Ed Poll is a nationally-recognized legal management expert whose advice has helped thousands of lawyers create more rewarding legal practices, and directed hundreds of national, regional, and local law firms towards higher profitability.
Two questions must be answered for law firms to justify keeping young associates: is there enough work for the associates to do, and will the firm profit by the work being done? This can be expressed as a basic equation: Billings – [Associate's Total Compensation + Direct and Indirect Expenses] = Net Profit. The associate must do the work assigned as effectively and efficiently as possible. Fulfilling this responsibility in a way that produces net profits for the firm is essential for an associate to grow a career. Every associate should realize that keeping one’s own job in today’s business environment is a personal responsibility, not a firm one. Given that realization, there are certain steps that point the way for worthwhile associates to increase their net profit to the firm by becoming effective business developers.
The first step is institutional. A law firm can make its associates better marketers, and create a huge competitive advantage for itself, by proactively encouraging succession of clients from older to younger lawyers. One way is to offer senior lawyers a buyout or capital payout in exchange for sharing clients with younger lawyers. Another is to service clients with teams (not just a single rainmaker), and cross-sell between teams according to a strategic plan. Train associates to go after target businesses according to a personal marketing plan, and give bonuses to those who get results. With this opportunity to grow business development opportunities, associates shouldn’t be made partners unless and until they have a book of business.
The next step, too often neglected, is to help associates with administrative staff. Law firm administrators with marketing involvement can facilitate young lawyers’ marketing effort by helping them to develop status reports and invoices that effectively communicate to clients how their matters are handled, along with client surveys to be sent out with an invoice or at the conclusion of a matter. Other business development activities with an administrator as ally involve setting up an informal client visitation schedule, or participating in client meetings. Administrators can organize such activities through encouraging the use of client relationship management (CRM) software and database systems. Administrators know that today’s successful associates will be tomorrow’s partners, so they will be eager to help.
The final step is one of attitude. Associates should wean themselves away from relying on rainmakers and build the ability to develop business. The hurdle here is helping associates develop “resiliency,” the ability to bounce back from criticism or rejection. The adversarial nature of lawyers’ training, and the fact that most lawyers have been successful at most things, creates a win-lose mentality that defines setbacks as failure. However, resiliency is essential for successful marketing. Even successful sales people will frequently meet rejection, but their focus is always on achieving the next “yes” rather than dwelling on the last “no. Given that associates typically have little or no exposure to this sort of thinking, the only way they will acquire it is by building up confidence through opportunities that the firm provides.