: I will be starting at a mid- to large-sized law firm. I am not sure what practice specialty I will choose but am leaning toward a corporate practice. My question is: looking down the road to partnership and beyond, is it important that I develop a client following early on in my career, or should I concentrate first on becoming the best practitioner that I can?
Bill: It's an excellent question. It would seem hard to argue with any position other than that you should spend the first several years honing your practice skills. In fact, I am reasonably sure that most firms say just that to the young associates they hire. Being a good lawyer, after all, is the foundation for everything you will do in your legal career. It is also true that life in Legalville is not quite that simple.
There was a time when the legal profession routinely categorized its citizens as finders, minders and grinders. The finders went out and developed new clients and brought in the business; the minders handled those clients, had the day-to-day contact and were responsible for keeping them happy; the grinders were the ones who did the heavy lifting, often alone in the office with little client contact. To some degree this categorization may still hold, but the only sure path to success today is to put a measure of each into what you do.
~Business development skills are vital in today's legal community. While not every firm compensates its partners on an "eat what you kill basis," ability to develop new business for the firm is a key measure of performance. Next in importance are the personal and social skills needed to communicate with clients and keep them satisfied. These are skills you should concentrate on early in your career, right alongside developing practical legal skills.
I suggest seeking out a mentor early in the game, one who will work with you in all the aspects of being a successful lawyer, not just the technical ones. Make it clear early on that you are interested in developing all aspects of your legal persona and take advantage of any opportunities to get client contact, even if such contact is by way of watching others in action. Accept the fact that the law, however noble a profession, involves aspects of sales and marketing. The unavoidable fact is that you cannot do a competent job for a client unless you have - and can keep - one in the first place.
Bill Seaton is the co-founder of EmplawyerNet, which offers the largest legal jobs database anywhere, with over 6,000 job listings.