develop public speaking skills and get initial exposure.

Another example is that members of NYC Bar committees are free to propose, organize and present CLEs at the City Bar. That is a tremendous opportunity and there are many others like that. If you are an associate and are interested in a topic, talk to your partner about starting a blog — $200/month on LexBlog, and you are set to go. You have to do all of this so that clients approach you, not vice versa. Again, ignore this advice if you have friends in high places.

2. What strategies worked best (more than once) when you were building a nice book in only two years?

Everything I mentioned in my email to you. Not one of those things will work by itself. Each step is a brick. A prospective client will have seen and heard you and about you several times at several conferences, in blog posts, or when you emailed links to important and relevant events, etc., before there a comfort level to talk. The content you’ve created will be the topic of that conversation. You may have a wonderful conversation about the Yankees, but in today’s world of sophisticated consumers of legal services, the conversation that is more likely to lead to business is a discussion of relevant, important information that came from you through these various avenues.

3. Any final advice to break through in this economy, and in a shrinking pool of business?

Some discouraging news is that you have to be in the right place in the right time. By that I mean that I was given an opportunity to work in a practice at a large firm that was a leading practice in its field. This stroke of luck allowed me to develop a skill, learning from and with incredibly knowledgeable and bright associates who were senior to me. The business development strategies I learned from the partner who headed the practice. So there are three or four points. First, however you might define this success (flexibility, prestige, money or life balance), a good way to get there seems to be to develop a real level of skill in an area of law. Second, you should do your best to make it known to the world that you have this expertise, and to develop skills that go along with that, such as public speaking. Third, you should follow the advice of the great John Sexton, former Dean of NYU Law, who told law students to break the mold and not be risk averse. When you are ready, take the (or some of the) plunge.

And now some encouraging news…. When you practice in large firms, you tend to get tunnel vision and develop a belief that Biglaw is the universe. That’s simply not the case. There many small firms that are incredibly successful and profitable. My own experience speaking to some of those lawyers it that many of them seem to be quite happy. Yes, I said “happy lawyers.” So lawyers have more options than they think they do.

* * *

I would like to thank this partner for their candor, and for providing a salient counterpoint to my column of last week. Whether you take my advice to start small, or decide to go big, the message remains the same: just go.

After two federal clerkships and several years as a litigator in law firms, David Mowry is happily ensconced as an in-house lawyer at a major technology company. He specializes in commercial leasing transactions, only sometimes misses litigation, and never regrets leaving firm life. You can reach him by email at

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