It’s widely accepted that law schools don’t do a very good job — or in many cases don’t do anything at all — to teach law students how to develop business. Many commentators lament this failure, criticizing schools for not focusing on business development basics.
I think this is wrong. There’s no reason to think that law schools can or should take on this challenge, principally because business development is not something that is learned in the classroom.
The skills attorneys must learn to develop a book of business must be acquired in the real world, through observation, trial and error. Especially error. Yes, business development is mostly about failure, which is one of the main reasons most lawyers don’t like the business development process.
Lawyers Like to Succeed, and Most Business Development Efforts Fail
If you talk to any successful salesperson, they will tell you they lose the sale far more often than they get it. But 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 that help guide future endeavors. This mindset shift leads to more business development activity, not less, and ultimately more success.
For young, relatively inexperienced attorneys at mid-sized to large law firms with high billing rates and sophisticated corporate clients, the challenge is that most are simply not in a position to be pitching their services. They haven’t yet developed the skill set, judgment and management skills necessary to develop business at this level. Spending much, if any, precious time chasing work during one’s first few years, therefore, is a misallocation of resources.
A family member, friend, fraternity brother or sorority sister may throw a bone to a young attorney with limited experience and a $400 hourly rate, but most clients are not going to entrust their important legal matters to someone so green. Even if a bone is tossed, the client typically expects the junior lawyer to feed it to a more senior attorney. The client wants to help out the young lawyer, and hopes that credit is given where due, but not at the expense of his or her business or livelihood. Most bone throwers are not willing to put the entire relationship in the hands of someone who is not yet ready to take on that level of responsibility.
So What’s a Young Lawyer to Do?
You know you have to develop business at some point to advance and make partner, 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.
While most experienced attorneys should engage in entrepreneurship with a focus on developing relationships outside of the firm, junior attorneys should engage in entrepreneurship with those inside the firm. The term, used mostly in the context of corporate America, for this type of activity is “intrapreneurship.”
Intrapreneurship in this context is a focus on business development activity within a law firm. It means building your reputation among colleagues through internally focused initiatives. It’s engaging in activities that will allow you to hone the skills and characteristics — such as strong writing and presentation skills, good judgment, and confidence — that you will need when it’s time to compete for work in the business world.
Intrapreneurial activities help you become more widely known and respected within the firm. So, if partnership is your objective, your widely dispersed colleagues will have more to know you by than metrics such as hours billed and fees generated.
First, of course, you must focus on doing excellent legal work — little else matters if the quality of your work product is not high. Beyond that, focus on intrapreneurship.
- Most firms have associate committees. Get involved.
- Pro bono opportunities are prevalent, and pro bono success stories are widely trumpeted within most firms. Do good.
- Firms publish numerous newsletters and blogs, but often lack writing and editing resources to keep up with demands for content. Take charge.
- Many firms utilize outdated or inefficient processes or procedures when it comes to things like project management and internal and external communication. Innovate.
- Most associates hunker down in their offices, waiting for opportunities to find them. Instead, seek them out.
- There are countless training and educational opportunities for associates at most firms. Learn and grow.
- All firms have rainmakers who have business development figured out. Network, observe and mimic behaviors.
You may not be seasoned enough to be of value to a Fortune 500 company at this point in your career, but there are plenty of opportunities to be an intrapreneur and add value within your firm. That will serve you well when you’re ready to start developing your own book of business.
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