I have been practicing law for more than 30 years, and I have done a lot of things. I “grew up” in small firms which meant that most types of work were accepted gratefully and everyone chipped in and did what needed to be done; if you didn’t know the area of the law, you learned it . . . fast. Throughout my career I received a lot of advice about building a practice: Get out there, be involved in traditional attorney organizations such as local and national bar associations, get involved in your community, practice your elevator speech so you can give it anywhere, even at the soccer field while doing “snack mom” duty. About 20 years ago I decided I loved employment law and wanted to concentrate my practice in this area. Unfortunately, deciding something doesn’t necessarily make it so. It takes time and effort, some strategy and a little bit of luck. Below are some of the strategies that work.
- Don’t dismiss the tried and true. Yes, the world has changed. We have more demands on our time and more options for professional and personal activities than we have time for. Most of us communicate electronically more than face-to-face or even over the phone. Don’t, however, miss out on the benefit of personal interaction. People want to refer clients to people they know and like. The more you are seen and known, the more likely you are to have personal connections who know what you do, and you will be top of mind when they or a friend or business contact needs legal advice.
- Don’t ignore the new. It’s not your father’s law practice anymore. Even attorneys who developed their business contacts at Rotary meetings, local bar association picnics, and during rounds of golf need to think about and embrace technology. Employment law is fertile ground for articles, blogs, and yes, even tweeting. Almost everyone is either an employer or an employee, often both; and almost none of them knows everything. There is a reason that employment law blogs are among the most popular and widely read of all legal blogs. People are interested in it, it’s flashy, and it changes all the time. There is no better way to look like a thought leader than to get information out quickly.
- Think about new organizations to join. It’s no secret that the best referral sources for many lawyers are other lawyers. If you are known and respected in the legal community for a particular expertise, you are likely to get referrals from other practitioners. This is true whether you spend your time at ABA meetings, state bar meetings, or local bar association happy hours. You should, however, find some events that are not “lousy with lawyers.” If your goal is to be an employment lawyer, join the local chapter of a human resources organization. Offer to provide a five-minute legal update at the beginning of each meeting or to be a speaker on an emerging legal issue. These groups love volunteers and it is a coup for them to have an employment lawyer on their board. Try the legislative committee of your state or local chamber of commerce. There are typically many bills introduced in state legislatures every year with implications for employers. Small businesses rarely have the time and expertise to track pending legislation. Be their voice at the table.
- Speak and write. Speaking at CLE sessions and writing for legal publications is valuable. It gets your name out there as someone with knowledge in a particular area; it gives you credibility. But write for the public; it’s the public that needs you most. Local newspapers and magazines, targeted industry, or business journals often rely on volunteers to generate content. Contact the editor and offer to write on a hot new topic. “I can get you 1500 words on the new FLSA regs in 24 hours” would be a welcome offer to an editor struggling to find timely relevant content for his or her publication.
- Talk about what you do. Employment issues are interesting to people. They come up a lot in casual conversation. Your neighbor: “My daughter is a store manager at ABC Mall Store; she just got a raise due to some new law.” You: “Oh yes, the new Fair Labor Standards Act regulations; I am helping a lot of employers navigate those changes; they go into effect on December 1.”
- Think about an industry focus. If you have particular knowledge or interest in an industry, think about becoming active in a trade association such as manufacturing, construction, healthcare, auto dealers, or hospitality. Most industries have groups dedicated to helping their members with a myriad of issues including legal and legislative ones. It is always important to be familiar with your client’s business; if you are also involved in their associations, you will have enhanced credibility. If you have worked with one member and have done a good job, they are likely to refer others to you.
- Focus on low-hanging fruit. Your firm’s current clients are potentially a great source of new work. Do client alerts on hot topics; ask your colleagues for introductions to decision makers at the companies with which they work. They may not even know yet that they need you.
- Always spend time doing what you like to do. Join organizations and volunteer for projects in which you have an interest. Go to events with people you enjoy. If you are miserable, people will know it. Life is too short to be bored and unhappy. Find things you like to do, follow through with your commitments and the work will come.
- Be patient. It doesn’t happen overnight. It takes multiple encounters, sometimes over several years, to develop the contacts and the credibility to get the kind of referrals you want. Start small, do good work, follow through, be active, and it will happen.
Charla Bizios Stevens is with McLane Middleton Professional Association in the Boston, Massachusetts, area.