Business development

Last week, I shared some thoughts regarding Biglaw summer associates. I thought it would be interesting to interview a current summer associate, and I was happy to hear from some brave volunteers.

The summer associate who is the subject of this interview has an impressive résumé and is off to a solid start at their highly-rated law school. That their credentials are strong is not surprising, considering the challenging job environment for those hoping to land a summer associate position in the first place.

The words of our interviewee are unedited, except to protect their anonymity. I’ve added some responsive parenthetical commentary after each response. I thank our interviewee for their candid observations and thoughtful opinions in response to these questions….

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Tom Wallerstein

Next week my firm will celebrate its fourth anniversary. I can’t believe it has been that long. It seems like yesterday that I was sitting at my desk at Quinn Emanuel, thinking about cases worth millions of dollars but still too small to be economically handled by traditional Biglaw firms. I wondered if I might try to serve a growing market hungry for less expensive but still high-quality litigation. Not long thereafter I was conspiring with my partner over the details, drafting business plans, and conducting informal marketing surveys.

As my firm approaches its fourth anniversary, it’s interesting for me to think back to my early plans and consider what worked, and what did not. What happened as I predicted or hoped, and what was unexpected…

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Tom Wallerstein

Starting a new firm is daunting. Many lawyers focus on their expenses, and are pleasantly surprised that the overhead and other necessary expenses are less than they expected. But the real difficulty arises on the other side of the ledger because accurately projecting income can be so elusive.

If you’re starting with guaranteed clients, then making projections is easier. But otherwise, you really can’t project your income unless you know the extent to which your business plan in general (and your business development plan in particular) will succeed.

Even if you can accurately project how much potential business you will have, it’s still easy to slip by overestimating your expected income…

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Let’s assume for a moment that arithmetic is true.

This means that the average lawyer is average.

And average is actually pretty bad. (As one of my co-clerks said during the first week of a clerkship, reading a Ninth Circuit brief several decades ago: “This is great!”

“What? Is the brief good?”

“No! The brief is terrible. We are not gonna starve!”)

The average lawsuit thus pits Tweedledee against Tweedledum, and, sadly, they can’t both lose. After the verdict comes down, Tweedlewhoever boasts on his website of another great victory and yet more proof of his talent and expertise.

Twenty years later, what does that look like?

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Years ago, I knew a lawyer who thought that business entertainment worked. He was a plaintiffs’ personal injury lawyer: “I treat a doctor to a $50 lunch, and the next day he refers a case to me. I make one phone call and settle the case for $9,000, netting a $3,000 fee. And the doctor thinks we’re even! It’s unbelievable! I can’t eat enough lunches!”

Good for him. But does it work for anyone else?

I certainly treated clients to dinners and sporting events in my day, but none of those clients (or prospects) ever hired me in return for that entertainment. I didn’t expect them to, and I’d be terribly disappointed in them if they did. My having treated a guy to a dinner doesn’t make me the best lawyer to handle his case, and he’d be nuts to hire me because the caviar was beluga.

The reverse is also true. Lots of people want to meet me, buy me a meal, or take me to a cricket match (I’m now based in London, remember?) since I’ve gone in-house. A few of the folks who buy me lunch even follow up with e-mails expressing their unhappiness that I haven’t promptly retained them: “Was it something I said? Why haven’t I heard from you, other than the thank you note?”

It was nothing you said. But why should I possibly hire you simply because you bought me lunch?

I have my own theory about why firms create large “client entertainment” budgets . . .

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If you are a Biglaw partner and have only one title to hawk, I hope you are at a really top-tier firm. Because “partner” is no longer enough to impress clients. Especially in this age of multiple industry “guides” eager to anoint mortal lawyers with honorifics befitting your typical episode of Game of Thrones. (I am sure there is a female head of litigation somewhere who would relish being called Mother of Dragons, or a managing partner in Silicon Valley who would not mind being thought of as Lord of the Vale.) Between Chambers, Super Lawyers, Best Lawyers in America, and others, there are plenty of possibilities to supplement “partner” with something more.

