In this new year, since there have been several columns of late of the “confessional” type, I thought I might join the bandwagon. Since the overwhelming majority of inquiries from readers regard how best to market themselves to start to build a book of business, let me tell the truth: you can’t. At least not through me, or anyone in a position like mine.
I just passed my fifth year anniversary with my company, and in that time period, I have assigned a relatively low five-figure amount of work to outside counsel. And of that amount, only a small portion went to a former colleague in my network. The rest went to counsel from a list of approved firms for particular regions of the country. My intent is not to depress you, senior associates who have just realized in 2013 that you really don’t have a book to speak of, it is to get you to read between the lines.
In other words, find the differences from whence I speak, and fill in the holes. Those spaces in between are where opportunities exist for you to start to gain your own clients….
I work for a major corporation. We have a legal department of close to 200 attorneys. All of us have networks of colleagues and friends in the profession, and then there is that list of approved counsel. If you are not in that network, or on that list, you’re likely not getting work from us. So, don’t bother with the major companies. Really. Where you need to focus are smaller entities, local entities, and your own network. While this may seem to be intuitive, or fall into the “we’re not stupid, Mowry” category, it comes from personal experience.
Now, maybe I am the stupid one, but there really is no training — in law school or in Biglaw or anywhere else for that matter — that tells or trains young-ish attorneys how to build a book of business. That is because you are not supposed to, not in this business model. And boy, do I wish I knew this as a young associate. What you are expected to do is service the partners at your firm (I know, troll-feeding) for several years until you burn out, or are subject to throughput (look it up, it depresses me to explain).
Of the class of 30 that started at my first firm, only one made partner, the rest are gone. And the one that made partner? He was on track from year one — billing insane hours, connecting with politically powerful partners, and sticking it out weekends, nights, and holidays. I fell out of touch with him many years ago, so I can’t speak to his book or lack thereof. But, I would expect that given his work ethic, he was passed some business from senior partners, or by the clients themselves, and he likely began to build his book from his very connected family network. He is an anomaly; he is likely not you, and you are not he.
So, what to do? Take a look at the folks in your department, and around your seniority level, who have a client or two. For example, in my case, one did work for their significant other who ran a small internet company, and another assisted a former associate who went in-house for a small company, where the former associate was the sole counsel. The pattern here is that these Biglaw firm attorneys were utilizing their own, much smaller networks to obtain work. The incoming revenue was relatively small, but in the latter case, when that company was taken over by another much larger company, the former associate stayed on to become GC of that new (and more lucrative for the firm) entity.
You have to understand that as of now, you are small potatoes, just as I am. I currently have little say in where outside work gets assigned. But as those years of tenure grow, so does my ability to pass on outside work. Yes, it is largely in whom you know. But, is this a surprise? It shouldn’t be by now.
What to do? Focus first on your inner circle, family, close friends, etc. Then move to the next ring of contacts, and so on. Be wary of taking work for work’s sake, though; you can end up in a horrible situation where your firm has to write off time because you took a client that had no business being a client. Also, be wary of a crazy partner who is suddenly quite friendly and offers you a meeting to take on someone who has sought out the firm. Remember always that these partners are people who would run down their own mothers if it meant a few more units of equity. That is precisely how I ended up dealing with a schizophrenic elderly person who claimed to have had a fortune in fine art stolen from her. When I finally contacted her family, it was a very uncomfortable call, but ultimately, we got her some help. I am certain that the person who assigned me to her was getting a kick out of the story at the weekly lunch.
Start small, but start. Do not give up trying or you will never get any clients. If you haven’t got the gumption to do it on your own, give up hope of becoming a partner or going on your own. One of the very few items I remember from a marketing session was that it takes an average of seven contacts before even one person will say yes. So, asking 100 people for business is going to take 699 phone calls or lunches or contacts before you get a piece of work. Just take my advice, and be sure to ask the folks in the right-sized positions.
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 email@example.com.