October 23, 2012

Law Practice Case Study

Law Practice Magazine

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Taking Ownership

Practice Building Strategies for New Partners

Thinking like an Owner.

 Table of Contents

July/August 2007 Issue | Volume 33 Number 5 | Page 47

Taking the Wheel: Advice on Navigating What's Next as a New Partner

In the latest installment of the Law Practice Case Study series, a new partner seeks advice on how to take the rights steps in his new role. Providing recommendations are David Ambrose, Christine Baker, Carl Roberts and Mark Robertson.

This case study is the fifth in a Law Practice series. We posit a scenario that many of our readers confront and ask selected experts to discuss solutions. The goal: To provide our readers with practical how-to approaches they can apply in the types of real-world situations that arise in lawyers’ lives.

The Scenario

Tom shook off the effects of last night’s celebration, where friends and colleagues had joined in honor of his new role as a firm partner. In the first real quiet time he had found since accepting the partnership offer, he reflected on what the future held and his questions about his new status.

As an associate, he knew his annual billable-hours requirements and that he had to treat the partners as clients, and he had been steadfast in ensuring that he met all expectations in those regards. He was aware that the goalposts had shifted now—but he wasn’t clear on his new, wider responsibilities.
For example, he knew that partner compensation was based partly on his own paid billings and his client development efforts, as well as the results of the firm as a whole, but he was unsure on the specifics. Client and business development was something to which he had only limited exposure. He wondered how he was to attract clients of his own, while also devoting the necessary time to the other business of the firm. Would being a new partner ultimately eat more, or perhaps less, of his time? His doctor had already been advising him to take more time for exercise, and his wife, while genuinely happy about his new status, was concerned about the additional amount of time that he might now have to spend at the office.

He needed a crash course on how he should best direct his time and effort as a result. How could he take the right steps and make a good impression as a new partner?
He wondered who he should talk to ...

Look Inside and Outside Your Firm for Counsel and New Business

—Christine Baker

Tom, you should cast your net wide and talk to anyone who will listen and provide you with insight on what it means to be a new partner. First, talk to someone in your firm who has recently “been there and done that”—someone who made partner within the past few years and successfully figured out how to navigate the transition. But also talk to more-senior partners about their experiences, their perspectives and what they have done to succeed over the years. In addition, make sure you get a copy of the partnership agreement—and read it.

Many new partners are surprised to learn that partners are generally expected to bill as many hours as associates. Plus, they have more administrative and management responsibilities and they have to make more time for business development. Because other, more- senior partners are more inclined to give work to associates rather than junior partners, new partners can find themselves scrambling to find enough work. They have to network and market themselves both within their firms and externally to develop sources of business they can call their own.

You need to network internally by getting to know your partners and other co-workers, and by making sure that they know what you do and that you would love to help them when an issue arises within your field of expertise. The same is true, externally, with all your friends, family, professional contacts—and pretty much everyone you know or meet along the way. Whenever and wherever you meet new contacts, tell them what you do and ask them about what they do. Tell them you would love to help them with any legal needs they might have.

Your best source of new business, though, is often existing clients. Whereas it usually takes a tremendous amount of time and energy to land a new client, you probably have clients who are quite happy with the work you are already doing for them but have other legal needs that you are not currently serving. These are excellent opportunities to develop new business. The keys to taking advantage of such opportunities are threefold:

  • Being a good lawyer
  • Providing great service
  • Communicating with these clients on a regular basis

Ask them about their problems, challenges, issues, what makes their lives difficult at any point in time—and be sure to listen carefully to what they say. Seek to identify creative ways you can provide solutions to meet their needs.

Ultimately, client development is about building and nurturing relationships. The first step is to network among potential clients and referral sources. But that’s not enough. You then have to figure out how to connect with them, find out what their legal needs are, and actually ask them for their business. Many find it hard to take that final step of asking for the business, so when you are talking to other partners be sure to seek their advice on how to master this critical step.

One last point is that you never know where work will come from—it might be someone you meet through the bar association, a referral from an adversary, a member of your staff, a former firm associate who moved in house or someone you meet at your health club or a random social event. So be sure that you treat everyone well—as if they were a client or potential client.

Learn the Unwritten Rules and Develop a Personal Plan

Mark A. Robertson

It seems that your firm doesn’t have written guidelines for its partners, Tom—but even if it did, it is usually true that firms have unwritten expectations of partners as well. So you definitely need to talk to the other partners—particularly those who have made partner in the past three to five years—to identify the range of responsibilities (written or unwritten) that the firm expects its partners to fulfill. If you have a mentor at the firm, or a senior partner you’re especially comfortable talking with, then you should take him or her to lunch and find out the rules of the road in detail.

