How to Build Your Practice

When I was mid-level associate, I was recruited by another firm to build and chair a new practice group in my specialty. It was a huge task and brought with it some pretty monumental challenges. After a period of 6 years, I had successfully created a thriving practice group with three partners, an associate, summer clerks and a paralegal. Small, yes, but we took the firm from zero to millions of dollars in revenue in that practice area in just a few years. Because of that experience, young attorneys often sought me out for advice on how to build their own practice or niche.

The following are my ramblings for building a thriving practice. Take them as you will. Everyone’s experience will be different.

Network with everyone you know. Everyone.

You never know where these people will end up. From personal experience, I will tell you that once a person finds themselves in a position where they could actually send you legal work (e.g., in-house counsel at a Fortune 500 company), they are not amused when you suddenly call to buddy up to them after all these years. We all know what that call is really about.

Maintain true relationships with people so that when they do find themselves in a position to hire you, you are already top of their mind. Don’t try to force relationships to better your business position. People will sense it and shut. you. out.

Who to keep in contact with? This list is endless but here are a few ideas:

  • Schoolmates who live in your city.
  • Law school class mates.
  • Current and former coworkers.
  • Friends of your family members.
  • Relatives.
  • People you meet at networking events.

You get the picture. Do not discard anyone because they aren’t currently in a position to hire you as an attorney. You will be amazed at where people end up. Develop the relationship. The business will follow.

Join something. Anything.

Don’t overthink it. Just do it. Expand your reach and you will be amazed at where it may land. Examples of where to look:

  • Chamber of commerce.
  • Legal associations.
  • Alumni associations.
  • Affinity groups—dogs, plants, baking.
  • Leadership programs.
  • Toastmasters.
  • Women’s organizations.
  • Nonprofit guilds or boards.

Not only will this make you a more well-rounded and likely happier human, you might meet some people who can introduce you to future clients. If nothing else, you have something to put on your resume or discuss during an interview when someone asks, “What do you do for fun?”

Don’t like this line of thinking? Read Bowling Alone or The Happiness Project to learn why social interaction is so essential to our communities and our wellbeing.

Play the long game and postpone the elevator speech.

Business development is all about relationships. Pure and simple. If someone knows you and likes you and trusts you, they will do what they can to support you and see you succeed. That being said, cramming your elevator speech down their throats is not going to get you business. It’s probably going to annoy them. Save that for a later opportunity, when your new friend tells you about a business challenge they are having or asks you about your firm or your practice. Wait until they want to hear about it or until they need your advice. That, my friends, is when you present it. Wait until you know what problem they need solved and then present them with how you intend to solve it for them.

Meet with as many of your coworkers as possible.

Print off the employee roster and start making the rounds. Tell them you want to hear more about their practice or would like some insights into their work, the firm, or a particular client. Whatever. Just get those meetings/coffees/lunches scheduled and make it happen.

The goal: Learn from them and about them and allow them to learn about you and your practice.

These people will not only have clients that they might want you to support but they might have clients that NEED your support and they just don’t know it yet. Furthermore, these people will have invaluable insights in the firm, its people, and its politics. Schedule the meetings and start taking notes.

Examples of things to talk about:

  • What do you think sets our firm apart from the others?
  • Where do you see the firm going in the next 10 years?
  • How do you think the firm has changed since you joined?
  • What brought you to the firm?
  • Tell me more about your story and how you ended up in law school and this firm?
  • What are some ways you have found success in getting clients and developing your business?
  • Tell me about your work and what you offer to our clients?
  • What is your ‘target client’ and how could I help you with those clients?
  • Are there areas you think I should learn or develop some additional knowledge that might help you or your clients?
  • Would you like to hear about my practice area and how I support our clients?

This rule also applies to your peers at the firm. Fast forward 10 years into your practice–who do you hope will be sending you referrals or collaborating with you? Those peers are just as important as the partners and the clients.

When I left my first firm, I kept in touch with a few of the other female attorneys and partners I liked and respected. Years later, one of these friends recommended me for my current position. That friendship and connection paved the way for opportunities several years down the road. Had I lost contact with her after she left the firm, who knows where I would have landed.

When I got to work drumming up clients for my new practice group, I met with every partner I could pin down. I asked them to introduce me to their clients and others in the firm who could support me. Those meetings are where I built my practice. Those relationships plugged me in with clients who didn’t even know they needed my specialty.

Do your homework.

When you meet with a client (or a partner) for the first time, do you legwork. You should know about the company and have a general sense of their business. Review any governmental filings you can get your hands on. Review the internal files. Show up to that meeting already invested in that person and that client. People like to feel important. They like to feel special. By doing your homework you equip yourself with all the tools to let that other person know they are important to you.

When I was helping my clients interview and hire new service providers, I can’t tell you how many times we cut providers simply because they clearly didn’t know anything about the company and didn’t take the time to study my clients’ needs. Don’t be that service provider. Do the work.

Similarly, have your elevator speech ready if the opportunity arises. And never, ever, go to a meeting without a notepad, business cards, and marketing materials about your practice or a copy of the recent article you wrote.

Fill your calendar.

When you are newly hired, you won’t likely be busy right out of the gate. So, make sure your calendar stays full doing CLEs, meet and greets, networking events, reading relevant articles, preparing marketing materials or file memos on relevant developments. Offer to support partners in their marketing efforts or to track new legislation. Your calendar should be full. Get creative and find ways to fill it that will develop you, support the firm, and ideally benefit a partner or client. Sign up for speaking engagements, offer to speak at bar association events –force yourself to learn a topic and go speak about it. Too much for you? Offer to write a speech/presentation for a partner. Contact trade journals and offer to write an article or offer to support your partners in doing the same. If you spend your time trying to make your partners look good and make their lives easier, they won’t forget it.

Make yourself available.

This doesn’t mean that you always have to be 100% available and it doesn’t mean that you have to be at the office all hours of the day. Establish regular hours so people know when to expect you and feel like they can rely on you to be available when they need you. At a minimum, your hours should loosely track the hours kept by the partners you intend to support. Get people in the mindset of thinking of you as a person who is responsive and hardworking. Once they have that perception of you, studies have shown they will not likely change it, even if you change. Put in the time early on and become someone that others can count on.

Have a positive attitude and be open to anything.

You never know what will happen to the firm, your practice group, your area of expertise, or your mentor. Hedge your bets and be willing to learn and try new things for the first few years. Make yourself an invaluable and irreplaceable utility player.

Have your own back.

Make sure to keep diligent track of your marketing and development efforts. These tasks often go unseen by compensation committees and management. Do the work to track your efforts and advocate for yourself. If you don’t have your own back, how can you expect others to?

Struggling to implement your own practice development plan? Coach with me and learn from my experiences and create your own successful practice.

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