Business development

Ed. note: This is the second column in a series by Anonymous Partner focusing on the issues facing women in the legal profession. You can read the first column here.

Biglaw partners sell their time and attention to clients who want legal help. Partners devote plenty of thought and attention to the mechanics of selling — the how, the what, and even the why regarding client’s selection of counsel. Biglaw firms rightfully obsess about these issues, spending untold sums on robust marketing departments, consultants, and the like, in the hopes that their partners will magically all become rainmakers (or at least adept “cross-sellers”).

But while the how, what, and why of rainmaking get a lot of attention, there is a glaring lack of attention and discussion of the “who” — as in, who are the people making the decisions to purchase the gold-plated services offered by Biglaw. You would think determining the profiles of your target customers, and targeting sales approaches accordingly, would be an important endeavor for a professional-services outfit. You would also think that Biglaw firms would discuss with their current and future rainmakers strategies for appealing to various types of purchasers of Biglaw services. Neither of the Biglaw firms I have been a partner at have done so — at least when it comes to adopting different approaches to pitching female in-house counsel. I would bet my experience is typical.

What does this have to do with “Biglaw Lady Issues”? Easy. While the statistics tell us that women — in part because of the challenges posed by the timeline I discussed last week, among other factors — are not really moving the needle much in terms of becoming Biglaw equity partners, there is no doubt that they are entering Biglaw in substantial numbers, and leaving to take in-house positions — again in substantial numbers. As Old School Partner reminded us, Biglaw is within a lifetime of being a “men’s only” club. Those days are over, as are the days when someone like Old School Partner could build a firm of men selling to male-run businesses with exclusively-male in-house counsel. But nobody really talks about the impact that the increasing number of female in-house counsel do (and should) have on Biglaw marketing efforts and client retention. Seems crazy that this is the case….

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Last year, one of my columns explained how I went about developing a new practice at a large law firm. Now that ABA Publishing has repackaged some of my old columns as a book, I’m hearing new reactions to some of those older columns. One of my recent correspondents — a partner at an AmLaw 100 firm — raised a good issue about my column on business development. He gave me permission to crib from (and slightly revise) his long e-mail (without attribution to him), so that’s what I’m doing here:

“In your case study of business development, you ask whether the business development game is worth the candle. But you seem to presuppose that the game is really worth playing in the first place. My problem isn’t with the premise that if you want to develop business you must work hard at it and be lucky. My problem is with the assumption that the only goal worth achieving in law is success in business development. I think you are correct in saying that law firms under-appreciate business development efforts and over-appreciate business development successes. But I think they over-appreciate both compared to good lawyering . . .

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For those ignoring the unemployed “future of law” idiots typing away from their kitchen table in some crap city with a regional airport and instead still living in the universe where you believe practices can be built and survive on the referrals of others, I have some advice on maintaining your referral base. Some good stuff here, so keep reading if you actually practice law and have to bring in business instead of living off the originations of lawyers who people actually hire.

A referral base is sometimes, but not always, a two-way street. This is where honesty comes into the equation. There may be a lawyer who refers you business, to whom you would never refer business. There may be those lawyers who refer you business, but you have never had the opportunity to send them any. On the other hand, there are those lawyers to whom you send business, who haven’t sent you anything.

Referrals from other lawyers happen for two reasons, either the lawyer is your BFF, or because they know your reputation in the practice area. Sad news for some of you, your reputation, as I’ve said before, is not based on how many people have accepted your begging them invitation to write online testimonials about you….

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Tom Wallerstein

I’ve heard that a hungry dog hunts best. I don’t know if that’s actually true because my pugs were always hungry, and yet they could not have caught a three-legged turtle. But the saying makes sense, and I do know that staying hungry — but not desperate — is an important concept for law firms.

One way a young firm should stay hungry is to always search for new business. There are good reasons that I constantly harp on the importance of business development. Even if you are fortunate enough to be busy, you never know when your current workload may dry up. This is particularly true in litigation because any case can always settle or otherwise resolve unexpectedly. No matter how busy you are, you should constantly seek out new work and new clients.

But seeking out new work comes at a potential cost to your current cases and clients. You can’t be so desperate to grow that you spend so much time on business development that you ignore your current clients or let your current caseload suffer. Some lawyers take a churn and burn approach, trying to maximize their short-term return from every engagement, with no concern for the longer-term client relationship. To form a practice that’s built to last, you need to work hard to maintain those relationships, and that means you can’t neglect your current clients while constantly fishing for newer ones….

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Ed. note: This is the final column by Anonymous Partner based on his interview of a more-senior partner, “Old School Partner” (“OSP”). You can read the first column here and the second column here.

We had been talking for a while, when the conversation turned to Old School Partner’s experiences as a general counsel. He pulled no punches. “I was a very sophisticated consumer of legal services,” Old School Partner told me. In short, Old School Partner, when he turned to outside counsel, had high standards.

Having already decided to leave the security of a leadership position at a Biglaw firm for in-house life, Old School Partner demanded the same attention to detail and professionalism from his chosen outside counsel as he displayed when doing work for his former clients. As an example, he shared how he went about choosing litigation counsel.