Christine is right, too, about the kinds of hours that new partners can generally expect to put in. Many firms in recent years have higher reported hours per partner than per associate. In your lunch visit with your mentor-partner, be sure to ask about the time commitments for activities such as partner meetings and management responsibilities, as well as client development expectations. If your wife and family are expecting you home more, it may only be made possible through your developing good time management skills. I advise you to go take a time management course. Lawyers often think that because they keep track of their time in six-minute intervals, they are good time managers. Wrong! Having attended a time management course 20 years after becoming a lawyer, I wish I had done it 20 years earlier and used the time I could have saved being with friends and family.

You will certainly need to build on whatever limited client development you did when you were an associate. Marketing internally to those assigning work in your area will remain critical, but you will also need to have a personal marketing plan to develop new business in your field. Also, find out what the firm is willing to provide in marketing resources (both money and assistance).

Many are surprised to learn that their firms expect partners to pay for their own marketing, or most of it, because their firms’ compensation systems directly reward partners for bringing in new business.
Again, Tom, check with your mentor or a partner in your area to find out what resources the firm will commit to partners’ business development efforts.

It is also important to consider what type of client development suits your particular skills and interests. If you like to write, perhaps you can get articles published in an area of your expertise, whether in a bar journal or an industry publication.

Being published lends credibility to you and your practice and can be used to develop clients. If speaking is your strength, garnering opportunities to be a presenter at industry programs or seminars can also develop clients—or referrals from other lawyers if you are speaking at a CLE program.

And here’s an additional point of advice for you, Tom, since you mention that your doctor advised you to get more exercise. You need to join a health or athletic club for two reasons: (1) you have to take care of yourself—you won’t be any good to your family or the firm if you’re in the hospital at age 40 with a heart attack, or worse; and (2) you can develop friendships and potential clients at the gym while working out, too. Many lawyers I know work out at the downtown YMCA during their lunch hours or before work in the morning and not only feel more physically and mentally fit, but also have made some wonderful friends and developed significant business there over the years.

Understand Differing Views and Build a Practice Niche

David R. Ambrose

Tom, the advice I give you is simply based on my own experiences in the trenches. I don’t know that there are right or wrong answers to any of the questions or concerns you raise.

Something you don’t talk about is the size of your firm. This can be significant, as there are truly different dynamics in firms of different sizes and, as a result, very different ways for a junior partner to approach his or her continued development and evolvement into a senior partner. However, even with that in mind, I believe most of my following comments can be applied to almost any size law firm. 

You obviously need to sit down with the powers that be and obtain as much clarification and explanation as possible regarding what the terms of partnership are, what the expectations are, what is favored or not favored, what gets measured or not measured, what is valued or not valued. Having said that, bear in mind that different partners will have different views of the world, with different values and expectations attached, and it will be important to try and take some measure of what each partner says in relation to the other partners. If you get nothing else from what I say, take this away: Politics are always, always, going to be an integral part of being a partner in a law firm, and becoming aware of that fact and paying attention to it can prove very valuable to your career.

Also valuable is to continue communication with the remaining associates in the firm. They can provide invaluable insights into what is going on in the firm—both good and bad. The same is true of com-munication with the administrative staff and legal assistants—they can provide insights that will not be provided by anyone else. Keep that in mind, and always treat your administrative staff and legal assistants well. Just because you have become a partner does not mean that you can now ignore civility. Indeed, more advanced firms recognize that the partner who causes them to lose valued staff, no matter the amount of rainmaking, is more of a liability than an asset.

Now on to the matter of business development. I would venture that you likely do not have many clients of your own if you were paying attention to the needs of the partners during your years as an associate. So you now need to go out and generate your own clients. It is not an exaggeration to state that as a general rule there is no such thing as job security in law firms these days based on the quality of your work, the relationships you have with the other partners or others associated with the firm, the nonbillable work you do and so on. It is, quite simply, the ability to generate your own clients that will serve your interests best in the long run.

How do you go about generating clients? Aside from contacting friends, family and members of the community and asking for the work, I believe it is best to identify an area that you would like to focus on—presumably something you like and also something consistent with the existing practice areas of the firm—and then to strive to develop an expertise in that area or industry. Join electronic discussion groups that serve or focus on that industry and contribute to the discussions. (I have generated a number of clients just through contributions to certain industry-specific listserves.) By your contributions, you create exposure for yourself among a number of practitioners in the industry of your interest. Forget about being a generalist and become a specialist (which presumably you have somewhat figured out already, if you have been in the practice long enough to become a partner).

