By Allison Wolf
Learning to market is about taking control of your career. For new associates, it's about proving yourself to management and showing you can add value, too.
Don't kick yourself for skipping the marketing elective as an undergrad. Marketing yourself as a lawyer is something you can learn as you go. To help get you started, here are some things your new bosses would like you to know about building business.
Learning to market yourself and your services is about taking control of your career. In a law firm, it is about proving yourself to management and showing you can add value to the firm, too. Developing marketing skills just takes an open mind, a genuine interest in clients, and a willingness to learn.
Law firms are in the business of selling legal services. The hours you will be billing are the crucial revenue generators. The clients you serve are vital to the firm's prosperity. Partners are the business owners. And they want associates to know what is involved in making the business succeed. "I wish they understood at a gut level that this is a business and that we have to always be thinking and acting like one," says Richard Sybert, managing partner of Gordon and Rees.
One day, if you build a strong practice and become a contributor of clients and net profits to the firm, you too can become a business owner. I'm sure you already know this. Sybert's point is that you don't just need to know it. You have to act on it.
As an associate, your job is to slowly and steadily develop your legal knowledge and abilities while at the same time learning how to effectively manage your practice, build strong client relationships and generate business. You don't have to do this overnight. You have a good seven to ten years to get there, but don't wait to get started.
Marketing and business development is like contributing to your retirement savings plan: You need to invest early and frequently to make the biggest return. Hugh Gottschalk, managing partner of Wheeler Trigg Kennedy, offers this advice: "Developing business takes time and hard work. Rather than expecting immediate pay-offs, focus on developing long-term relationships with clients and professional colleagues. Doing so ultimately will result in more business and referrals, as well as create good friends and personal satisfaction."
A lot of new associates ask, "What can I do to market when I am so new to the practice?" Start immediately by getting to know the other people in your firm. Get active in your local professional community. Join the business organizations related to your practice. Join community organizations. Become actively involved, join a board, help out, and meet people. "Everyone with whom you come in contact is potentially a client or referral source," says James M. Shaker, a partner at Ryan, Swanson & Cleveland.
Here's another tip: Develop a virtual, private peer network of lawyers. An associate I know started a small alumni group. She and her law school colleagues have lunch once a month. Just a few years in, this has already developed into a powerful referral network.
There are three important truths that underlie everything you need to know about law firm marketing. The first is that 20 percent of the firm's clients contribute to 80 percent of the income. The second is that existing and past clients are the number one generator of new business for the firm. The third is that the most frequent source of new business is through word-of-mouth referrals.
Translation: What your clients say about you when you aren't around is the number one factor that is going to contribute to your success or failure in the business of law. What's the key?
"Try to create relationships with clients that are based on trustworthiness and loyalty and create long-lasting friendships," says Michael O'Donnell, chairman of Wheeler
As an associate starting out, it helps to remember that the partners are your clients as well. Let's face it, what the partners say about you when you aren't around is critical, too. Make both your outside clients and the partners you work for feel like their matter is the most important one you are working on. This can involve something as simple as returning phone calls or answering e-mails as quickly as possible, listening carefully when given instructions, and never being too busy to keep them apprised of progress.
By super-pleasing your existing clients, you can expand the amount of work you do for them, maintain the relationship for a longer time, and benefit from the referrals they send your way.
Your ears are your greatest marketing tool. One of the most common errors lawyers can make is talking too much and failing to listen. In some cases, inexperienced business developers will try to talk their way to new business. Instead, learn to listen deeply and look for the ways in which you can help people. You will find that helping others will lead to others helping you.
"Every communication with a client, irrespective of how seemingly mundane the topic may be, is a marketing opportunity. It may not be an 'active opportunity,' but it can lead to such an opportunity," advises Gery Zacher, a former managing partner of Gordon and Rees.
Of course, you can't only just listen. When it is time to talk about yourself, learn to do so in a way that opens up the conversation and gets people to ask you questions. A good way to do this is to develop a way of describing your work that emphasizes the value you provide to clients. For instance, an estate lawyer might say: "I assist clients with estate planning. I help them ensure that their wishes will be followed while keeping the taxes and probate fees down to a minimum."
You can also use the same technique to introduce your law firm. Hugh Gottschalk teaches his associates to introduce the firm as a "Denver law firm that handles trials and appeals around the country for Fortune 100 companies."
Getting in the habit of introducing yourself and your firm in this way takes some practice. Develop a few different introductions in advance and get used to saying them before your next networking event. (See the next page for helpful tips and a short "elevator pitch" worksheet.)
It takes practice and skill to learn how to turn the people in your life into clients. It's about knowing how and when to offer your assistance—and also understanding that this is a natural part of business. How can an associate master this step?
"Learn how to ask for work," says Laurie Axford, Intellectual Property chair at Gordon and Rees. "New associates don't know how to ask for new assignments from potential and existing clients. Very few associates have any sales training, and everyone in sales will tell you that if you don't ask for something, you won't get it."
Look for opportunities at your firm to receive some sales training. If it's not offered, ask for it. When you have invested in building a network of strong relationships with clients and contacts, learning how to ask for the work is the step that closes the circle and brings in the file.