Business development

Tom Wallerstein

I recently attended a reception for prospective students who had been admitted to the University of Pennsylvania Law School. It was a great event which was graciously hosted by superstar Penn Law alum John Wilson of Shearman & Sterling.

I’m a huge fan of Penn Law for too many reasons to list here, and I tried to convey some of my enthusiasm to the prospective students. (Had I known at the time, I would have included Penn’s distinguishing and commendable compliance with ABA transparency standards.)

I remember when I had attended the admitted students reception prior to committing, way back in 1996. At that reception I met then-Dean Colin Diver, who asked me what other schools I was considering. I told him, and added that I had not yet heard back from Stanford, my top choice…

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Aside from the daily challenges associated with sustaining or exceeding gross revenue year after year, Biglaw partners are probably most worried about their firm’s brand. After all, a brand is something that will keep clients coming back, and usher in new and exciting business opportunities.

But with so many firms to choose from, it’s hard to pinpoint exactly which one is on top when it comes to being the most well-known of the bunch, regardless of what their Am Law or Vault 100 ranks might tell you. What matters most is obviously what the clients think.

Of course, there’s now a ranking to determine which firm has the strongest brand in the business….

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Tom Wallerstein

Lawyers love to give advice. They seem to have an opinion about everything. Lawyers even love giving advice to other lawyers, if for no other reason than they like to gratify their egos. Thus, there is no shortage of advice for junior lawyers about how to most effectively practice law, nor is there any shortage of advice on how to establish and run a small firm or boutique legal practice.

Often, however, the advice is easier said than done.

For example, many scoff at those who fall victim to some version or another of a “Nigerian scam.” We especially shake our heads when the victims are lawyers. But ignoring seemingly obvious scam emails often is easier said than done.

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Tom Wallerstein

My six-year-old is never satisfied. If I offer him a piece of candy, he asks if he can have two pieces. If I tell him he can watch a 30-minute TV show, he asks if he can watch a 90-minute movie.

As annoying as that can be, I have a grudging respect for his persistence. In my opinion, his attitude exemplifies the kind of approach I think makes for a successful lawyer, not to mention running a successful business.

Refusing to be satisfied pays dividends in terms of your professional development. At the same time, the instincts of a six-year-old may be counterproductive. For example, when a case resolves unfavorably, our knee-jerk reaction is to blame forces beyond our control. You lost because the jury got it wrong, or the judge didn’t understand something, or the client didn’t tell you something. The words come out like an angry stream. There are a dozen rationalizations for why it was anyone’s fault but your own. Hopefully, when the heat cools down, and you find your mind, you will ask yourself what you could have done differently.

But I think what is less common, yet equally valuable, is going through this exercise even when a case resolves favorably. There is always room for improvement, and a post-mortem debriefing always makes sense. Rather than being satisfied with reaching a great settlement, or a great victory at trial, it behooves you to consider not only what you did right, but what you might have done differently….

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I don’t live in Lake Wobegon.

I live in Lake WoeIsMe: All of the children are a little below average.

Or maybe I just have a bad attitude.

I’ll be frank: If I just met you, I assume that you’re inept. Not because you necessarily are inept, but because I’ve been blindsided too often in the past by the mistakes of people who I foolishly believed to be competent. That ain’t gonna happen again.

I understand that not everyone views the world through my gray-tinted glasses. I’ve met folks who are shocked by my attitude: “Mark, that outside lawyer from Honduras just told you that you’d win the case. Why are you acting as though we’re going to lose?”

“Because the lawyer is probably incompetent.”

“Why do you think that? He comes highly recommended by Smith.”

“Why do we think that Smith is competent? Or that Smith knows enough about the Honduran guy to have a right to judge him? My working presumption is that people are incompetent until they prove otherwise.”

“I’m shocked by your attitude, Mark. I’m exactly the opposite. When I meet new people, I always assume that they’re good at what they do.” . . .

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I wrote last week about ideas to build a book of business. My main point was to start small and branch out from there. I mentioned how, as a young and naïve (ok, ignorant) associate, I was quickly disabused of the idea that I would soon be able to waltz into Pfizer and pick up some strands of litigation.

Then I received the following email in my Gmail account. It is a well-written counterpoint to my argument. A partner in New York City argues that starting small is a recipe for staying small.

I reprint his email (largely unedited) below….

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Tom Wallerstein

Some attorneys think they are unable to transition from Biglaw to opening a solo or small firm boutique because they lack the ability to generate business. They might think, “If I can’t generate business at my current firm, with all of its vast resources, goodwill, and prestige behind me, then how could I ever hope to generate business on my own?”

This kind of negative thinking is pernicious, and based on a number of fallacies….

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In this new year, since there have been several columns of late of the “confessional” type, I thought I might join the bandwagon. Since the overwhelming majority of inquiries from readers regard how best to market themselves to start to build a book of business, let me tell the truth: you can’t. At least not through me, or anyone in a position like mine.

I just passed my fifth year anniversary with my company, and in that time period, I have assigned a relatively low five-figure amount of work to outside counsel. And of that amount, only a small portion went to a former colleague in my network. The rest went to counsel from a list of approved firms for particular regions of the country. My intent is not to depress you, senior associates who have just realized in 2013 that you really don’t have a book to speak of, it is to get you to read between the lines.

In other words, find the differences from whence I speak, and fill in the holes. Those spaces in between are where opportunities exist for you to start to gain your own clients….

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Tom Wallerstein

For as far back as I can remember, the arrival of a new year has been an occasion for me to reflect on my life, where it has gone, and where it appears to be going. Many times I would spend New Year’s Eve simply being grateful; more recently, it has been an occasion to try to see a little furthur [sic].

This year, for the second consecutive year, our firm was approached by an Am Law 100 firm to explore the potential of our being acquired or otherwise merging. These overtures are flattering. They also intensify my annual ritual of considering my path and the choices I have made.

I have written before about some of the differences between Biglaw and small. My perception of those differences, however, has changed quite a bit in the nearly four years since I left Biglaw to help start a boutique firm. Our firm also has changed so much from one year to the next that my calculus of the pros and cons of Biglaw also has changed….

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A decade ago, I sat in the midst of hundreds of lawyers at a firmwide partners meeting. The managing partner explained that most of our revenue came from our 25 largest clients, and we should focus on expanding those representations. He then noted the conflicts problems posed by tiny clients, for whom we did essentially no work. He urged us to get the tiny clients off the books. To illustrate his point, his PowerPoint slide showed the clients to whom we had sent the smallest bills in the previous year. The firm’s smallest client had been billed a total of $3.25.

The managing partner scoffed: “Three and a quarter? Three and a quarter? Can’t we at least be as selective as the neighborhood bar? Maybe we should set a $25 minimum.”

I’ve inhabited law firms both small (for five years) and large (for twenty). Business development efforts at those firms are similar in some respects — “get famous; make contact; get lucky; repeat” — but differ in other ways. I’m thinking today about the ways that business development efforts differ depending on whether you work at a big firm or a small one….

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