Boutique Law Firms, Food, Practice Pointers, Small Law Firms

From Biglaw to Boutique: Good Eats

Tom Wallerstein

Whether you are a partner or associate, working in Biglaw or in a boutique, the key to success is developing a book of business. And the key to developing business is to focus instead on developing a book of relationships. As I wrote before, “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.” No matter how good a lawyer you may be, people still want to do business with people they know and like on a personal level…

Unfortunately, building relationships is easier said than done. It requires perseverance, and a faith in the process. You often won’t see immediate results from networking, and you may not be able to immediately see how a particular relationship will lead to business.

Most discouraging of all, effective networking requires real effort. Networking is one of the few attorney responsibilities which cannot be delegated to subordinates. It also cannot be automated. Sending out a mail-merge holiday card or an email blast can be useful, but those alone will not enable you to build the relationships that you need to generate business. And a virtual communication simply cannot replace a face-to-face meeting. In my experience, meeting prospective and actual clients and referral sources in person has proven to be absolutely invaluable and irreplaceable.

Nor are there any shortcuts to establishing and maintaining relationships which are likely to lead to business. Many attorneys, for example, like to send a small gift to clients or referral sources. I absolutely understand and appreciate the value of this gesture, but I also try to remember that doing so is not a substitute to forming a relationship on a more personal level; i.e., face to face.

This reality is precisely what causes many young lawyers to think that they will never develop rainmaking skills because, for one reason or another, they don’t consider themselves to be a “people person.” This is a shame, because business development skills are easy to teach and easy to learn, even if they remain difficult to implement.

I, too, never considered myself a “people person.” For me, being an attorney was about researching and writing and constructing arguments. I viewed clients as a necessary part of the equation, but not a particularly attractive part of the work of being a lawyer. Since helping to form my own litigation boutique, however, I have learned that you don’t need to be a natural people person to build meaningful relationships. For one, business development is something that you can force yourself to do. As I’ve said before, “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.”

On the other hand, if you hate something, you aren’t going to do it often, and you probably aren’t going to do it well. So it’s important to try to focus your business development efforts on things which you can at least tolerate if not outright enjoy.

One of the main ways that I make networking more palatable is to borrow a trick I used when I was single and dating. Personally, I love to eat. (Lat, better close the comments on this post.) So I tried to take first dates out to dinner at restaurants I really enjoyed or otherwise really wanted to try. I figured that even if the date was a total bust, at least I would get an enjoyable or interesting dinner out of the experience.

I look for opportunities to do the same thing now with new business contacts; i.e., I try to go to restaurants I enjoy or want to try. It’s a living, and we all gotta eat. In San Francisco we are fortunate to have a plethora of dining options, including food of every ethnicity in every price range, and any kind of ambiance you might prefer. Eating out gives me something to look forward to and to focus on even if the networking itself is awkward or a bust. To get a sense of my networking efforts in any given week, ask me where I’m going and what I eat.

In short, giving yourself an ulterior motive helps make business development more enjoyable. This is one of the reasons that playing golf or going to sporting events can be so powerful for networking, but only if you otherwise enjoy the sport anyway. Sporting events let you interact with the client and discuss mutual interests other than business. Ironically, having mutual interests outside of business is one of the keys to business development.

Even if you’re not a foodie, dining is an especially good option for business development meetings because “breaking bread” has been an important bonding ritual for thousands of years. A prospective client or referral source will always be more formal or guarded in an office setting. Over lunch or dinner you can establish a connection that just isn’t possible in an office setting.

As for alcohol, reasonable minds can differ, and I think it is prudent to take a cue from your guest. It’s probably not a good idea to get sloshed, but I disagree that you should impose any hard and fast rule. The reality is that alcohol can sometimes help people relax and be more receptive to establishing a connection. Presumably, by the time you become an attorney, you have figured out the good and bad roles that alcohol can play. If you haven’t, then advice you read on a blog is not likely to matter.

In any event, just having the meeting, of course, will not itself guarantee the kind of relationship that is likely to lead to business. Next week I’ll write about the two essential topics you should cover in each and every meeting. But should the meeting tank for whatever reason, don’t despair. Perhaps you can still salvage the meeting. Specifically, I recommend that you take a look at the dessert menu.

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

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