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OK, for starters, don’t panic. I know the idea of bringing in clients can be daunting. Secretly, most associates seem to feel that success in this area is either unlikely or impossible.
Most associates want to have their own clients, but looking ahead at yourself in 10 or 20 years, do you see a clear road map that makes it likely?
The specifics are where it gets complicated. There’s a lot of advice out there. Candidly, much of it is terrible. Some of it makes sense in theory but rarely works in practice. Of course, as an associate, you’re not in a position to judge which is which. And by the time you figure it out, you may have invested years of time to no effect.
Can you image spending a decade doing the wrong things without realizing that they are, in fact, the wrong things? Most lawyers never really figure out the right things; they just do a lot of different wrong things, or a few wrong things for a very long time, then quit in frustration. They think they’re not marketers, rather than understanding that they’ve spent their careers implementing a flawed plan.
Developing business isn’t especially complicated. In part, it’s a numbers game: Do the right things and enough of them that you gradually and systematically build and develop your personal network and reputation.
Plan, prepare and execute. Steadily, over time. A little bit every week. Just make sure the things you are doing are the right things.
I’ve trained tens of thousands of lawyers and helped thousands of associates prepare for partnership, or at least for getting clients. What have I learned?
That today’s associates know the game. They’ve heard the gray-haired old farts assure them that “law is a storied, time-honored profession.” But millennials know better; they know that law is a business. They learned this the hard way when the generic or fungible associates got fired unceremoniously in the last recession — when friends had their big-firm job offers withdrawn because there wasn’t enough business to go around. No hard feelings; it’s just business.
Today’s associates are hardworking, smart and adaptable. They know not to rely on the firm’s loyalty to feed them forever. They’re industrious and impatient. They want to control their own destiny. Good for them.
So what should they do?
Here’s the basic outline of an associate marketing program — the five basic steps that will help build a sizable network of relationships, and a personal brand for something that clients will want to hire you to do.
1. In the first two to three years, learn to be a great lawyer, emphasizing both technical skills and client service. Build your long-term marketing infrastructure, the social media platform and other tools you’ll leverage through partnership.
2. Join a local bar association, meet your peers, learn the profession, build your resume by joining a committee, get active and work toward a leadership position on a small, relevant committee. Build your personal and professional network.
3. Gradually, as you grow into a midlevel associate, add more external marketing and networking activities. Get out of the office. Do not eat lunch at your desk.
4. Around year four or five, start to develop a specialty niche or industry expertise in an area you enjoy. You don’t want to be one more generic generalist. You want to offer more, both to the firm and its clients and prospects. Find something you’re passionate about to focus on, something narrower than “commercial real estate” or “complex business litigation.” Not “transportation law” but “interstate transportation of infectious biological material.” Once you have that narrow specialty in mind, then you know what to write, speak and network about to help you become a market leader. You know whom to network with, and how to build your personal brand. This is critical.
5. As you get more experienced, spend more time out of the office with prospects and referrals. If you’ve accomplished step 4 above, you have something to sell beyond “I’m a smart, service-oriented lawyer” (precisely like hundreds or thousands of look-alike lawyers in your community), and hundreds of interested prospects. You stand out in a positive, client-oriented way.
That’s the big overview. The niche practice is the silver bullet, the special sauce. You might develop business otherwise, but your chances are exponentially greater if you offer a unique specialty.
There’s more to it, of course, but this is a good place to start. I cover these topics in great detail in my book “The Ultimate Law Firm Associate’s Marketing Checklist.” It’s a simple, step-by-step, year-by-year guidebook that walks you through precisely what to do to prepare yourself to generate the right business at the right time. If you or your firm’s marketing or professional development experts ever have any questions, I’d be delighted to hear from you.
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