I told you last week that today’s column would focus on “how to get my attention.” And I’ll let you know in a bit.
But first, let’s play “Which Biglaw Anecdote is True?” Here are the options:
(1) A partner at Law Firm A regularly has his briefcase sent to his home in a limo;
(2) Law Firm B is chock full of lawyers of all faiths and backgrounds, but holds its summer outing at a country club known for being “restricted”; or
(3) Attorneys at Law Firm C take a helicopter from the 34th Street heliport in Manhattan to a hearing in Connecticut — and then bill the client for it.
In 25 years working at law firms, I never offered this to a client. In two years working in-house, no outside law firm ever before offered this to me. But I heard it moments ago, and I couldn’t believe how foolish I’ve been. I smiled, shook my head, hung up the phone, and popped open the blogging software for your benefit.
“When we’re handling a major case that is so terribly expensive to defend,” says my outside counsel, “we like to have an ‘all-hands’ meeting with the client once a quarter. Our entire team will fly to your headquarters for the event. We’d like you to invite not just any appropriate in-house lawyers, but also relevant people from the business unit and any senior managers who might either be concerned about the cost of the litigation or have ideas to offer. We find that people who aren’t directly involved in the litigation often suggest great ideas.
“We won’t charge you anything for these quarterly meetings. We’ll write off our time, and our firm will pay the travel expenses. We just think it’s a good idea to have these meetings regularly in cases as important as this one.”
I personally had nibbled around the edges of this idea when I was in private practice: “We’d like you to schedule a two-day educational conference about the product involved in the litigation,” I had said in the past. “Have each of your folks who helped to design the product, know its regulatory history, and so on, speak for an hour. We want to educate our entire team and to meet the key players in person. Naturally, we won’t charge you for our time or travel expense.”
That’s okay. It’s a nice offer; it serves an important function; and it causes a bunch of your lawyers to meet a bunch of client representatives. But the offer I just heard is much better. It achieves so much more. Why?
As an in-house lawyer who occasionally influences our selection of outside counsel, I hear an awful lot of law firm pitches. And I must admit that I’m often entertained by them. I spent better than 25 years in the private practice of law, where attracting new business was an important part of the game. I was never sure which pitches had a chance and which didn’t, so it’s pretty amusing to sit on the other side of the table to see how other folks approach this.
I recently saw one good pitch and one bad one, and I just have to share.
First, the bad one. Several lawyers from a firm visited us for a chance to explain their firm’s capabilities. I don’t remember why we were meeting with them — we actually had a need for them; someone recommended them; someone important asked us to meet with them as a favor; whatever. I used to think that getting in the door to meet with potential clients was a big achievement; I now realize that it meant less than I thought.
Anyway, these guys started the pitch the usual way: The firm has lots of great lawyers who’ve done lots of great things in their lives. The firm is divided into several departments, and those divisions should for some reason matter to me. A couple of magazines had bestowed some awards on the firm or its lawyers. Yadda, yadda, yadda.
I recently had lunch with a guy who had worked at a law firm, gone in-house, and later returned to a law firm. (It’s actually more than that. This guy’s bio is: assistant U.S. attorney; associate at K&E; partner at Bartlit Beck; deputy general counsel at Bank One; and now at his own small firm. That’s called either “done it all” or “can’t hold a job.” Because this post will share with the world an idea that he proposed, I’ll credit him publicly: He’s Lenny Gail of Massey & Gail, a small shop based in Chicago and D.C.)
Lenny asked at lunch, as folks frequently do, what I’d learned about business development by having gone in-house. I answered honestly, as I occasionally do: When I was outside counsel, I always thought that business development was a game of chance. You tried a hundred different things, with no clue what might pay off, and then random chance struck and business arrived inexplicably, out of the blue.
As in-house counsel, my view hasn’t really changed: If you’re on our list of preferred counsel and we use you regularly, we’re likely to hire you again. If you’re a newcomer, there’s not much you can do or say to draw that first retention. Everything you say at our introductory meeting simply repeats what some other guy told us about his firm last week, and virtually nothing you’ve done is so breathtaking as to make you irresistible.
