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Associates Learn to Start Building That Book of Business

Last year, two associates at Holland & Knight asked the other associates in the firm if they'd be interested in learning more about ways to bring in clients. The response was enormous, and that discussion led to the creation of a series of seminars designed to teach young lawyers strategies for building a book of business, according to sixth-year associate Merideth Nagel and fifth-year associate Erin Alexander, who put together the series.

"The first few years as an associate you spend learning to be a lawyer. But by mid-level, you realize business development is a key component to partnership," Alexander said. "You have to take charge of your own destiny."

"Associates are more and more aware that this needs to be addressed," Nagel added.

Alexander and Nagel advise younger associates to start tackling the basics: Cultivate your contacts; join business organizations; watch how your colleagues interact with clients; and understand that law firms are based on an entrepreneurial spirit as much as any other business.

Lawyers at several Chicago-area firms have recently started formal training programs to help junior associates learn the skills that eventually will bring in clients.

Some of these programs have been developed by the associates themselves as they realize that building business will increase their value to a firm. Other efforts come from partners who recognize that associates need the experience of building client relationships and to participate in sales pitches and seminars.

"Marketing is a concept that starts the day you come into the firm," said Michael Abernathy, the chair of the intellectual property and marketing groups at Bell, Boyd & Lloyd. "You've got to start right away. Nothing is going to come in without it."

Associates shouldn't underestimate the importance that business development can play in their careers, said Kara Cenar, a partner at Welsh & Katz who frequently leads training sessions for the firm's lawyers.

"An ability to generate business is an important aspect. It's not the only criteria we use for partnership, but it's one," Cenar said. Just as important, building client-development skills is good for any lawyer's professional development: It makes lawyers think like entrepreneurs and gives them options if they want to set out on their own or move to another firm, she said.

"When you go out there, one of the first things they're going to ask is how much business you have," Cenar said.

Going to market

Nagel and Alexander said many of the associates at Holland & Knight indicated they needed help on business development. After a few planning sessions, they decided to hold sessions about speaking engagements, building a business plan and ways to sell yourself, along with other topics. They plan to hold meetings once a month for a year in the Chicago office, and hopefully the idea will catch on firmwide, they said.

The two had several ideas for newer associates:

- Try to accompany partners when they go on sales pitches;

- Become active on committees with an eye toward future board membership. These could include professional organizations, not-for-profit groups, churches or community organizations;

- Keep up social contacts with former classmates and business acquaintances;

- Seek out opportunities to write for publications and speak at seminars.

The partners don't expect associates to bring in their own clients. But by the fifth year, it looks good if an associate has regular contact with potential clients and can bring in a little business, Alexander said. By the seventh year, the partners definitely want to see that a lawyer has the potential to attract new clients, Nagel added.

Associates can't wait for clients to suddenly walk in the door.

"The earlier you start this, the better," Alexander said.

Late last year, Kirkland & Ellis also began a series of five training sessions to help associates build their marketing skills. Leaders of the firm believe, as they always have, that the best way to develop a practice is to improve one's legal skills. The firm recognizes, though, that less-experienced associates need help learning the business side of attracting clients, said Steve Patton, the chair of Kirkland & Ellis' development committee.

The series includes presentations on how to respond to requests-for-proposals, media relations, improving presentation skills and building business through speaking engagements, seminars and teaching, he said.

The key to building business always has been developing good relationships with clients and building a reputation as an excellent lawyer, Patton said. Lawyers need to use those as the foundation of the sales pitches that have become an important part of business in the last 15 years, he said.

Seth Traxler, an intellectual property lawyer who made partner at Kirkland & Ellis in October 2003, said he was involved in seminars that the firm gives to clients since he was a summer associate. He was later asked to organize some of the seminars.

He gave a presentation at his first seminar when he was a third-year associate, he said. He has helped to write several client alert publications on intellectual property issues.

"Once you have that expertise under your belt, you can start to advertise, to market yourself," he said. "The longer you're here, the more you think about it."

In about his fifth year, he began working on actively bringing business to the firm, and he has had some success so far, he said. Traxler had a couple of tips for younger lawyers.

"Focus on understanding your clients' needs. That's not always easy to do for outside counsel," he said. "Younger lawyers often fall into a trap of talking about themselves rather than learning about their client."

Associate to-do list

Abernathy suggests several things lawyers should do to start client development as soon as they join a firm.

First, make a list of law-school classmates and keep track of where they are. Use this as the start of a contact list that you update as you meet more and more people.

Then develop a marketing plan for yourself right from the start. Include ways to cultivate your contacts. Make a list of professional organizations and not-for-profit groups you would like to be active in. Write down some trade journals or bar publications to which you might want to submit occasional articles, he said.

The plan also should include a short summary of where you'd like to see your career go, Abernathy said. This helps to keep a lawyer from drifting through different areas of the law, he said.

Abernathy said it also is important for younger associates to take part in preparing sales presentations and to see how the more experienced lawyers make sales.

"We try to have associates attend sales pitches," he said. "It involves the uncomfortable act of asking for business. If you don't see it, you don't know how difficult it is."

Junior associates' main focus must be on learning to practice law. But by the time they are mid-level associates, they should understand the business side of the firm, and by senior associate, they should be playing key roles with institutional clients, including day-to-day client maintenance, Abernathy said.

It's great if a senior associate brings in business, but it's not absolutely necessary, he said. They should at least show an interest and skill in doing what it takes to bring in business, though.

"It's more than simply putting out work product," Abernathy said. "If you wait until you're a 7th-year and say, 'Where's the business?' then it's too late. You need to lay the groundwork."

Cenar recommends that lawyers spend 20 percent of their business development on reputation-building activities -- writing articles, speaking at conferences, getting quoted as an expert -- and 80 percent on building contacts directly with potential clients.

"When push comes to shove, it's about getting out and meeting people," Cenar said. "You can write all the articles you want, but the more effective tool is to go out and meet people."

Firm leaders have done a disservice to associates in the past by not emphasizing the importance of client development.

"We can't underestimate the fact that the real power in law firms is with those partners and lawyers who can get and keep customers," said Rachel Krevans, a partner at Morrison & Foerster, at a recent conference about helping women lawyers reach leadership roles.

"At law firms, real power means developing business," she said.
Reprinted with permission from the Chicago Lawyer, May 2004