Recent conversations with associates at Husch Blackwell reminded me of my days as an associate. I recall wondering whether I was doing a good job, if more billable hours meant significantly more money, and what it would really take to be made partner. The firm had a mentor program, and associate reviews, but I still was unsure of the answers. Approaching a partner directly was intimidating. The partners who assigned me work were very smart, important and busy, and getting any of their time just to answer questions on work assignments was tough. I also worried about coming across like I wasn’t ambitious, intelligent, or appreciative. Over the years, I’ve tried to mentor associates inside and outside the firm and create more comfortable opportunities for these kinds of discussions.
As we start 2021, I encourage senior lawyers to reach out to associates and make themselves available to guide them on building a successful and meaningful health law practice. To help facilitate these conversations, and create connections across the Health Law Section membership, I’ve asked a handful of diverse associates to anonymously provide me their questions on the above topics. I’ve shared their questions below (under a fictitious name), along with my answers. I have no doubt others have different perspectives of equal value.
Questions from Associates:
Q1) What progress do partners want to see from an associate over time (skills, abilities, etc.)?
Over the first couple of years, partners like to see associates develop strong research and writing skills, and that associates are reliable and conscientious. Next, partners want to see an associate developing expertise in one or more substantive areas of the law, taking the initiative to follow-up on work assignments, and that the associate is able to develop good relationships with colleagues and clients. Partners also like to see associates pursuing initiatives within the firm and leadership opportunities outside the firm that provide opportunities for brand building and business development.
Q2) What should I be doing as an associate to develop business in the future?
First, be patient. Business development is the product of many steps that happen over an extended period of time. It is a combination of legal skills, expertise, experience, communication skills, relationships, and marketing, but mainly it’s about being visible. Some of the easiest business development is right inside your law firm, especially in the early years of your practice. During this time, you are developing your reputation with colleagues and initiating your marketing and brand-building. Next, is building a reputation and brand outside your firm, through interactions with clients, being visible on LinkedIn and Twitter, article and blog writing, presenting at conferences, and becoming active within trade and professional organizations. Before you know it, you will be generating business from lawyers within the firm, existing clients, and new clients.
Q3) When it comes to health law expertise—in which basic areas do you think an associate should become competent?
All health law associates should complete a health law fundamentals program. From there, I have found that having a general and ongoing understanding of fraud and abuse, privacy, and licensure issues all provide the necessary foundation for developing as a health lawyer. I would also recommend becoming familiar with standard business and legal issues with contract drafting.
Q4) How should I be marketing myself as a healthcare lawyer, and when should I start doing so?
Marketing should start soon after becoming a lawyer. First, call yourself a health lawyer, and develop two sentences that describe your practice for when you meet people. Second, tailor your firm bio, LinkedIn page, and Twitter account (yes, I said Twitter account) so that it focuses on the healthcare industry. Third, create content (which does not need to be long, or legalese) that you can use on your website, blog, or social media accounts and with organizations with which you’re involved. Fourth, develop a social media strategy that includes following colleagues, clients, and credible organizations, as well as regularly “liking,” “sharing,” and posting content.
Q5) When is it appropriate to try to take a more prominent role in projects and with clients?
This usually happens when the supervising lawyer believes you have subject matter knowledge, judgment to know when to bring in others to support you, and an ability to communicate well and confidently. There’s also an element of you feeling ready, and expressing an interest, but sometimes these opportunities arise before you’re ready. Don’t be afraid to go outside your comfort zone if the supervising lawyer believes in you and is there to back you up when you need support.
Q6) How do retiring partners determine which associates are part of their succession planning in terms of clients/book of business?
Typically, retiring partners transition their clients to partners and associates who already have experience working with those clients, expertise that will be needed to represent the clients, capacity to take on the additional work, and personality compatibility with the client and other team members who may be supporting the client. Usually, retiring partners start thinking about these issues a few years ahead of time, but few use any type of formal transition plan. Generally, I would approach lawyers who may be retiring soon the same way as I would a client or potential client, and there’s a good chance you’ll be a part of their succession plan.
Q7) How can you better develop your practice as a young healthcare attorney when it seems other attorneys at your firm already have the “big” clients?
For my entire career, less than 10% of my business has come from “big” clients (e.g., major health systems, insurance companies, and pharmaceutical companies). There are advantages and disadvantages to both types of practices. When representing “big” clients, you have fewer clients to manage, the potential for a larger pipeline of work, and clients with a more reliable ability to timely pay. However, if you lose a “big” client (because of a management decision to change lawyers or move to an in-house model, a merger with another company, or an unacceptable change to fee structure) it will be much more challenging on your practice. “Big” clients are not necessarily better.
Q8) What are the “hot” areas or niches in healthcare law right now (obviously COVID) and do you see a young associate having longevity in this field?
Regulatory and business issues in the telehealth, digital health, and behavioral health sectors will likely be growing for the next several years. I also believe regulatory and business issues around the pandemic will continue to be an important area and opportunity for health lawyers. While I don’t necessarily suggest associates devote 100% of their time to this area, I do believe there is so much overlap with other operational and business issues, making it well worth cultivating and maintaining the expertise.