“I was looking for counselors,” he told me, and that meant no fluffy credentials without real experience backing them up. “I wanted trial lawyers with real trial experience, who could have the confidence to forego a deposition that was not going to be of any value at trial.” Unlike many clients today, Old School Partner was willing to pay top dollar for real guidance, and did not default to assigning his cases to the lowest bidder or a firm that had a “preferred relationship” with his company. I got the sense that he viewed each case his company was engaged in as a business problem that needed solving, and was willing to pay handsomely for a solution — because he realized that throwing money at a litigation “team” was ultimately less effective and more costly than buying top-drawer help….

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Tom Wallerstein

For attorneys starting their own firms, one of the more difficult things to learn is how much time to spend on a prospective client. Attorneys take various approaches. Some attorneys say, reasonably enough, I don’t work for free, and will do little more than quote their rates. Attorneys who employ mass marketing will offer a “free consultation,” but that generally amounts to little more than a way to encourage unsophisticated clients to call them as opposed to someone else.

If your business model depends on high volume of a particular type of case, it probably doesn’t make sense to devote too much effort to soliciting any one particular client. But if you are pursuing fewer, higher-stakes or more complex matters, then you very well could struggle with how to strike the proper balance….

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I’m one of those lawyers that goes on vacation. Not just long weekends, real vacations. I pity those of you that pride yourselves in announcing, “I don’t take vacations.” Good for you, you pathetic drone. I didn’t take vacations at first, as I was always fearful that someone would call to hire me on a non-emergency basis and wouldn’t wait until I came back. Now I don’t care. If you can’t wait until I come back, there are plenty of lawyers on the internet to hire that can take your PayPal payment online and send you whatever documents you think you need to handle your case.

When was I able to take my first two-week vacation and not worry about business? After 14 years in private practice. I say that because I know how patient all of you are out there.

First, let me congratulate the commentariat, who I found in San Francisco had turned their child-like recurring comments into a t-shirt business. See, there’s all kinds of ways to make money as an unemployed lawyer, not to worry. (For those of you that tell me you don’t read the comments, it’s okay, just look at the picture and imagine those phrases being said over and over again, anonymously.)

Anyway, when I’m on vacation, I think about my business. I think about what I love, what I hate, and what I want to change. There is nothing like thinking about your business (not the cases or the clients) while you are away from the phone calls (if your phone is ringing), other interruptions, the deadlines, and all the trappings of a lawyer’s day. (That was tip number one of today’s column for those of you shallow folks that can’t comprehend messages that aren’t in your face with drawings.)

One of the things I do a lot while I’m away is watch other businesses. I try to figure out how they make their money, why their employees are happy, or unhappy, why their customers patronize the store, restaurant, tour company, and how they handle problems. You’re an idiot if you are trying to build your law practice solely by watching how other lawyers run their practices. Client dynamics can be found in many places, and ideas come from everywhere. Most lawyers are doing it wrong anyway. (Enter tip number two — see how that works?)

Here’s what I saw over two weeks in California….

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Tom Wallerstein

Anyone who has been around children is familiar with the challenge of getting them to eat what you want them to eat. “My daughter won’t eat vegetables.” “My son only eats cheetos.” Like a lot of parents, I find myself frustrated by this dynamic. But I also have to laugh, because I know the solution is so simple. If someone is hungry enough, they will easily overcome their aversion to whatever particular food they think they don’t like.

For example, you might not like broccoli, and you swear you would never eat broccoli under any circumstances. But if you were on a desert island with nothing to eat except broccoli, it would not take very long for you to overcome, or at least overpower, your distaste. So, if you really want your kid to eat X, then just don’t allow them to fill up on not-X. Nature will take care of the rest. We’ve all got to eat, and a child won’t die from voluntary starvation any more than someone can kill themselves by holding their breath.

Like a lot of kids, mine have a very narrow range of food that they profess to like. Dinner, therefore, has a familiar refrain. The kids insist they don’t like X, and I tell them, “That’s fine. I understand you don’t like X. No one can tell you what you should like, and what you shouldn’t. You don’t need to like X if you don’t want to. Now shut up and eat it.”

Thus, “You Don’t Have to Like It” has become something of a mantra to me.

What does this have to do with succeeding in a small law firm?

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According to George Will, “Pessimism has its pleasures. Ninety percent of the time you’re right, and ten percent of the time you’re delighted to be wrong.”

That’s how I go through life.

What made me a pessimist? Nature or nurture, perhaps? (Should I blame my parents’ genes or their parenting skills?) Decades defending litigation, which forced me perpetually into a defensive crouch? (If that’s the reason, then plaintiffs’ lawyers must be optimists.) Or my preferred explanation: Keen observation of reality, coupled with endless experience, naturally breeds pessimism.

As an outside lawyer, my pessimism meant that I presumptively expected the worst (or, at a minimum, the least) from colleagues, opposing counsel, clients, and courts. Those folks generally performed precisely to my expectation, reinforcing my pessimism.

As an in-house lawyer, how does pessimism infuse life?

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Breaking news to lawyers at firms: In-house, we have these things called “business plans.”

Our business units prepare those plans at least annually. The plans typically contain both general objectives (such as achieving a specified level of organic growth, or margin, or whatever) and concrete steps that the business will take to achieve those objectives (such as introducing new products, controlling specified expenses, or whatever).

In-house law departments may create those plans, too. We commit to implement controls, or improve response times, or give a specified number of training sessions to a specified number of people, or the like. Depending on the corporation, a lawyer may be paid less than his target bonus if he doesn’t achieve his objectives and perform according to plan. A system like that is pretty good at grabbing folks’ attention and causing things to be done.

Do law firms (or individual lawyers at firms) prepare business plans?

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