When it comes to personal branding for lawyers, a little intrapreneurship can go a long way.
For many years, law schools have failed to teach practice management and business development skills — tools essential for success as a lawyer. Things have changed significantly in recent years. Law schools are implementing curricula and programs that address the business issues law students will face when they become practicing lawyers. This leap forward means lawyers come out of school better prepared than their predecessors. However, the reality is that most aspects of business development cannot be taught in the classroom.
The skills needed to develop a book of business must be acquired in the real world through observation, trial and error. Especially error. Yes, business development is mainly about failure, which is one of the core reasons that many lawyers, who are competitive and like to win, don’t relish the business development process.
Worry More About Your Personal Brand and Growth Than Chasing Business
If you talk to any successful professional who consistently engages in business development activity, they will tell you that they lose sales far more often than they win them. But there’s a bright side to losing. With every failure comes the chance to learn and adapt. Experienced attorneys are not discouraged by unsuccessful efforts. They see each “failure” as an opportunity to get better and draw lessons from the experience that help guide their future actions. This mindset shift, which requires a growth mindset, leads to more business development activity, not less, and ultimately more success.
For junior attorneys at law firms with high billing rates and sophisticated corporate clients, the challenge is that most are not in a position to be pitching their services. They haven’t yet developed the skill set, judgment and management skills necessary to grow business at this level. Spending precious time chasing work during one’s first few years of practice is a misallocation of resources.
Focus on the Little Things
If you hope to advance in private practice, there will come a time when you have to focus on developing business, but you don’t want to spin your wheels chasing business you will never catch. At this point in your career, you’re just getting comfortable playing a supporting role to other attorneys, and you are not ready to be the headliner just yet. Learn to do the little things well before worrying about the big things. It’s often the little things that make the biggest difference.
As part of the research for my book “The Essential Associate,” I spoke to Brian McCarthy, a partner with Skadden Arps. He shared his steps to stand out as a young lawyer through a story that punctuates the importance of focusing on the little things.
Early in his career, Brian worked on a deal with a partner who was perceived to be difficult. Rather than accepting the challenging nature of the working relationship, Brian set out to improve it. An opportunity for improvement arose when the partner went out of town. Brian took it upon himself to read all the major newspapers and clip out (yes, pre-internet days) every news story he could find that mentioned the partner’s clients. He assembled the news stories in a binder and had them waiting for the partner upon his arrival. This way, when he returned to the office, he would be up to speed. By taking the initiative, the partner’s perception of Brian and the dynamic of their working relationship changed dramatically.
Instead of focusing on solving problems of someone outside the firm, Brian looked for an opportunity to serve someone within the firm. Doing so allowed him to impress an influential partner. This story highlights an important principle for young lawyers: While most experienced attorneys should engage in lots of entrepreneurship with a focus on developing relationships outside the firm, junior attorneys should actively engage in entrepreneurship with their colleagues inside the firm. Brian’s experience assembling news clippings that mentioned a partner’s clients is an excellent example of this type of internal entrepreneurship. It’s called “intrapreneurship.”
The Importance of Intrapreneurship and Personal Branding Within Your Law Firm
Intrapreneurship in this context is personal brand-building activities within a law firm:
- It means elevating your reputation among colleagues through internally focused initiatives.
- It’s engaging in activities that allow you to hone the skills and characteristics — such as writing and presentation skills, good judgment, and confidence — you will need when it’s time to compete for work in the business world.
Accordingly, if becoming a partner is your objective, your intrapreneurial activities will give your colleagues — who are often geographically dispersed — more to know you by than mere impersonal metrics such as hours billed and fees generated. They’ll be more likely to want to staff you on their engagements and include you when it comes time to pitch client work. They will be aware of your strengths when called upon to make decisions related to your advancement within the firm.
Focusing on intrapreneurship reflects an understanding of how business gets generated by most lawyers at law firms.
Business comes from relationships with potential clients and referral sources outside the firm. But lawyers can also generate a great deal of business from colleagues within their firms. Hence the importance of personal branding for lawyers.
For example, lawyers will leave your firm to go to another one and become referral sources. Others will go in-house and be in a position to send you business directly. Build a strong reputation among colleagues, and someday you may work for them in an attorney-client engagement. Impress numerous people internally, and you’ll be well-positioned to inherit clients from other lawyers when they retire, move in-house or otherwise transition out of the firm. The more people you reach through your intrapreneurial activities, the stronger your brand will be and the more success you’ll have.
Ways to Practice Intrapreneurship
There are countless ways to practice intrapreneurship and build your personal brand within your law firm. Here are a few ideas:
- Most firms have associate committees. Get involved.
- Pro bono opportunities are prevalent, and pro bono success stories get celebrated within most firms. Take on a matter and do an excellent job.
- Firms publish numerous newsletters and blogs but often lack writing and editing resources to keep up with demands for content. Write great content yourself. Better still, co-author an article with a partner and take charge of the process.
- Many firms use outdated or inefficient processes or procedures when it comes to things like project management and internal and external communication. Come up with an innovative alternative.
- Most associates hunker down in their offices, waiting for opportunities to find them. Seek them out instead by walking the halls and interacting with partners. Find out who is pitching for work and offer to help out.
- There are multiple training and educational opportunities for associates at most firms. Learn and grow.
- Firms are full of intelligent and ambitious people who can support your career. Build a scene.
- All firms have rainmakers who have business development figured out. Network with them, observe them, and mimic their habits and behaviors.
- Like Brian McCarthy, look for opportunities to keep colleagues informed about a client or an industry. Become a valuable resource.
You may not be seasoned enough to generate business from a Fortune 500 company at this point in your career. Still, there are plenty of opportunities to be an intrapreneur and add value within your firm. Personal branding for lawyers is pivotal, so get active and involved. This will serve you well when you’re ready to start developing your own book of business.
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