From Mistmaking To A Law Firms Can Help Their Attorneys Make Rain

10/20/2008 Articles

American Bar Association
The Women Advocate - Fall 2008

by Nan E. Joesten, Farella Braun + Martel LLP

It is indisputable that the path to success in a law firm requires successful business development.  And it's not just the way to success as measured by entrance into the partnership.  Having your own book of business results in a greater feeling of control over your destiny, a better ability to structure your practice in the way that brings the most enjoyment to you personally and professionally, and, in the end, greater mobility should you decide you want to be elsewhere.  For law firms everywhere, creating a culture to encourage business development with structures that assist lawyers in being as productive and efficient in growing their business as possible should be the first priority after client service.  Without client service, the clients will not come regardless of any internal structures that assist lawyers to bring more work.  In today's competitive world, it's not enough for lawyers to merely be great practitioners in their area of expertise, and we all know too many firms that have fallen on hard times where the work was disproportionately generated by only a few senior rainmakers.  As one of my partners told me early on, "everyone can at least be a mistmaker."  And law firms themselves can help in that process.

First and foremost, law firms must help their attorneys deliver excellent legal services.  High-quality work is noticed both by the client and your adversaries.  These people have conflicts and needs for referrals.  With the increasingly high attrition rate in many law firms, the vast majority of the lawyers that you meet will not be with their firm from first year to retirement, and you should view each person that you come into contact with as a potential source of work.  But doing good work and amassing contacts is only the starting point.

Creating a culture where business development is a valued, enjoyable part of firm life is important.  There are steps that any firm can take to encourage individual attorneys to grow their own practice, so that over time, they have increasing direct responsibility for matters of both existing and future clients.  Some basic components of a strong practice development culture are creating strategic plans, building skills through training, creating resources devoted to marketing (such as marketing staff, budgets, and the like), providing mutual support and encouragement, and of course, establishing a reward system.

Plan Your Work, Work Your Plan

The task of building your practice is made easier, especially in large firms, with the existence of a strategic plan, both for the firm as a whole and for the various offices and practice groups within the firm.  Agreement on the types of clients, and industries the firm wishes to focus upon can avoid the headache that results from attorneys marketing at cross-purposes with one another.  Once the firm and practice group plans are set, it's time for each individual attorney to draft his or her own business development plan for the year.  The plans should include the current clients the attorney wishes to continue developing, and what steps the attorney will take to strengthen the relationship with those clients.  Take the client out to a baseball game?  Offer to present an in-house training or CLE at no charge to explain the impact of the recent Supreme Court rulings on licensing technology?  Invite the client to lunch with your transactional attorneys to cross-sell their area of expertise?  It is important for attorneys to communicate their practice development goals with one another to facilitate collaboration on activities and action plans.  It is also important to hold one another accountable for achieving those goals. 

Biannual meetings with the firm chair, practice group leader, and chief marketing officer or director of business development for each attorney to review his or her plans and progress is a strong motivator and signals that business development is a firm priority.  A good marketing plan will also include a list of target contacts and clients and plans for reaching out to those people, goals for increasing your profile in the community, identifiable cross-selling opportunities, and what steps you will take to help mentor and encourage other attorneys in their marketing efforts.  This last point is particularly important for senior lawyers and would encompass the all-important succession planning that is critical for creating a smooth transition as lawyers approach retirement. 

Train the Skills

Law firms can help their attorneys become mistmakers by providing training opportunities on fundamental skills essential to good business development.  The skills vary by tenure, but large firms can do many of these programs in-house, especially on topics such as the building blocks of a marketing plan, perfecting your elevator speech, the elements of a successful pitch meeting, networking and network management, using LinkedIn and Web 2.0 social networking, understanding the firm largesse and culture (e.g., event tickets, sponsorship opportunities, or organization support), industry and client research, and branding and promotion.  As training needs become more individualized, you should also make friends with your firm's staff resources, such as librarians, public relations professionals, chief marketing officers, or database administrators, because all of them can provide useful support and guidance as your business development plan takes off.  Some firms offer their attorneys personal sessions with marketing coaches or support participation in broader training sessions, such as the Mid-Career Workshop offered by the ABA's Women Rainmakers Group or the Hastings Leadership Academy for Women.  The key is to recognize that successful rainmaking rarely results without sustained, focused effort on getting good at it, and there are many ways firms can encourage attorneys to build a constant habit of business development.

