Anyone who has worked at a Biglaw firm understands the importance of developing business of one’s own. There is nothing as liberating for a Biglaw lawyer, nor as career-sustaining, as acquiring the proverbial “book of business” that is the golden ticket for a long and lucrative stint as a Biglaw partner.
Of course, acquiring that book of business is an all-encompassing challenge for all but the most privileged of Biglaw attorneys, many of whom resent the fact that it even needs to be done in the first place. In their view, business development is the province of salesmen, not noble professionals, a form of hucksterism that fails to reward the academic and perhaps even legal achievements that brought them into Biglaw in the first place. In fact, many Biglaw lawyers fortunate enough to have cultivated a client base of their own can sometimes be self-effacing or even apologetic about their achievements, particularly when in the company of other Biglaw lawyers — yet another example of Biglaw’s unique ability to render even the most accomplished insecure….
Make no mistake, developing business (especially in the Biglaw context) is extremely difficult for a number of reasons. Doubt its importance? Just think of the powerful partner at your firm who but for a large book would be selling laser hair-removal systems in the Kansas City metropolitan area to general practitioners hoping to juice the revenue from their medical practices. Every firm has a few of these “born salesmen” on board, just as every firm has a cadre of partners whose impeccable credentials and demonstrated legal ability have attracted business as well. There is room for all kinds of business development at Biglaw, and successful practitioners of the art of business development come in all forms.
What everyone who has brought in clients realizes is that business development is not a linear pursuit, but rather one that takes constant effort and a willingness to fail. Because you will fail to land a client even when you actually are the best lawyer for the particular engagement, no matter how polished your pitch or price-friendly your proposal. At the same time, there will be times when raw persistence lands you a client in an unexpected way, making you think that perhaps luck plays a bigger role in business development than it is normally given credit for.
The challenge is great, but the pursuit is necessary. Especially if you want to enjoy the ripest fruits that a Biglaw career can promise, with the luxury to eat when you are hungry, in contrast to the majority of Biglaw lawyers, who hope that there remains some flesh on the rinds that fall their way after the rainmakers have gorged themselves. Because there is no formula for building a book of business, Biglaw attorneys need to cast a number of different lines in the hope of landing a client. I can assure you that the most accomplished rainmakers never stop thinking about developing more business, and are often the biggest believers in trying a number of different approaches to achieve their goals.
We can start by looking a bit at the hardest way to bring in a client: through a “cold call” or contact (while being mindful of the ethical rules surrounding solicitation), reaching out to an individual or company in need of legal services that you can provide, when that person has no clue who you are and has therefore never considered you as their lawyer. Bringing in a client via a cold call is possible, but carries a degree of difficulty equal to the most adventurous and unprecedented trick on display at the X Games. But precisely because it is the hardest to do, I submit it is the most important form of business development for a Biglaw lawyer to try. And keep trying — even if only to develop the skills that will make the easier forms of business development more likely to succeed.
Let’s be clear. If you are going to try and bring in a piece of business via a cold call approach, you need to be prepared to fail. Many times over. No matter how accomplished your academic and Biglaw career.
Think about things from the perspective of the potential client. Imagine you are the CEO of a growing company, perhaps not yet at the stage where you have in-house counsel, and you are contacted by a Biglaw lawyer out of the blue — who is trying to pitch you for a products liability case that you have just learned was filed against your company. Your regular corporate lawyer has let you know you will need to hire a litigator, and has offered some local recommendations, but admits that hiring a Biglaw firm may be in order. You are upset about being sued, are calculating in your head the potential costs of this unwanted case, and have never worked with a Biglaw firm before — but are aware of their well-earned reputations as places populated by armies of bill-churning shock troops. And now some fellow claiming to be a partner at one of these places is calling you, angling for an opportunity to present you with a “proposal” that he promises will be both a great deal for your company and your admission ticket to the glories of the Biglaw client experience.
How can such a person’s natural skepticism be overcome? Humility and persistence are necessary for the Biglaw lawyer hoping to secure the representation. Plus a willingness to offer a lot of free “advice” (while being mindful of the ethical rules regarding the establishment of an attorney-client relationship), while trying to build some personal rapport in a short period of time. It is critically important that you take a “soft sell” approach, while constantly offering your time for further discussions with the prospective client as you try to convince them to hire you. Being sensitive to your “target” is your only hope. Anecdotally, while I personally have been successful in bringing in some matters via cold calls, the time from first contact to when I was retained ranged from one to six months in those situations. So be patient.
What about contacting companies with in-house counsel? While they are usually quicker to retain you once they are convinced you are their best option for a matter (but please don’t think you will land a corporate client with one phone call), you will have likely have fewer opportunities to persuade them of that fact. For one, you will be competing with their existing counsel, a cohort that includes not only the firms that have represented the company in similar matters before, but also all the firms that are representing the company in other matters, those possessing pods of partners anxious to exercise their cross-selling skills. The best approach? Forget about the competition and focus on projecting both confidence and competence to the prospective client. Invest your time in preparing your pitch — in an abbreviated form for your initial contact, and more robustly if you get invited back. Don’t waste any time talking about your credentials unless asked directly, but rather walk the in-house team through what will do if retained. Be prepared for rejection, but even if it happens, if you have made a good impression with your pitch, you may be that much closer to getting a future engagement from that client.
Ultimately, gaining business through cold calls is truly the hardest form of business development for a Biglaw lawyer. Because your firm’s prestige is of limited utility in such a scenario, you really must hope to make a personal connection with the potential client if you hope to bring in any work this way. But the difficulty of the task should not dissuade you from trying. If a case or matter that you are “perfect for” crosses your path, do not hesitate to reach out. The only guarantee is that if you sit around waiting for the phone to ring, it most certainly won’t.
Have you had any success generating business through a cold call? Let me know by email or in the comments.
Anonymous Partner is a partner at a major law firm. You can reach him by email at email@example.com.