Associates, Keep Your Shirt On – and Keep Your Job in Today's World

  • January 01, 2015
  • Ed Poll

In an earlier column we discussed the simple calculation that associates can make to determine their financial value to their firms: Billings - [Associate's Total Compensation + Direct and Indirect Expenses] = Net Profit. The future of any associate in a law firm depends on whether the individual himself or herself is committed to success, as defined by maximizing net profit, and on whether their firm provides the means to succeed. The responsibility is a shared one, but every associate should realize that keeping one’s own job in today’s business environment is a personal responsibility, not a firm one. Given that realization, there are certain factors that enable astute associates to increase their net profit for the firm. 

Three Big Factors

The first factor is institutional. Lawyers at law firms where “eat what you kill” is the business development model too often are reluctant to share information on clients or prospects with the next-generation lawyer who might “steal” business before the first attorney is ready to step away from active practice. A law firm can make its associates better marketers, and create a huge competitive advantage for itself, by proactively encouraging succession of clients from older to younger lawyers.

One way is to offer senior lawyers a buyout or capital payout in exchange for sharing clients with younger lawyers.  Another is to service clients with teams (not just a single rainmaker), and cross-sell between teams according to a strategic plan. Train lawyers to go after target businesses according to a personal marketing plan, and give bonuses to those who get results. With this opportunity to grow business development opportunities, associates shouldn’t be made partners unless and until they have a book of business.

The next factor, too often neglected, involves developing a good working relationship with the firm’s administrative staff. Law firm administrators can play an important role in facilitating a young lawyer’s marketing, because administrators have involvement with and oversight of so many communications channels. Examples include developing and making available status reports and invoices that effectively communicate to clients how their matters are handled, along with client surveys to be sent out with an invoice or at the conclusion of a matter.

Other business development activities that can go smoother with an administrator as ally involve setting up an informal client visitation schedule, or participating in firm meetings. Administrators are ideally situated to organize such activities through encouraging the use of client relationship management (CRM) software and database systems. Administrators know that today’s successful associates will be tomorrow’s partners, so they will be eager to help.

The final factor is one of attitude. Associates should wean themselves away from relying on rainmakers and concentrate on the ability to develop business. The hurdle here is often a psychological one. Consultants who have given personality tests to lawyers have found that many lack the trait that psychologists call “resiliency,” which is defined as “the ability to bounce back from criticism or rejection.” The adversarial nature of lawyers’ training, and the fact that most lawyers have been successful at most things throughout their lives, creates a win-lose mentality that defines setbacks as failure. However, resiliency is essential for successful marketing.

Even successful sales people will frequently meet criticism and rejection, but their focus is consistently on achieving the next “yes” rather than dwelling on the last “no.” They view “no” as one more step on the journey to “yes.” Given that associates typically come to the firm with little or no exposure to this sort of thinking, the only way they will acquire it is building up confidence by doing.

The “Sales” Mentality

All lawyers “sell” all the time. Marketing/selling is both deliberate and derivative. When done deliberately, as a means of creating derivative connections with potential clients identified on an ongoing basis, there is a better chance of succeeding. This is a powerful message when so many lawyers seem to wait for “things to come back.” The world of passively waiting for business will never return. Today’s marketing requires answers to two questions: 1) Do you know who your potential clients are? 2) How do you reach out to them?

The answer to question one is simple. Create a profile of your ideal client and develop a marketing strategy that focuses on this target, not everyone. Focus on the demographics, occupation, location, financials and other characteristics of clients who will give you the work that you want. Such a marketing approach defines what your practice really is (or should be) and who best can use those services. This can change over time, depending on how your skills and interests evolve, how the economy is doing, and many other factors. Learn where to find your target market and think about how you can best reach them to let them know that what they need is within your scope of abilities. 

That leads to a more complex question two. Building relationships with potential clients is a marathon, not a sprint, and it starts with getting into the public eye. There are many ways to do this: for example, by attending lunch or bar association functions, “blawging” (either individually or on behalf of the firm), and contributing to client news updates.

Writing articles in trade or legal publications is another key strategy. Social networking on LinkedIn, by inviting business associates in your target market to be part of your contact network, is an excellent option. In all this, keep visibility foremost and avoid getting lost in the message. There is no “one size fits all” tactic; the only limits are your creativity and time availability.

Although social-networking Internet sites are becoming part of lawyers’ marketing efforts, personal contact at meetings, on the phone and through hand-written notes will remain effective outreach tools. Personal contact is the differentiating factor that gets a lawyer noticed. And differentiation is often the way to get attention. Getting attention is a cornerstone of marketing. And marketing is the basis of educating your public that you exist and that you can assist them.

Do Something

Take the example of an associate who is frustrated because she had been working hard at several client development efforts, which suddenly and unexpectedly fell through. The best response to this marketing dilemma is not to fret over it. When that happens, minutes seem like hours, hours become days, and it’s easy to get into a funk.  The more rational and effective response can be summed up simply: don’t “strategize” about client development, do something.

Make sure that your tactics are in tune with your target. For example, if your target audience is not focused on frequently using the Internet and searching the web, then blawging may not be worthwhile for you. Your best tactic instead may be attending industry trade shows and association meetings. By researching and targeting the right event, you can meet more prospects in one day than might otherwise be possible in months. Physically being at these meetings of potential clients demonstrates knowledge of their business, understanding of their concerns, and seriousness about offering solutions. At a trade show, emphasize meeting others. You are not “selling,” you’re conveying your interest in building a business relationship. In these and other efforts, remember that the issue is not more billable hours by associates, it’s what kind of billable work and how it contributes to the firm. The firm must be able to measure the growth of associates by specific standards of billable time, training and client development effort, against near-term targets that are realistic.

The beauty of marketing in this way is that the young lawyer can, at review time, make a convincing argument: “This is what I’ve done to promote myself and promote the firm.” If you are down 800 billable hours, you can’t sit around and mope for 400 of them. Go on the offensive, demonstrate the number of articles and blog posts and presentations you’ve done, and show how many people you’ve reached.

Show that you read your prospects’ key industry publications and web sites to know what concerns them, that you are calling on prospects and referral sources who are having a tough time business-wise to say what you can do to help. Targeting prospects who can provide desirable work that fits the firm’s capabilities shows that you think like a partner. Both you and the firm benefit when these prospects become your clients. And the ability to turn prospects into clients is an excellent definition of job security.

Edward Poll is a certified management consultant and coach in Los Angeles who coaches attorneys and law firms on how to deliver their services more profitably. He is the author of Attorney and Law Firm Guide to the Business of Law: Planning and Operating for Survival and Growth, 2nd ed. (ABA, 2002), Collecting Your Fee: Getting Paid from Intake to Invoice (ABA, 2003), Selling Your Law Practice: The Profitable Exit Strategy (LawBiz, 2005) and, most recently, Growing Your Law Practice in Tough Times (West Pub. 2010).