Business Development: How Do I Start?
I am a fourth year associate, and I am starting to think about client development. My firm tells me they don't expect it from associates and that I should be focused on learning to be a good attorney. Is this really the best approach? It seems like it would be better to have some clients over the next few years if I want to be able to make partner one day, but I don't even know where to begin. What are your thoughts about when to start business development and how should I go about it?
It isn't clear from your letter whether your firm indicated that they do not want you to originate clients or whether they just told you not to worry your pretty little head about it. I will approach this as if they did not forbid you from bringing in clients.
As a midlevel associate with partnership aspirations, you should absolutely begin trying to cultivate a client base. While your firm is right that they don't expect their associates to bring in clients (they just expect you to bill, bill, bill), you most certainly should learn the skills that will allow you to have a book of business one day. The phone is not going to start ringing by itself – you have to work to bring in those clients.
I know you probably don't have a ton of free time (what with the billing, billing, billing you are expected to do), but you are going to have to devote several hours a week to client development. Your first thought has to be toward networking. You should dig into the far reaches of your personal network, and make sure to remember that you cannot be afraid to ask for business.
Perhaps the biggest key to finding clients is to put yourself where the clients can find you, and that means volunteering, writing, and speaking as much as you can.
What's your niche? Leverage your strengths and choose as narrow a field as possible to be your domain. Don't think real estate, think commercial leases; not entertainment law, but film production contracts; not litigation, but discovery disputes. You need only pick something that makes sense for you in order to get started. As you continue to work at this, you can and should expand your areas of expertise.
Now that you have picked your niche, you should know what you're talking about. Take every opportunity you can find to learn about your chosen subject area. Read journals, go to meetings, read appropriate news sources, go to CLEs. You should also join bar committees and industry committees and do some more networking. Volunteer to help out with committee projects. You will forge relationships and make connections here that will prove invaluable later.
Now get to work. Choose a topic and pitch article ideas to publications in your chosen field, whether they are journals, bar association publications, newsletters, magazines, or online magazines. The best choice is a publication that your target clients will read, so an industry magazine will serve your goals better than an academic publication. You should aim to publish something at least twice a year. Once you have a few published articles under your belt, apply to give a talk or participate in a panel at an industry conference. This will put you in a position of authority in front of people who likely have the power to hire you.
In the meantime, you should volunteer to help with client pitches at your firm. You may not get any glory or even be allowed to sit in on the meeting, but you may be able to help prepare slides and other presentation materials and will certainly gain valuable insight into the thought process behind a client pitch.
If you follow this advice, clients will result from your efforts. It sounds simple (and possibly painful), but it works without fail. Clients hire attorneys that they know and trust. You have to put yourself out there to be known and trusted. None of this is rocket science, but the trick is that this takes a lot of work. Most associates are simply not interested in investing so much time into business development, especially when they are already billing 2000 or more hours a year. But if you get started now, you will gradually build a client-base that over time will generate referrals and an even larger client-base, and one day you will have a substantial book of business of your very own.
One last word to the wise – if your firm is not one that encourages client development (believe it or not, some firms actually reward associates with a percentage of origination), you should tread lightly with the partners you will need to rely on in order to establish the client relationship and do the work. Always carefully gauge their receptiveness to your efforts, and decide for yourself how much to push the issue. If you find a lot of resistance, or if your firm did in fact tell you that you are not permitted to bring in your own clients, then you have a more serious issue and should consider if your firm is the right place for you.
Good luck with all of it and please stay in touch,