Lenny nodded, and we drifted back into our iced teas.
The real problem with getting retained is the first nibble. As outside counsel, once someone retained us for one case, it was a lock that they’d retain us for another. The client would come to know our people, our firm, the quality of our work, and the results we obtained. Parlaying one opportunity into many was easy; the hard part is getting the first chance. As in-house counsel, that continues to strike me as true for many (but not all) firms.
Last week’s Am Law 100 list revealed publicly a trend that partners at big law firms have been feeling acutely: The largest law firms have de-equitized partners in the last two years in an unprecedented way. In the words of one of the articles, “Equity partner head count alone slipped 0.9 percent last year, after dropping 0.7 percent in 2009.” That trend may undermine the business models of some law firms.
Law firms have many and varied business plans and compensation systems. But one reasonable way to run a firm is to market your most marketable lawyers — concentrate business development in the folks best able to develop business. For that model to work, however, all partners must trust the institution. De-equitization reduces the necessary trust and may kick the stilts out from under this business model.
Here’s how the model works. If a potential new client asks your firm to respond to an RFP for litigation matters, you turn to your half-dozen heaviest-hitting litigators and decide which one will be offered up as the lawyer to lead the new engagement. You know that, if you’re invited to a beauty contest, the heavy-hitter will clinch the deal, because he’s clinched so many deals in the past.
If you read in today’s Wall Street Journal that the plaintiffs’ mass tort bar has just put another industry under seige, you spring into action. Pull together the firm’s marketing materials, identify lawyers with relationships in the relevant industry, draft up outlines of motions to dismiss and oppositions to class certification, assemble an outline of key issues and proposed responses, and then have your relationship lawyers call and email their client contacts, offering to have one of the heavy-hitters meet with the client to explain the firm’s capabilities. The heavy-hitter takes it from there.
If a corporate lawyer gets a serious litigation nibble, the corporate lawyer will naturally advise the head of litigation about the opportunity, so the firm can make an appropriate pitch. The head of litigation asks one of the heavy-hitters to lead the charge.
If a client asks a junior partner in the commercial trial department about the firm’s ability to defend a multi-billion dollar case, the junior partner reports up through the ranks. The firm puts together a response that proposes a talented litigation team to handle the case — led, of course, by one of the heavy-hitters.
This approach to running a firm isn’t crazy. To the contrary: Institutionally, this system makes a lot of sense. You offer up your most impressive lawyers to handle the most important opportunities, land the business, and distribute that business among the masses to keep everyone busy. Collectively, everyone at the firm benefits.
Funny story: One day during my third year of law school, I overslept and missed an important session of my Sales class. The problem is, when I tried to get the notes for the class, the only one who had … pardon me? Yes, Sales. No, not UCC Sales. “Sales.” As in “How to Market and Sell Your Legal Services.” … So, anyway, the only one who had the notes … what’s that? You didn’t? Seriously? So how were you supposed to learn how to sell your services as a lawyer?
Turns out my story, which was going to be hysterical, was also completely fabricated. Like you, I didn’t learn a damned thing about sales in law school. But at the time (the early nineties), that seemed OK. It’s a profession, you see. Sales is for commerce. Lawyers aren’t in commerce; we’re in a vocation.
As the practice of law careens away from its eighteenth-century traditions, where clients just find you, lawyers today (and especially small-firm lawyers) need to rely on sales skills to bring in business. Since we didn’t learn these in law school, we have to rely on our natural sales ability. Unfortunately, lawyers tend not to have any.
In fact, as a group, we suck at sales. But the reason we suck will probably surprise you.…
The lawyers use those collections to adorn professional biographies that appear on firm web pages. The garnitures generally include (1) experiences (which are trumpeted in the form of “deal lists” or “representative engagements”), (2) publications, and (3) speaking engagements. After you pick off a case in the Second Circuit, or publish an article in the National Law Journal, or give a talk to an industry group, you go home and polish your online image; you update your bio.