Q9) Is it as important to be involved in bar associations such as ABA and AHLA as people say?
Yes, being involved in the ABA Health Law Section has been one of my most rewarding experiences as a health lawyer, and best investments of non-billable time. My first appointment was as a fourth-year associate, to Vice-Chair of the Managed Care and Insurance Interest Group. It allowed me to stay informed of industry trends across the country; develop relationships with national thought leaders in private practice, government and in-house; and organically build my brand. It has also provided me with career-long friendships, that I treasure as much as family.
Q10) How can associates new to health law be confident that they have checked all the necessary boxes when researching an issue?
This is often a little scary, and not just for associates new to health law. Assuming the associate doesn’t have a more senior lawyer or other colleague to be a resource, you will need to rely on your researching skills. First, find reliable reference materials. This may be a CLE paper on the topic from an industry conference, or a health law manual that covers the topic. This should help you understand the issues, identify the specific applicable law(s) or rule(s), and hopefully help to narrow your research. Next, use Westlaw or Lexis (or another reliable source) to locate the specific laws and rules that apply. Last, The Health Lawyer, the ABA Health eSource, and an internet search are always helpful to check if there is any industry commentary or news on the subject.
Q11) Sometimes there doesn’t seem to be enough hours in the workday to balance billable expectations. How do you manage a full workload, personal commitments, well-being, and business development?
It definitely isn’t easy, and I don’t always do the best job of balancing. I have been very fortunate to have strong time management and organizational skills, which have helped a great deal. I have also been very intentional with how I spend my time. My involvement in professional organizations, community service, and law firm initiatives all support my efforts to be a successful health lawyer. The professional organizations with which I am involved are within the healthcare industry, my community service roles are substantially with healthcare organizations, and my involvement in the firm relates to further supporting my practice. This strategy ensures that almost everything I am doing is contributing to becoming a better health lawyer.
Q12) How do you manage disappointments like a client choosing to try another firm, or team member disagreements/miscommunications, which both can be challenging for young lawyers to navigate?
Losing a client can be scary and disappointing, but sometimes for the best. I take it as an opportunity to assess what went wrong, adjust, and monitor my business development and client service strategies. As for disagreements/miscommunications with team members, the best thing to do is not let them be a relationship defining moment. Like all relationships, there will be conflict. At some point, misunderstandings or mistakes will cause someone to feel taken for granted, disrespected, or unimportant. In order to work through the conflict, one person will have to be self-aware enough to realize what is happening, even if the other person can’t or chooses not to. It isn’t always possible to resolve conflict in relationships, and sometimes we have to be willing to move forward with different perspectives. It takes practice, self-study, and not letting our own ego get in the way.
Q13) How do you adapt your practice style to different types of clients and colleagues, so each feel valued?
The question is an acknowledgment that one size does not fit all, be it with clients or colleagues. I definitely adjust my communication style to fit a client’s preferences, needs, and level of sophistication. This can include being more formal in correspondence, being less lawyerly in memo writing, picking up the phone to call instead of email, and making myself available after hours. I try to do the same with colleagues. Be flexible and adaptable, and don’t get attached to one way of doing things.
Q14) When thinking about the long-term development of an associate’s health law practice, is it better to cultivate a generalist practice or focus primarily on specific areas of health law?
I think almost all health lawyers have struggled with this question. When I was an associate, I was overwhelmed with all there was to know, and desperately wanted the confidence from what I thought would come from focusing on a particular aspect of health law. However, over the years I have realized that broader experience allows a lawyer to see other peripheral business and legal issues that likely would have been missed. It also helps with the development of judgment when assessing issues on the risk continuum, and makes it much easier to naturally cross-sell other business. At some point, it may make sense to concentrate on a few specific areas of health law, but I wouldn’t feel the pressure to do so within your first 5 years as a lawyer.
Q15) Would you say that attendance at health law conferences is essential to building client/peer relationships?
Yes. It’s something that you may not appreciate until 5 to 10 years down the road. You would be surprised by the relationships you make that pay off in one way or another down the road, not to mention what you learn from the conversations in-between and after sessions, and during networking events. They can be validating of similar career struggles, confirming of business development strategies, and lead to new clients.
Q16) How do you manage the demands of your practice while attending conferences in order to have meaningful participation and client/peer engagement?
Not well! This has been a challenge from my days as an associate continuing to this day (including during COVID). Some years I do better than others. I start well-intentioned. I block time on my calendar to make sure I’m at least able to attend those sessions that are a priority. Inevitably, a pressing work issue, or someone I haven’t seen in a while, derails the plan. If nothing else, seeing and being seen has value even if it’s far less than planned. I have still found it is worth the effort to juggle.
As I’ve mentioned in my prior columns, this is the Section’s 25th Anniversary, and we’re sharing pictures from our archives. Included with this post are pictures with past young lawyer members!