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March 05, 2020 Articles

Appellate Business Development: Tips from Experienced Practitioners

How do you become the appellate lawyer that both trial lawyers and their clients seek out?

By Mary-Christine (M.C.) Sungaila

Developing an appellate practice—and, most particularly, attracting and keeping clients—can be tricky. Most clients do not have repeat appellate needs. And reaching those clients who do have appellate needs may be difficult, especially because they likely already have trial counsel. So how do you become the appellate lawyer that both trial lawyers and their clients seek out?

Development of Skills and Contacts

First, be very good at what you do, and become widely known for that among potential clients and the legal community more broadly. As one of my early mentors told me, developing a reputation as an appellate lawyer can take many more years than it does to develop one as a trial lawyer; the cases that we handle take years to make it through the appellate court, such that most folks will not be aware of the caliber of cases you are being hired for until three or more years later, when the appellate opinion issues. In the early years, your focus must be on the work, and on gaining skills and judgment.

Then what? In all business-development activities, it is helpful to consider that work may come from clients, trial lawyers, and other appellate lawyers or judges—or all of the above. It can often be important to be the first choice of both the client and trial counsel; a vote of confidence from an appellate practitioner or judge cannot hurt either.

Categorizing Business-Development Priorities

For my part, I divide my business-development time into three areas: (1) reputation development (contributing to leading appellate treatises, writing articles, guest blogging, commenting in the media, law school teaching, speaking on panels five to seven times a year, and taking on significant pro bono cases), (2) relationship development (e.g., bar and civic leadership, regular phone calls and contact with clients), and (3) new matter development (nurturing relationships with referral sources and potential new clients).

Highlighting Unique Assets

Based on my own informal survey of successful appellate lawyers across the country, most rainmakers follow similar strategies. But, along the way, each one has personalized the approach, making it authentic to that person and that person’s unique strengths. One of my partners is a wonderful bar leader; she has demonstrated her leadership at the highest levels and has gained a number of judges as fans and litigators and trial lawyers as cocounsel along the way. Some, like Tom Goldstein, who previously worked for NPR’s veteran U.S. Supreme Court reporter Nina Totenberg, first made a splash through positive and extensive media coverage, and then backed that up later with the Peabody Award–winning SCOTUSblog. Another has become known as the “law person” by working well with trial teams on major motions in the trial court. Still others have developed subspecialties in substantive fields such as product liability or patent law or in practicing before their state’s high court, and have focused their practice and business-development activities in those areas.

 In implementing my business-development strategies, I keep in mind the traits that distinguish me: among other things, I am personable, strategic, creative, and a fierce warrior for my clients. I am a big-picture thinker who, as one of my clients says, “thinks five or six moves ahead” and well beyond the particular case, much like a general counsel. I am also empathetic and pay attention to what would be helpful to the clients, instead of focusing on what in my background or experience might impress them. When I meet with a potential client about a case, I prepare ferociously, as though the case were already mine, and engage in a substantive conversation about the case, applying my knowledge to the client’s problems at the outset.

I also consider what our appellate team and firm can collectively offer that is different. For example, in the past we have held annual intimate roundtable seminars for our in-house counsel clients and future clients at which we review the current and pending Supreme Court cases nationally and at the state level and provide one-page executive summaries of the cases compiled by our employment, IP, business, and appellate lawyers. The presentation is at once academically sophisticated and practical, with an eye toward in-house counsel’s need to be kept up-to-date in an efficient manner.

Business-Development Plan Guidelines

In developing your own business-development plan, it is helpful to keep in mind four guidelines: (1) be yourself, (2) work your plan, (3) persist but be nimble, and (4) be patient.

First, be yourself. Making rain is about developing relationships of trust and value. The best way to do that is to be authentic and genuinely interested in others. You do not have to golf or go to sports events if you do not enjoy them. I have a passion for supporting other women and organize annual lunches for women lawyers, which blossom into referral networks.

Second, have a plan. Business development does not just happen. You need to determine the kinds of clients with whom you want to work and which clients have a need for your practice, and then develop relationships with them. It takes seven to nine meaningful touches—touches that are meaningful and helpful to the potential client, not you—to develop a new client.

Third, be persistent but nimble. While persistence is important, you also need to know when to switch tactics or even reassess your dream-client base. I reassess my plan each month, based on the input that I receive from potential clients. For example, if a potential client already has appellate counsel with whom she is happy or if she has little need for an appellate lawyer right now, that is valuable information (however disappointing it might be) that helps you prioritize your contacts with her. But you can only discover that kind of information by talking with and listening to folks. The point of each contact should be furthering the relationship, not landing a particular case. The cases will come if you develop relationships and have the skills to deliver results for your clients.

Finally, be patient. Past good work, contacts, and business-development activities take time to develop into paying business. You may have a good reputation among lawyers who would be willing to send you business, but the right referral may not come to those lawyers for some time. Developing your practice requires a long-term investment.

Mary-Christine (M.C.) Sungaila is a partner at Haynes and Boone, LLP in Orange County, California.

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