December 17, 2013 Articles

Building a Practice Through Volunteering

By McClain E. Bryant

Business development is not something that is taught well, if it is taught at all. There were no courses on business development at my law school. Sometimes it seems as if senior attorneys do not really want you to know how to bring in clients, or their attitude is that either you have it or you do not. What I have been told or read is that you should network, self-study, seek opportunities to write and speak, seek leadership positions on boards, cross-market, work relationships with mentors so you will inherit their clients, and not be afraid to make the hard ask. Sounds easy enough, right?

Every lawyer is doing some combination of these, yet the power of a book of business remains in the hands of the few. What is the trick, really? How do these seemingly easy and formulaic tasks lead to true job security at a law firm? I have not gotten there, but I finally feel, six years into my career, as if I am on the right path.

Like most law students, I thought I had figured out what I wanted to do even before my 1L year. I wanted to meld my graduate degree in business with my lifelong participation in the political process. I wanted a practice in government relations. I took elective courses in every available aspect of campaign finance law, governmental investigations, and government affairs. I spent both summers and parts of the school years clerking for the same firm in both the headquarters office and in Washington, D.C., hoping to land a position in the government relations practice.

I thought I was set when I got the offer I had worked for. But the offer came from general litigation in our headquarters, rather than from government relations in our D.C. office. Apparently, I lacked the requisite Hill experience the hiring committee thought necessary for a government affairs associate.

But I decided to give litigation a shot. Year after year, I made my hours and learned the ropes for a litigation associate. I switched practice groups three times, trying to find a happy place outside of government relations. But my interest in government and the political process remained strong.

Being at the headquarters office in the Midwest, I had little opportunity to get involved in campaign finance or elections-related litigation or compliance work. So I thought, how can I get involved and build relationships in the political arena? How can I apply my legal skills to the political process? How can I use volunteer and networking opportunities outside of the firm to get experience applicable to the political process?

The first opportunity presented itself at the end of my first year at the firm, which coincided with the 2008 presidential election. Another lawyer in town was working to form a group of attorneys to be election “challengers,” so I signed up! We were trained to spot potential elections law issues and were assigned to a polling place on Election Day.

More opportunities followed. I started to attend political fundraisers. I worked my way to serving on host committees and eventually organizing my own fundraisers for local, state, and federal elections, becoming more familiar with campaign finance laws. I hosted many of these fundraisers at my firm with the support of firm leadership.

I took every opportunity to network. By participating in these activities, I was constantly moving in political circles. I became a go-to person that party leaders, candidates, elected officials, and campaign workers asked to rally other young professionals. I was asked by community leaders to organize a citywide GOTV rally. This required me to learn and abide by campaign finance and elections laws. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, a national company asked me to speak at a local CLE on local and state elections law. That gave me further opportunity to learn, network, and build my brand as an expert.

By the time the 2012 presidential election was near, I was recommended to serve as the regional lead of an organized national fundraising effort. I had to obtain firm approval due to the time commitment involved. Because I had demonstrated a commitment to the political process, and the firm valued the relationships I had built and the attention my activities brought to the firm, my participation was approved. That year, my congressman nominated me to participate in a Political Leadership and Education Boot Camp in Washington, D.C.—a nine day immersion in all aspects of campaigning with other young professionals involved in the political process from across the United States—at no cost to me or my firm. All of these opportunities culminated in a volunteer fellowship on the 2013 Presidential Inaugural Committee with people from across the Nation who participated, in many varieties of ways, in the presidential campaign.

When I returned from Washington, D.C., a group of political fundraisers and attorneys approached me to assist them with setting up a political action committee on a pro bono basis. It became clear that the more I involved myself in these volunteer activities, the more I learned, the more my network grew, the more my commitment to the political process became known, and the more opportunities came my way.

Upon entering the sixth year of my practice, I could no longer ignore the need to focus my educational and business development efforts in a specialized area. Having switched practice groups repeatedly, I was feeling a little lost within the firm. I knew what I enjoyed doing and what area of the law interested me, but I had convinced myself that because I was not hired into the government relations practice initially, there was not a place for me there. I knew I had to pursue my interests, or my career at the firm had no longevity. So I had a hard, and admittedly scary, conversation with leadership within my firm. I was very honest with myself and my superiors about where my true interests lie. I want to build a political law practice.

To my surprise, my firm was more than supportive—they were encouraging! I was asked to submit a three-year plan outlining the steps I would take to build upon my political experience and relationships. That plan would guide my career and the support my firm would provide. I was invited to join the government relations practice group. Since then, I have signed up three paying clients in need of political-law counseling in just two months. I am even more excited about the future of my career now than I was when I walked across the graduation stage. And work no longer feels so much like work.

I am not saying that my story is common because I know that it is not. And my story is really just beginning, with a newfound focus and a few small clients. I had no idea that volunteer work would lead me to where I wanted to be from the start. But with a little creativity and personalization, here I am.

I implore those of you who may be feeling lost in your careers and looking to build a practice in an area that you love to give thought not only to how you can develop that expertise, but also to how you can do so with the support of your institution. Consider the following:

What am I really interested in, and where do I invest my personal time?

Are there ways I can use my experience, legal acumen, network, and firm resources to pursue my interests? Nearly everything in the United States and throughout the world is regulated—what regulations are applicable?

Are there individuals or organizations in my community that could benefit from my volunteer services, whether legal or otherwise, that would also provide learning opportunities or networking opportunities?

Are there professionals outside of the legal community who can help me identify professional and business development opportunities, such as in media or publishing?

How can I promote my activities by working with my institution’s marketing department to get writing or speaking opportunities, to publish my accomplishments on the firm intranet, or to issue press releases?

Are there ways that my interests and volunteer experiences can result in revenue or other benefits to my institution in the future?

Viewed in this way, volunteering can be seen as additional business development. And while there may not be volunteer opportunities for all practice areas, there are for many. Provide free tax advice to members of your church; review contracts for your homeowners association; or speak to students about their civil rights if stopped by the police.

Most firms are community stewards and want happy, productive attorneys. Volunteering with some self-interest, while it may sound like a bad thing, might end up being great for your career. Good luck!

Keywords: woman advocate, litigation, volunteering, business development, government relations, networking; political law, campaign finance, elections law