Cross-selling

Nothing you can say or do can cause me to retain you.

That’s terribly disheartening for folks who believe that business development should work, but it’s awfully close to being true.

Why is there nothing you can say that will cause me to hire you?

Because long experience (and the rules of arithmetic) have taught me that the average lawyer is average. So about 68 percent of all lawyers are within one standard deviation from the mean, and about 95 percent are within two standard deviations. And that’s roughly the mark that I’m aiming for when I hire outside counsel: Good lawyers. Really good lawyers. Maybe two standard deviations from the mean.

This means that if I picked my outside counsel randomly, I’d be disappointed 19 times out of 20. I don’t like those odds, so I don’t pick outside counsel randomly.

And if I picked my outside counsel based on which outside lawyers told me that they personally think they’re great, I’d still be disappointed 19 times out of 20. I still don’t like those odds.

I don’t know if other inside counsel view things the same way I do. But, if they do, it makes business development awfully tricky. If there’s nothing you can say or do to cause me to hire you, what forms of business development might work?

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Tom Wallerstein

Last week, I was having a business lunch at Michael Chiarello’s Coqueta overlooking the San Francisco Bay. (Those who know me won’t be surprised that I managed to combine a business meeting with some good eats. I’ll save my restaurant review for another time, or you can read it on OpenTable.)

Anyway, my lunch was with a partner at Leason Ellis, a thriving IP boutique in New York. The firm is a boutique in that the lawyers are specialists in intellectual property; as far as I know, that is their only practice area. But within that subject matter, they have both a litigation and transactional practice. Conversely, with limited exceptions, my own firm has remained a litigation-only boutique since it was founded four years ago. We handle a wide range of subject matters, but only do litigation within those subjects.

What are the pros and cons of running a litigation-only shop? Why haven’t we added a robust transactional practice as well?

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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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How do you build a practice for a law firm?

Everyone has a theory; I’ll provide a case study.

In 1997, Congress was about to pass a law that would have been great for America, but horrific for business at the law firm at which I then worked. The firm thus (intelligently) created several committees to try to create new practices that could keep lawyers busy if the promised bill became law. I was asked to chair the “drug and device product liability business development committee.”

At the time, my firm did essentially no pharmaceutical product liability work. I’d helped to defend a set of medical device cases, which was about as close as anyone had come to actual experience in the pharmaceutical products field, so I was the natural choice to lead this effort. When given that assignment, what do you do? How do you build a practice essentially from scratch?

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Ed. note: This is the latest installment of Inside Straight, Above the Law’s column for in-house counsel, written by Mark Herrmann.

Can we just put this one to rest?

At every conference, and in many articles, people pose the question: “As a client, do you hire law firms, or do you hire lawyers?” The clients dutifully respond that they hire lawyers, not firms. Hasn’t this become sufficiently obvious that we can stop asking the question?

Why does any rational client hire lawyers and not law firms?

Because law firms are an aggregation of lawyers. Once a firm grows beyond a relatively small size, the quality of lawyers will vary. As a client, what matters is the quality of the lawyer working on your matter, not the quality of people not working on your matter, or the identity of the firm. (An exception may exist when a timid client is protecting itself against the possibility of a bad result: “We hired the biggest, baddest law firm available to handle this matter for us. Now that things have gone poorly, you can’t blame me, because I hired the best and sunk a lot of money into the matter.” But that reasoning is foolishness, and I hope this doesn’t happen often.)

The truth is that law firms themselves are uncertain about the quality of their own lawyers. Why?

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