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.
How do you get the first nibble?