You’ve recently branched out from Big Law to start your own practice. Perhaps you’ve joined forces with some former colleagues to spin off a lean, efficient, and less-conflict-fraught boutique firm, or you’ve decided to test the waters as a sole practitioner focused on your specialized niche.
While taking the plunge into a boutique practice can feel liberating, it also can be a daunting task once the initial excitement wears off. Where are all the resources you’ve become accustomed to at your previous firm? Who will you collaborate with on the tough issues—whether they involve your own business or client matters? How can you service clients if you’re busy minding the shop and marketing your practice? Was this the right decision?
Whether you’re new to the game or a small firm veteran, these questions—as well as many others—can drive you crazy. But there is a proven solution that can put your mind at ease: joining and actively participating in a broad-based legal network.
Although every small firm attorney has his or her own professional network, it is generally limited by geography and range of expertise. In a big firm, on the other hand, no matter what the issue is or where it arises, there’s a good chance that some lawyer in some office has dealt with it—an incredible resource to be able to offer to clients and one of the ways big firms justify their high fees. It’s rare that an individual lawyer’s network can come close to replicating the depth, breadth, and quality of lawyers in a big firm; however, leveraging the right legal network can get you much, much closer.
Legal networks come in a wide range of sizes and flavors and require various levels of engagement and investment. For more regional and plaintiff-focused practices, bar associations and their sections dedicated to solos and small firms may be just the ticket. These groups are generally included with your membership fee and require no specific commitments—although you must invest in any professional group to derive the most benefits.
Some networks hone in on an area of practice, providing a highly selective and complementary selection of truly niche-focused practitioners. For example, there are employment law networks that feature the best and brightest in discrete sub-practice areas, such as ERISA, wage-and-hour claims, or executive compensation—all interrelated expertise that you might need to access if your client is a corporate counsel or human resources executive.
If you’ve been with a larger, multi-office law firm and are looking to maintain a more national, or even international, practice or if your practice is dedicated to a niche area that interconnects with other areas of law, a broader, curated group could be a great return on investment of both time and membership fees. For example, a network dominated by former lawyers from Big Law—those familiar with that particularly pressured environment, demanding clients, and the complex work that comes with it—may be more enticing and provide the comfort of a like-minded approach to client service.
Qualifications required for network membership—in terms of experience, practice focus, and investment—are typically outlined on network websites. Checking out the makeup of the group, and even reaching out to a few of its members, are good first steps in determining whether it’s a fit.
A robust legal network provides a virtual community for quickly sharing information and obtaining guidance. Inevitably as a lawyer, you get questions from clients that are outside your wheelhouse. In these situations the standard options might include researching the issue on your own, spending valuable time finding a reliable referral, or telling the client you can’t help.
If you are part of a broad legal network, you may be able to access hundreds of experienced attorneys across all practices and jurisdictions. In the case of some legal networks, no matter the issue or area of law—ERISA, insurance, environmental, tax, regulatory—you generally can find someone within the network with the relevant expertise. Further, like you, these lawyers are motivated to collaborate to help develop their own practices.
If your network is vetted and focused—and especially if you’ve had opportunities to connect with fellow network members in person—concerns about reliability, responsiveness, expense, and even client poaching can be alleviated.
Many of the legal networks thriving today also support their members’ marketing efforts. Network websites mean you get to hang more than one digital shingle, and the inclusion of a network logo and affiliated links offer lawyers additional credentialing.
Many networks also encourage members to share their content by writing for a network newsletter, blog, or other publication with which the group may partner. Participation in network-produced educational webinars provides exposure to a broad base of potential clients that are beyond the reach of a solo’s or small firm’s own marketing database. Further, organizing panels that feature fellow network members and arranging to present via CLE providers at industry conferences or other events is not only fabulous marketing for your practice, but it’s a great way to collaborate with others who have the potential to refer clients.
Of course, landing clients is really what helps solos and small firm practitioners sleep at night. “Pitching for business” gains a new dimension when you can draw on a network of trusted lawyers. When competing with larger firms, tackling a more sophisticated matter, or addressing issues across geographies, a network makes it possible to assemble the right legal team for your client—one that delivers on quality and does so at a fraction of the cost associated with full-service, multi-office firms.
If bigger matters and more interesting projects are your goals, finding a legal network that encourages and even facilitates relationship-building among its members is key. Trust is the currency of cross-referral and business-development opportunities. The better you know the other network members and their practices, the better the referrals you can make, and the more likely they’ll be to call on you when a need comes up. It truly is a two-way street.
While you’ve opted for a smaller practice, developing your relationship with a legal network can help you competitively offer clients the benefits of a full-service firm—and compared to those larger firms, you will likely be able to do so more efficiently and cost-effectively.