As I like to say to my colleagues, making partner at a law firm is no longer the guaranteed “tenured-like” position. In the not so distant past, if an associate was able to make partner and through the good-old-boy network find some sizeable clients, he could count on sitting back and enjoying the fruits of his labor and get by with taking the client out to lunch every once in a while. Well, if no one has figured it out by now, those days are long gone. Now, you gotta hustle. And, I am sorry to say, most lawyers are not predisposed to hustling. First of all, they don’t dance (did anyone get this joke?).
Most lawyers go to law school because they—and I apologize for any stereotyping here but I can be semi-excused since I am a lawyer—are bookworms who either like to study and/or argue. It is the rare exception that was one of the popular kids in high school. If anything he or she was probably doing these kids’ homework for them. So here these lawyers are—in the 2000s and facing a continued recession—and their partnership is telling them not only do you have to practice law, “you have to go out and drum up business.” Or else. Well, I am sorry to say, most of these guys just don’t have it in them. It is no slight to them. It is just a personality thing. You wouldn’t want an extrovert handling your funeral or an introvert planning your wedding. And lawyers, typically the studious types who either love examining proxy disclosures or holding forth on their latest court battles, are not very skilled at up-selling their professional services. Hey, I could be wrong. I have met a few anomalies—lawyers who are great marketers. But these lawyers are usually freaks of nature. Kinda like super-models. But the pressure on these guys to be someone they are not can be excruciating and, dare I say, down-right cruel. How would you like to be told, I know I hired you to be a hair dresser and all you have ever trained to do is to be a hair dresser but now have to be a heart surgeon and I don’t care if you don’t know how, you still have to do it. I think every single one of us would be terrified. My suggestion? Hire people who are skilled business developers, people who make a living every day selling professional services, to help lawyers identify and close business deals. Let them sit at the table and be a part of the conversation. Believe me, in this market, it is going to get worse before it gets better. And since law schools are still not attracting kids with these skill sets or teaching them how to develop them, these business development skills are becoming more important than ever before.

  • When I was in college I knew I would need business skills. I put in the extra effort to get my MBA as well.

  • I think this is a great point, and it makes perfect sense to me. I've never worked in a law firm before, but I've always gotten the impression it's like a totally different world. Now that their old ways of doing business are no longer working (the billable hour seems to be a good example), why shouldn't law firms become more like any other company, with project managers, a sales and marketing staff, etc.? I've had several people tell me "you should never work at a law firm because it's hell on the non-lawyers" (like the library staff!) Wouldn't you want to make the environment more palatable to non-lawyers in order to retain the best of the best in every position?

  • Like you, I wish that my law school had taught client development. However, working at client development does pay off. While every lawyer may not be able to become a big "rainmaker", every lawyer who really tries CAN improve. From my experience, it helps to really identify your "ideal" clients, and then focus most of your marketing effort on building meaningful relationships with those.