Learn the industry inside and out. Study the trends in the industry and learn the industry’s vernacular (not just the legalese). Identify problem areas for parties in the industry—and I don’t only mean legal problems, but problems that lead to businesses failing, or losing customers, or creating internal organizational struggles, and figure out how to tie legal solutions to business solutions. Overall, attempt to become the client’s business partner, not just another expense item reducing the bottom-line profits. Be proactive—identify ways, for example, to help companies in the industry you select minimize exposure to ongoing litigation risk.

By focusing on an industry and creating a niche for yourself, you get an opportunity to accomplish several things more quickly:

  • Establish credibility
  • Increase your billable rates (something your partners will love)
  • Create indispensability (something you will love)
  • Become the “first-to” kind of guy, when companies or individuals start searching for that lawyer they need to handle their pressing problems

If you are considering your long-term career, do not let other partners steer you down a path of action that may lead to a dead end—such as focusing on a single, unique, very one-of-a-kind type of project, which consumes the vast majority of your time and leads to nothing at the end of the day other than having generated a substantial amount of billings for the firm.

As you will find out shortly, if you haven’t already, there will be far more demands on your time as a junior partner than as an associate—and likely a reduction in take-home pay, at least for a period of time. There will be higher expectations of you, and if your firm is like many, some expectations will be put upon you without you having received much training in those areas that the other partners assert are so important to upward movement in the organization. It is, therefore, vital that you be proactive in pursuing your educational opportunities. Read books and articles on law practice management, and at-tend law practice management seminars put on by the ABA and the Association of Legal Administrators. Learn more about the business of law than your partners know—and it is in fact a business, never forget that. Get a business coach, and see if you can swing getting your firm to pay for it.

Back to generating clients. Be wary of approaching clients of the firm who have been generated by other partners. (Remember the earlier politics advice?) While your intentions may be honorable, if you were to attempt to secure new work from existing clients who have been generated by other partners, more likely than not you will be viewed as poaching on their turf (sad to say, but true). If you perceive opportunities with an existing client, then sit down first with the other partner, plan a course of action, and approach it in such a manner as to make that partner look good to the client. It makes the situation a win-win for all concerned. 

One certain bit of advice: In your zeal to secure new clients for the firm, always keep in mind that every client is not the same—there are good clients, and there are bad clients. Do not forget that as you secure legal work—do not bring a bad client into the firm (defined in any number of ways, with perhaps the worst being the client who does not pay). In the minds of the other partners, you will be associated with that bad client for quite a long time.

Work Collaboratively and Mind the Value in Balance

Carl G. Roberts

The views that my colleagues have given here are excellent, although I’ll make an additional point about business development. Assuming that your firm is of a meaningful size, Tom, I would suggest that as you develop your special expertise, you pay attention to other firm clients who might have a need for it, and seek to work collaboratively with the relationship partners for those clients to build the firm’s business overall. Existing clients are easier to approach because they already have confidence in the firm. Even if you do not get the relationship or billing credit with those clients, you will be developing relationships with people who can refer others to you.

Also, I will add a few words about your concerns on the home front. There may be times when the demands of work overwhelm one’s home life, but that should be balanced out in the long run. We are social creatures, and bad situations or worse at home will inevitably have a serious impact on the rest of our lives. Perhaps, Tom, you need to shift your schedule around, such as going in very early in order to be home for (some) dinners, or taking off (really taking off) one day on the weekend to spend with family without business interruptions. Also, you should be careful of the technology tools that keep us always connected, and break that connection to have time with your family when needed. A law firm cannot reasonably expect its partners to abandon their home lives in order to succeed as a partner—that would not be true success.

You will have much to learn in your new role as partner, and you will have new demands and respon-sibilities to master as you go, but keeping in mind what you truly value most in your life will serve you well through the course of it all.

About the Experts

Christine Baker  is Co-Chair of ABA Women Rainmakers and a litigation partner in the law firm Drinker Biddle & Reath, resident in the firm’s Princeton, NJ, office.

Mark Robertson is a partner in Robertson & Williams in Oklahoma City, a former Chair of the ABA Law Practice Management Section, and a Fellow of the College of Law Practice Management. He is coauthor of the ABA book Winning Alternatives to the Billable Hour: Strategies That Work, 2nd Edition .

David R. Ambrose  is founding principal and CEO of The Ambrose Law Group in Portland, OR, specializing in all aspects of real estate law.

Carl G. Roberts is a partner in the litigation department of Ballard Spahr Andrews & Ingersoll in Philadelphia and a former Chair of the ABA Law Practice Management Section.