How long have you been practicing law?
I’ve been practicing law for 17 years.
What kind of practice do you currently have? Is that the practice you anticipated having when you started out, or have things evolved?
After law school, I was a federal judicial law clerk for four years—for two years with the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals and another two years with the District Court for the District of South Carolina. During my time in private practice, I was primarily focused on employment law. After finishing my clerkship, I was an associate with a regional general practice firm, where I worked with the employment law group but also did about 50 percent general litigation.
I made the move to Jackson Lewis about 10 and a half years ago because I wanted to be in a boutique employment law firm focusing exclusively on employment law on a national platform. I represent and advise clients on all aspects of employment law but focus primarily on sexual harassment, pay equity matters, and disability discrimination issues in the manufacturing, retail, and pharmaceutical industries.
How did you develop your interest in employment law?
I used my federal clerkships to better identify which practice areas I liked and which practice areas I did not like. From there, I was able to exclude areas of law on which I did not want to focus and learn more about those areas on which I did—including employment law.
How did you land your biggest client/file? What led to that opportunity? How/where did the relationship originate?
There have been different paths that have led to me landing my largest clients, and I believe that’s representative of many people’s experiences. Attorneys develop relationships with their largest clients in various ways—there is not a single “right” path.
For one of my clients, I participated in a pitch to conduct training sessions at all of its facilities throughout the country. I conducted the training over the course of three months. Throughout the course of the training, I was able to develop relationships with the client’s in-house counsel and HR team and was able to better understand the issues unique to their business. Following the training, I was ultimately selected to handle all of the client’s employment work.
In another instance, I was able to effectively utilize relationships I had developed with the in-house attorneys of the company which I had practiced law with; they were comfortable with me and were familiar with my subject-matter expertise. Over time, they gave me opportunities to do more work for them as they moved to different companies.
What business development habits and techniques have you personally found to be most effective?
For me, I’ve found that it’s really important to just be myself. I am a very social person, and I take an interest in people and their businesses. I make it a priority to learn about how a business functions, so I spend a lot of time getting to know my clients, learning how their businesses work, and focusing on what’s most important to them. Other people may find that they have different strengths and therefore approach business development in a different way—one that’s tailored toward their abilities. In all, I’ve tried to stay true to who I am and what energizes me. I’ve found that to be most successful for me.
What do you find is the hardest thing about business development?
Time management. It’s so hard to give everything that you enjoy and everything that you believe is important enough of your time and attention because there are limited hours in the day. Also, you have many fires you have to put out when you’re in a management role, like I am, and when you are handling litigation, which I’m also doing. Between reacting to problems as they occur with litigation and handling administrative issues that come with managing an office, it’s difficult sometimes to set aside enough time for all the business development activities that you know you should be doing.
So, I try to be intentional about planning. For example, if I have clients who are located in other parts of the country, I make a point to visit them a certain number of times a year. Each week and each day, I try to make a plan of priorities that I am going to tackle—some business development related, some office management related, and some litigation related. That list is constantly changing, even throughout the day.
However, no matter how busy you are, you never want to make your clients feel like you are too busy for them or you are not able to be responsive to their needs. Whatever chaos you are facing in your day-to-day activities, don’t translate that into your client-facing activities.
Tell us about a time that you had a business development “blunder.” Was it fatal to the business development opportunity? Did you learn something valuable from it?
For the very first client opportunity I had, I didn’t get directions to their office. I put the address into MapQuest, but I got miserably lost and was late for my first meeting with them. It was my first big client meeting and a great opportunity. However, I was so worried about the impression I made by being so late to our first meeting.
What is one thing that you know now about business development that you wish you knew earlier in your career?
Developing business is not that hard; it’s not like a mysterious puzzle that only an elite few can solve. If you just work hard and be authentic to yourself, your goals, and your values, then you will develop business over time.
For a new attorney, what advice would you give regarding how to develop business and how to develop and maintain client relationships?
Develop a subject-matter expertise so that you have a special skill set that is easy to market and easy for your friends and colleagues to understand. Find something that sets you apart. Start early in determining what area of law you are interested in, and then get as knowledgeable as you can about that narrow area of law.
For our firm, our specialty is employment law, but even within employment law, there are subspecialties. For example, I serve as a cochair of our Pay Equity Resource Group. My subspecialty in pay equity litigation has allowed me to develop client relationships that I otherwise would not have been exposed to.
Also, maintain your relationships, and decide what kind of business development strategy you want to follow. Some business development strategies can be very academic, such as becoming a thought leader in a particular area and demonstrating that by developing a body of literature over time. My business development strategy has been more relationship driven.
In all, you have to find what works for you and remember to be authentic.
Cashida Okeke is an associate and Stephanie Lewis is an equity principal and office managing partner at the Greenville, South Carolina, office of Jackson Lewis P.C.