Business development

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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If you’re trying to build a word-of-mouth-based referral practice (is anyone doing that anymore?), you may be frustrated with two things about some of your referral sources: they don’t appear to know what it is you do, and they don’t make a real effort to get you the case/client.

Let’s talk about the bad referrals first.

We’ve all been there. The call comes in, the client was referred by a familiar name, and he wants to hire you to do something you don’t do or don’t want to do. Maybe you’re a divorce lawyer but don’t want to handle child custody modifications, or you’re a commercial litigator who has said many times that you don’t do collections work.

If you’re getting the wrong referrals, it’s your fault…

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A retail business owner asked me why I don’t believe in pay-per-click advertising or spending money on SEO strategies for my practice, as it has worked well for his stores. So I asked him: “What would you do if you needed a lawyer?” “I would call someone, get a name, and then look that person up,” he said. “You wouldn’t just do a Google search?” “No, never. After I got a name, I would check out the lawyer’s background, maybe see if he’s written anything that gives him credibility.”

No kids, he’s not talking about cute tweets or postings with links on a Facebook Fan Page. He’s talking about real writing, and he’s talking about getting your name from real people.

Now I know that I’m wrong, don’t know what I’m talking about, and am facing a sure death of my practice by suggesting that there are other ways of getting your name out there besides vomiting all over every social media platform, but it’s okay. When it all dries up, I’m sure I will have plenty of job offers from the wildly successful lawyers of the commentariat.

For those wondering if the life of a lawyer will ever be anything more than keeping track of your Google prowess by taking calls of, “I found you on the internet. How much do you charge?,” I have good news — it can be. There are actually real people out there that are looking for quality. It’s not that they found you first; it’s that they found you after a little research. If you’re going to be the type of lawyer that is found after someone gives your name, you might as well have something on the internet that evidences you have done more than just listen to some unemployed lawyer’s advice on building a practice.

My ideas are all free, and if you’re not afraid to use your real name, you may get some benefit from using them….

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I mentioned last week that I recently moderated a panel of in-house lawyers at Schnader Harrison’s annual retreat. Always happy to share, I’m gathering here my existing thoughts on writing articles to develop legal business plus some new ideas suggested by the panelists. And, because handy lists get clipped and saved, I’m putting those thoughts into a list.

What are the ten rules for writing an article that will generate legal business for the author?

1. Write about a substantive issue, not a procedural one.

No one in the history of the world has retained a lawyer because the lawyer was the world’s greatest authority on Federal Rule of Evidence 403 or how to remove an action to federal court. People hire 10b-5 lawyers, not removal lawyers. If you’re writing to generate business, write on a substantive topic, not a procedural one.

2. Write about a niche area of the law.

If you write an article about some clever provision that a real estate lawyer should put in a lease, potential clients will read your article, send your article to their existing real estate lawyers, and ask the incumbents whether the incumbents have considered this idea and are able to put it to use. Your article thus educated the world and may have generated business for incumbent counsel, but it didn’t generate any business for you.

Niches are better. If you write about a niche area of the law — I’ve previously suggested that Colorado escheat law is wide open — the client’s incumbent firm won’t be able to provide the service that you’ve written about. If you’re writing to generate business, you don’t want to just suggest ideas that other lawyers can easily use.

3. . . .

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