Of course, the race for titles happens internally at Biglaw firms as well. Factor number one is prior business generation. Rainmakers are given titles by their fellow partners, like farmers seeding clouds for future rainfall. Every firm has at least a managing partner or CEO, numerous practice group heads, and an executive committee. Some firms, typically those of the “eat what you kill” variety, also exhibit a form of “title inflation,” with co-chairs galore and sub-department chieftains abounding. Plus office-level “chairs” — it is always a hoot when there is a local head of litigation for a branch office with three litigators. Especially when the branch office is a major city, with dozens of robust litigation practices at other Biglaw firms for clients to choose from. Everyone who has been granted a title uses it when marketing outside the firm. Who would want to hire a regular partner for a bankruptcy matter when you can have the co-chair of the Boston office’s (two-member) restructuring department handling things?

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From your only source of knowledge anymore Wikipedia:

“A hobby is a regularly undertaken activity that is done for pleasure, typically, during one’s leisure time. Hobbies can include the collection of themed items and objects, engaging in creative and artistic pursuits, tinkering, playing sports, along with many more examples. By continually participating in a particular hobby, one can acquire substantial skill and knowledge in that area.”

Although unintentional, a hobby is one of the best marketing tools around.

Oh, now I have your attention?

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Although I won’t name names here (because my employer is, among other things, the insurance broker to the stars, and I can’t afford to offend clients or potential clients), I just stumbled across an article that indirectly told me how to pick outside counsel.

In a relatively high-profile situation, a government entity recently had to retain an outside law firm. The government naturally retained an outside adviser to help the government make its choice. (How else could one possibly pick counsel?)

The outside adviser — I think you’d call the outfit a management consultant, although the website left me a little confused — has lots of MBAs on staff, but there’s not a lawyer to be seen. No matter: The MBAs created a questionnaire for the law firms to fill out, and the law firm that accumulated the most points won the business.

This is great! It’s time (once again) for me to stop thinking and start copying! We’ll revamp our whole system for choosing counsel! In the future, we’ll give the law firms who want our business a form to complete. We’ll add up the points — even I can do that. And then we’ll choose the law firm with the most points, thus retaining the best firm in the world to handle our matter through an objectively defensible selection process, in case anyone ever wants to second-guess our choice of counsel.

Shoot! If only I’d gone to business school, I could have been this smart! Let’s take a look at the questionnaire, so I’ll know the form that I’m copying to choose counsel for my next case . . . .

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Tom Wallerstein

I try to approach new relationships without an express agenda. In my experience, business has always come from relationships indirectly, and unexpectedly. Looking back at my firm’s engagements with 20/20 hindsight, it is undeniable that positive relationships led to the work. But that was impossible to predict looking forward.

For example, lunch with a casual acquaintance became a friendship and led to a very lucrative engagement when he later developed a conflict. I could not have predicted at the time how the lunch would later lead to important business.

In fact, had I approached the lunch with a strict agenda, I never would have formed the friendship or subsequent business. Instead of meeting with the goal of developing business, I met with the goal of having a nice lunch. It is a well-known irony that sometimes it is easier to get something when you stop trying so hard…

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Biglaw competition is getting intense. Everyone is chasing the same clients, while also deploying rearguard actions to protect institutional clients from being poached. Forget about lateral partners taking clients for a moment. I am talking about overt approaches from competing firms regarding existing matters, bearing promises of handling things more cheaply and more efficiently. In-house lawyers, under pressure to contain costs, almost have to listen. They may not act right away, but with each such approach another dent has been made in the Biglaw client-maintenance bumper.

It is no secret that in the face of declining overall demand (especially for the profit-pumping activities like mega-document reviews that were Biglaw’s joy to perform in the past), firms need to aggressively protect market share. While also seeking to grow market share. In an environment where more and more large clients are either (1) reducing the number of firms that they are willing to assign work to or (2) embracing an approach that finds no beauty contest too distasteful to engage in. So partners, at least those tasked with finding work for everyone to do, are falling back on a tried-and-true “sales approach” — putting things on sale.

How bad has it gotten?

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