Biglaw, In-House Counsel, Partner Issues

Biglaw Business Development (Part 3) — The Hard Way

As we have discussed the past two weeks, Biglaw business development is not easy. The available flavors at the Biglaw business development ice cream stand are hardest (cold calls), harder (intra-firm networking and beauty contests), and plain old hard. As in turning referrals and unsolicited contacts from prospective clients into engagements. That is hard to do, but nowhere near as difficult as trying to land the matter when the prospective client has not invested in contacting you beforehand, or at least heard about you from a source that they trust. There is a reason rainmakers take the largest share of the Biglaw pie, even at white-shoe lockstep firms.

Getting other lawyers to refer you matters, even from within your own firm, is hard. The foundation one needs to generate referrals is the exact same one that is required to have success generating business through other methods. But there is an extra ingredient, or at least a greater emphasis on a particular ingredient, that needs to be there if you hope to get referrals. That ingredient? Let’s call it likability. No matter how skilled a lawyer you are, or how hallowed your reputation, you simply must be likable in order to generate referrals. Of course, the definition of likability becomes quite a bit more expansive when applied to lawyers considered at the top of their fields. Simply put, the person referring you has to feel good about making the referral, and they are much more likely to feel good if they consider you an agreeable person, at least to do business with.

Unsurprisingly, the definition of likability in the Biglaw context is quite different from the standards we normally apply when talking about the real world. For those who like analogies, consider that Biglaw likability is to indisputable real-world likability as Biglaw “hot” is to indisputable real-world hotness….

Different standards apply in the Biglaw bubble. Use them to your advantage, particularly if the scaly hide developed by most lawyers who survive law school and Biglaw associateships is a bit thinner on you than on your competition. I know it is impossible for anyone who has passed the bar and practiced to ever stop “being” a (socially stunted) lawyer, but the better you are at suppressing your vaunted “legal instincts” when dealing with other human beings (even other lawyers, paradoxically), the more likable you are usually considered. For example, when dealing with opposing counsel, feel free to go ahead and grind them into a pulp, but do it with a smile and an agreeable disposition. Everyone remembers all the gory details of the times when they got beaten by someone else, but no one would ever refer a matter, even begrudgingly, to someone who they felt was a unlikable opponent.

Importantly for many in Biglaw, it is precisely opposing counsel who are among the most likely referral sources, whether for engagements or even future employment, so it is best to think long and hard before truly being an ass when dealing with another lawyer, even one who for now is on the other side of your case or transaction. Opposing counsel, and for that matter any other lawyer who refers you business due to your reputation or their experiences with you, are just one potential source of referrals. Obviously, your likelihood of receiving referrals from those sources will increase over time, as your legal career exposes you to more lawyers and gives those lawyers the ability to see you in action. Just another example of how rainmaking, particularly for those in Biglaw who are exposed to fewer other “outside” lawyers than your average criminal defense attorney, is a long-term game. Opposing counsel notwithstanding, traditional legal networking, such as joining a bar association or local industry group, is usually less effective for those in Biglaw than many of us want to imagine. FIrst off, the Biglaw envy factor contributes to most other lawyers assuming, perhaps wrongly, that Biglaw lawyers never lack for either billable work or wads of cash. Second, Biglaw associates (and many partners for that matter) struggle to articulate exactly why they are the best lawyer for any one particular legal assignment, unlike your local DUI-defense guy who has the calibration measurements for the Breathalyzer at the local precinct memorized. In short, a Biglaw career does not lend itself to copious referrals from fellow attorneys.

So if being in Biglaw generally means less exposure to outside lawyers who may be in a position to refer you work, what are the likeliest sources of referrals for Biglaw attorneys, particularly partners? Fellow partners are one, particularly if you are at a firm that actually rewards such referrals, rather than paying lip service to cross-selling. But in today’s Biglaw, that of the mega- and super-mega-sized partnerships, the likelihood of deep personal relationships with other partners is simply not the same as it was in the formative days of Biglaw. In contrast to fellow partners, your best Biglaw “friends,” and thus best referral sources, are likely to be former colleagues from your associate days. If you are lucky, many of those colleagues have moved in-house — rather than leaving the law for the glamorous life behind the wheel of a food truck. Assuming you treated your colleagues with empathy, you may be fortunate to see some referrals from them down the road. So what Biglaw takes away from you in terms of opportunities to show your stuff off to other lawyers, it gives back in the form of former colleagues who may one day actually have purchasing power at a client.

Finally, the single best source of referrals is of course satisfied clients. Clients who refer you other clients are golden, and you must do everything in your power to incentivize that positive behavior. All it takes to convince you of that fact is one glorious phone call from someone you have never heard of, who tells you that so-and-so recommended you, and thinks you can help with a certain problem. You will marvel at how easy it is to proceed from that phone call, to conflict check, to signed engagement letter. And you will contrast the experience with the time you spent three hours revising a Powerpoint in an airport on the way to a beauty contest, when you would rather have been working on a brief you had due. Earning referrals is hard, but when it comes to Biglaw business development, a referral is the closest thing there is to an easy way of closing a sale.

What are you doing to attract referrals to your Biglaw practice, and how do you turn those referrals into paid engagements? Let me know by email or in the comments.

Earlier: Biglaw Business Development (Part 1) — The Hardest Way
Biglaw Business Development (Part 2) — The Harder Way

Anonymous Partner is a partner at a major law firm. You can reach him by email at

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