When you’re in private practice, it makes sense to do this. You are, after all, trying to attract business, so your online bio is essentially your calling card. Strangers may visit the website and see your bio; you may send a link to potential clients; you may print the bio and hand it out during a beauty contest.
In an odd way, for many people, assembling these collections marks the passage of time. (“2005? I was up to my eyeballs in MDL 1150.” “1997? That was when we tried the Doe case.”) You’re nuts, of course, if those professional moments even begin to approach the significance of truly important stuff — marriage, the birth of a child, a death in the family — but those events mark time, in the same way that changing seasons do.
Ultimately, who’s to say that collecting stuff is wrong? People collect stamps, and coins, and books, and they take some pleasure there. Maybe collecting experiences, or achievements, fills the same psychic need. Or maybe the need to achieve, and to prove your achievements to the world, is hard-wired into many people who spent their early years in college, law school, and law firms, pursuing a succession of brass rings….
So you’re at a small firm and you want to be successful. Good. Why you wouldn’t want that is beyond me. But if you want to be a successful lawyer, you need to make a name for yourself. If you don’t want to be a successful lawyer, you can leave this post now. We’ll wait. [Waits while the preternaturally mediocre leave ATL for Dlisted or whatever.] OK? The rest of you stick with me.
Look. You didn’t end up at a big firm, because you didn’t go to a top law school or because your first-year grades weren’t as stellar as they could have been. So you’re not going to be making a huge salary in exchange for billing 2,500 hours a year. Deal with it. That doesn’t mean that you can’t have a very successful career as a lawyer. It just means that you need to take a different approach.
The most important thing you can do to make a name for yourself as a lawyer is to find a way to stand out from the crowd. Here are six tips on how to do it.…
Diversity matters. It matters for reasons of social justice. It matters because folks are tracking it, and it can be important to look good on those scales. It matters for reasons of trial strategy, because our defense team should look at least slightly like our jurors. In particular types of cases, diversity may be a terribly important consideration. Employers may, for example, want an African-American to defend a race discrimination case. (Or, in my old product liability life, we may have wanted women to defend breast implant or hormone replacement therapy cases. Or we may have looked for female expert witnesses for those cases. Pandering, thy name is litigator!)
Law firms know this, and those that are able now stress their commitment to diversity. Which brings me to today’s story.
A female colleague and I recently had lunch with folks from a firm that was looking for our business. (You’d be surprised how good I’m getting at those lunches. Whether or not I remember your name the next day is another matter, but I’m becoming a pro at eating.)
The outside lawyers pitched the diversity point fairly aggressively, telling us about their many highly compensated female partners and paying particular attention to my colleague when they did so.
When we left the lunch, my colleague said, “Well, that’s exactly the wrong way to sell diversity.”
Ed. note: The Asia Chronicles column is authored by Kinney Recruiting. Kinney has made more placements of U.S. associates, counsels and partners in Asia than any other recruiting firm in each of the past six years. You can reach them by email: email@example.com.
We currently have a very exciting and rare type of in-house opening in China at one of the world’s leading internet and social media companies. Our client is looking for an IP Transactional / TMT / Licensing attorney with 2 to 6 years experience. The new hire will be based in Shenzhen or Shanghai. Mandarin is not required (deal documentation will be in English) but is preferred. A solid reason to be in China and a commitment to that market is required of course. This new hire will likely be US qualified (but could also be qualified in UK or other jurisdictions) and with experience and training at a top law firm’s IP transactional / TMT practice and could be currently at a law firm or in-house. Qualified candidates currently Asia based, Europe based or US based will be considered. The new hire’s supervisors in this technology transactions in-house team are very well regarded US trained IP transactional lawyers, with substantial experience at Silicon Valley firms. The culture and atmosphere in this in-house group and the company in general is entrepreneurial, team oriented, and the work is cutting edge, even for a cutting edge industry. The upside of being in an important strategic in-house position in this fast growing and world leading internet company is of the “sky is the limit” variety. Its a very exciting place to be in China for a rising IP transactional lawyer in our opinion, for many reasons beyond the basic info we can share here in this ad / post. This is a special A+ opportunity.
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