By Claire Parsons • July 26, 2018•Ms. JD, Writers in Residence, Careers, Firms and the Private Sector, Issues, Mentoring and Networking
When I was a new attorney, I knew that I needed to develop business in order to advance in my firm. I had a lot of anxiety about that at the beginning because there was no well-marked path that I could take to make it work. This is not surprising since even established rainmakers will tell you that new business development is hard work,and studies keep coming out suggesting that female attorneys struggle even more than their male counterparts with it.
It was a happy accident for me that my dad went back to private practice after many years in the public sector a few years before I started practicing law. Because of this, he was in the process of building his own law practice from scratch when I was a brand-new attorney. When I worried about how I could do the same thing, my dad gave me really excellent advice. He told me that business development was like planting seeds, which require time, persistent effort, and the right conditions to grow.
As a new attorney and someone who nobody would describe as patient, this was a particularly hard thing to understand and accept, but after 10 years of practice, I have come to see that my dad is right. Now, the question I’m sure many of the young lawyers out there may be wondering is this: exactly how does one plant the seeds to begin developing new business? While the answer may be different for everyone, here are the 5 things that I would recommend to any new lawyer who wants to lay the foundation for developing work of their own.
Law school does not teach you how to practice law, but most new law school graduates know how to write. Unfortunately, the law review experience makes a lot of lawyers think they must have a thousand perfectly constructed footnotes in a lengthy and obscure article in order to get published. This is not true. In most cases, it isn’t necessary to write the full-blown journal article that you may still having nightmares about from law school. Instead, most legal publications and newsletters want shorter articles in the range of a few thousand words about discrete and relevant topics. I started by publishing in my local bar magazine in my second year of practice and have since published several more in state-wide and national publications. Most of the articles took a few hours to write but these small investments of time were well worth it. They helped me build self-confidence and they were useful in demonstrating my expertise to current and new clients. In addition, it wasn’t hard to find opportunities to write. The professional organizations I belonged to were usually looking for content, so all I had to do was volunteer or pitch an idea. In the event you can’t find a print publication for your content, post it on a blog or even on social media. You can still share the links with contacts and you may be able to use those posts as samples to secure a publication offers down the road.
Speaking about legal issues is one of the best ways to demonstrate your legal expertise to a wider audience. As with writing, organizations often need quality speakers for seminars but many attorneys do not want to invest the time and effort to prepare a presentation. In my experience, however, speaking is an even better opportunity than writing because it allows you to interact directly with an audience and show off your personality in addition to your analytical skills. While speaking opportunities may not be plentiful when you are a very new attorney, you will eventually have your chance if you let contacts know that you are willing to speak. I recall one of the partners I worked for as an associate worrying aloud about handling several speaking engagements and managing case obligations. I told him that I loved public speaking and would gladly volunteer next time. It wasn’t long before he took me up on the offer. If, as discussed above, you are writing articles of interest to the legal community, it is very probable that you will eventually be asked to speak on that or related issue.
3. Join and Show Up
The first two pieces of advice may help you build your reputation but how do you build relationships? One way is to join something--and when I say “join something” I mean join and participate as much as you can. Professional or community service organizations can help young attorneys create new contacts. Anyone who has played on a sports team or been part of a school club knows that doing work together is one of the best ways to get to know people quickly and well. Besides that, participating in organizations that serve the community or your profession is a wonderful way to build your reputation because it allows you the chance to add real-world accomplishments and leadership roles to your resume. In short, if you want to be known outside of your firm, get out of your office and go do some good work.
4. Have a Life
New attorneys have to bill hours to advance in most firms. With that said, if you don’t have a life outside of law practice where you spend time with non-lawyers, you may be shooting yourself in the foot in terms of long-term business development opportunities. While professional contacts are excellent, personal contacts can often be a source of referrals. Even if people don’t know anything about your practice, they may look to you as a referral source because they know and trust you as a person. In other words, don’t feel guilty about your yoga class, your band, or your moms group. Those activities are not only important to your mental health but may be critical to maintaining the visibility and engagement with people who are potential referral sources.
5. Keep a Healthy Perspective
Finally, one of the most important things that a new lawyer can do to ensure success with building your own practice is to remember that it isn’t easy and it won’t happen overnight. It is important to remember that you will have to try for a long time, perhaps years, before you start to see results. This may seem like a very long time, but legal careers can span decades, so an investment of a few years is not so great in comparison to that. Besides, although business development strategies require a lot of effort, it is important to remember that your investment of time is literally an investment in yourself and your reputation. Those efforts, even when they are hard, are usually worth it.
In short, new lawyers should be thinking about ways that they can develop new business for their firms but they shouldn’t get overwhelmed by the task. Just like you do when you are planting seeds: start small and give yourself time and the right conditions. As a new lawyer, you should focus on the things you can do now to begin building your reputation and your contacts outside of your firm. Over time, your skills will develop, your confidence will grow, and the process will get easier.