Last week we discussed the high-risk, high-reward approach of making cold calls to develop business. Because of the low percentage of success even the most personable and sales-skilled Biglaw lawyers have when adopting that approach, any business development effort that relies on cold-calling exclusively is almost impossible to sustain in a Biglaw setting. And there is a valid argument that one does not really need Biglaw if they are able to establish a strong track record developing business through cold calls. In fact, the successful legal “cold-caller” would likely thrive without the artificial constraints the Biglaw business model (e.g., rates, types of matters) places on its partners. Again though, it is the rare Biglaw attorney who generates a single matter via a “cold call” (or a single new client for their firm actually), and rarer still to find one capable of doing it with enough regularity as to sustain a Biglaw career.
So while trying a cold call on occasion is an important element of a comprehensive business development approach, you need to “work” the resources of your firm to try and generate business. That means selling yourself to existing firm clients, participating in client pitches for new business that are generated by the firm, and making a good impression on your colleagues. The latter is important, because you never know which of your colleagues will go in-house and be in a position to give you work down the road. In many ways, trying to use your firm’s resources for business development is the traditional Biglaw approach to business development. As the contracting ranks of Biglaw equity partners suggest, it is a hard way of generating business — and getting harder…
But the cause is not a hopeless one. It all starts with a solid foundation. One built on doing excellent work as an associate, while keeping your eyes and ears open for any guidance on business development from the partners you are working for. Volunteering to expend non-billable hours to support a client pitch helps. Or at least doing as good a job on the pitches you are volunteered to support as you do on billable work. Making it clear to anyone who will listen about your ambition to develop business, and listening humbly when the inevitable advice comes cascading your way by those kind enough not to discourage you. And jumping on any opportunities to demonstrate the expertise you are sure to acquire in a “sellable” specialty, by writing and speaking on relevant legal issues as much as possible. Building that foundation takes time, but it is absolutely necessary if one later wants to bring in business. There are no shortcuts, unless you are blessed with unusual client contacts as a result of family connections or blackmail material on a general counsel or two. More than ever, becoming a Biglaw rainmaker requires gumption and patience in equal measure. Think World of Warcraft-level attention span, not a round of Candy Crush.
So you have built the foundation, convinced the powers-that-be to make you a partner, and are eager to try and bring in some clients. Before you start flashing your title around your next cocktail party like a police badge in a detective movie, it makes sense to remember something. That just as you have an obligation to your firm as a partner to generate and maximize business development opportunities, so does your firm have the same obligation in reverse to you. Simply put, when you sign that partnership agreement and deposit that capital payment, what you should be getting in return is opportunities to market your skills above and beyond those that you develop yourself. The obligation to provide you with those opportunities is on your fellow partners, just as you have the obligation to generate opportunities for them in return. And just as your partners have an obligation to assist your business development activities, so do your firm’s resources — including the marketing staff and other firm employees. There is a tendency in Biglaw firms for the top rainmakers to monopolize the attention of marketing, and even over time to try and centralize all business development their way. Navigating the political waters in this regard may be tricky, but unless you are willing to demand what you are entitled to, you are crippling yourself. And by doing so, consigning yourself to a lifetime of dependence rather than professional independence.
Be prepared to study. Ask marketing for the materials used on successful pitches. Study them, particularly those in your practice area. Start compiling a list of new matters brought into the firm, especially those by your group. Go over the list of your firm’s top fifty or hundred clients. Determine who the relationship partner is for those clients that are not using the firm in your practice area. Find out why from that relationship partner. Is it because the client has a longstanding relationship with one of your competitors? Try and go around the in-house person (by getting to know or offering free CLE in your practice area to the other in-house lawyers at the client) with that relationship in the hopes that eventually they will leave, or that there will be a groundswell of support for your firm in case a conflict arises that conflicts out existing counsel for a matter or two. Is it because the relationship partner does not even know that the firm has capability in your practice area (this actually happens, even in this heyday of Biglaw cross-selling) and that his own client has substantial needs in that area? Then it may be time for a little internal education first. But at least try something, because there is plenty of competition willing to do anything to get that client. Down the hall, across the street, and in some fancy office building in another city.
Assuming you are able to buck up the courage and are ready to try out for the role of rainmaker, remember that it is a time-consuming process. Competition exists both internally and externally, and for every success there will be many setbacks. Accepting that from the outset will help foster the all-important characteristic of public-facing humility (an effective disguise for the healthy ego that convinced you to try in the first place) that will be necessary to garner the support of your colleagues for your efforts. People generally like helping out others, but are unlikely to do so more than once for an ingrate. Be prepared to share the credit for all your early successes, even if you eventually hope to get to the point where you can act just like the most egregiously egotistical of the rainmakers at your firm. The better practice of course is to always acknowledge any assistance from others gratefully. So be generous with your offers to help, and solicit feedback and advice from rainmakers you encounter at every opportunity. Business development is an art, and even the most naturally talented need a measure of practice and guidance to succeed at it. Dumb luck helps too, but for some strange reason the people most dedicated to business development are usually among the lucky ones.
How has your firm actually helped in your business development efforts? 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.