Investment in Marketing

While not every activity attorneys engage in to build business requires an out-of-pocket financial investment, many do.  Firms that recognize this and allocate sufficient resources to support marketing efforts will find it easier for their attorneys to engage in rainmaking.  Whether it's the cost of baseball tickets, finding the location and designing the invitation for a client holiday lunch, or planning and executing a reunion of firm alumni - many of whom are now in-house and can be a great source for either business or referrals - having a marketing budget and support staff, where size demands it, is critical.  The lawyers are the ones on the "front lines" in meeting with clients, speaking at conferences, or entertaining contacts.  Anything that a crack marketing staff can do to make the lawyers look good in those settings that the lawyers don't themselves need to do - polishing the look and feel of a PowerPoint presentation, locating the perfect art galleries for a networking evening of "Fine Art and Fabulous Women" for a firm women's marketing event, or putting together the completed pitch package once the lawyers have agreed on the targeted substantive components - will help make the lawyers more efficient and effective.

As for the marketing dollars themselves, there are many ways to divvy up the available resources.  For many, the key is to encourage lawyers to get out into the community and network, and any activities that fulfill that purpose are reimbursed.  Other firms allocate the marketing budget on a per attorney basis, so that each attorney has a set budget for the year, and can spend it however he or she sees fit, whether it's attending ABA meetings, taking clients or prospects out for lunch, or buying holiday or referral gifts. In these firms, the budget for associates is frequently a standard amount, whereas the budget for partners are tied to their prior year's originations.  If attorneys want to invest even more in marketing, it comes out of their own pocket.  The system makes lawyers responsible for their own expenditures, and because it is limited, attorneys are forced to consider what makes the most sense instead of viewing marketing investments more cavalierly as "other people's money."  If your firm doesn't have a formal system for allocating marketing resources and you want to try something that requires an investment, ask for it!  If you can justify why the expense makes sense, the chances are good that it will be approved, and even if it isn't, you'll learn why not and can better target your request the next time around.

You've Got a Friend

Everything's easier with a friend.  For lawyers unaccustomed to being told "no," getting up the courage to network with contacts and ask for work can be daunting.  But it's not as difficult when you brainstorm ideas and tactics with supportive colleagues, compare notes on the process, and gather to celebrate your successes as they happen.  One Woman Advocate member reports that a small group of motivated senior associates and junior partners at her firm gather very briefly every Monday morning to share with each other their marketing goals for the week - setting up a lunch, drafting an article, taking a client to dinner - and reconvene at the end of the week on Friday over a glass of wine to relay to the team how much of their plan they accomplished, and what they learned along the way.  Another approach is to seek out the support of a lawyer with strong marketing skills, and ask that lawyer to serve as your marketing mentor.  The mere act of telling others what you intend to do and then being held accountable for doing it is often a useful spur to action. 

Another Woman Advocate member's firm has implemented a business development program specifically directed to associates, where all of the firm's associates are placed on partner-led teams.  The teams participate in monthly telephone conferences and receive points for various marketing activities, such as speaking engagements, published articles, client pitches, leadership in community activities, and entertaining existing clients.  Teams earn pre-established points for various activities, and at the end of the year the members of the team with the most points get an all-expense paid trip for them and a guest.  There are also individual awards.  By including all of the associates in the program, it helps everyone understand and become a part of the firm's marketing culture early on, and the team structure provides a ready opportunity for business development mentoring, with external incentives for success beyond the intrinsic benefits that come from building your own practice.

What Gets Measured Gets Done

Finally, successful marketing programs find ways to track and evaluate the results of the attorneys' efforts.  Systems generally deliver what they are designed to achieve, so firms should pay careful attention to be sure that they are rewarding the behaviors they wish to encourage, including strong business development contributions.  This is more difficult than it sounds because of the many ways in which lawyers at all phases of their legal careers can contribute to the development of strong client relationships.  For example, some firms foster networking and cross-selling within the firm because their compensation formula rewards "minding" and "grinding" as well as "finding."  A senior corporate "finder" has incentive to include more junior partners in litigation pitches, because the partner can't do all the work on his or her own.  Similarly, younger lawyers have a financial incentive to participate because, if the work comes in, they will get compensation credit for "grinding" by doing the work.  There's also compensation credit for "minding" where attorneys first-chair the litigation matter and deal directly with the client.  Other firms take a more informal look at their attorneys' contributions, eschewing origination credits and the like for a more holistic, less quantifiable approach that aims to do rough justice among the attorneys by recognizing the long-term behaviors that lead to a book of business over time.  Firms whose compensation system is driven strictly by an attorneys' billable hours may have an easy way to measure contribution in the short-run but may find themselves without sufficiently developed rainmakers over time as their lawyers devote their time solely to what is rewarded - billable work - rather than invest in the future through marketing. 

One Size Does Not Fit All

As is obvious from the activities described in this article, there is not one path to business development success.  While there are guidelines and proven activities that generate more work than others, if you ask 10 rainmakers how they became mistmakers and eventual rainmakers, you would hear 10 different stories.  What is likely common to them all, though, is that they took full advantage of the programs and resources available to them through their law firms and encouraged firm leaders to adopt strategies and tactics to sustain a long-term business development culture throughout the organization.

Nan E. Joesten is a partner at the firm of Farella Braun + Martel LLP in San Francisco, California.

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