New Lawyers Need to Understand the Business of Law to Succeed in Private Practice

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…a position in a law firm not only requires performing well for the attorneys you are working for and ultimately the clients, but understanding and embracing the business of law.

Law students leave law school with a broad background in law. Upon graduation, most have a general knowledge of contracts, estates and trusts, torts, corporate law, criminal law, family law and civil litigation. They understand the structure of the courts, know the history of the Supreme Court and can name the major Supreme Court decisions. Law students are generally very smart and very competitive. They compete for the highest grades and thrive on performing well. Those are the drivers in law school. Most law students believe that if they graduate in the top third of their class, they will be able to get a job at a law firm making a significant salary. Most law students also believe that once they get a job in a law firm, if they continue to apply the model that worked so well for them in law school, perform well and you will succeed, they will eventually be a partner in the firm.

What these law students fail to realize, is that a position in a law firm not only requires performing well for the attorneys you are working for and ultimately the clients, but understanding and embracing the business of law. How does a law firm business make money? What is the firm’s business model? Is there a structure in place for associates to become partners? What is the firm’s compensation model? How much business is an associate expected to bring in and when? What does an associate need to do to bring in business? How should an associate market him or herself?

These questions are just the tip of the iceberg, but they open the door to the many issues about being a successful lawyer in private practice that are never taught in law school. As a lawyer who practiced in law firms for over ten years and now as Director of Marketing and Business Development at a firm for the past five years, I am more than well aware of this deficit and enjoy doing my part to help fill in some of the gaps identified above.

I ask every attorney in our firm to prepare an annual personal marketing and business development plan and meet with every attorney to discuss the plan.

Most associates look at me as if they have no idea what I am talking about. Most are uncomfortable with being exposed to something they have little background in and weren’t taught in law school. They are also overwhelmed with the thought that not only do they have to bill a minimum 1800-2000 hours a year, they also have to join and participate in bar association events, attend conferences, write articles, prepare and do presentations, join and participate in trade organizations, engage in social media and, heaven forbid, network at events. The realization that marketing and developing business is expected also makes some angry. They believe that after all of the hard work they have put in towards their degrees and taking the bar examination and sometimes multiple examinations, the thought that they know have to be “salespeople” is degrading, infuriating and they simply don’t believe that it is necessary for their success. The classic response from these individuals is, “I am just going to do a really good job and then the clients I am working with will just come to me after the partner retires.”1

…first and foremost, the most important part of marketing is to be a good lawyer.

What my background as a lawyer has provided me with is empathy towards these varying responses, and I start by telling all first and second year associates that, first and foremost, the most important part of marketing is to be a good lawyer. Though I have to admit I have seen it done, it is very difficult to develop business if you are a bad lawyer. The first two years of a lawyer’s legal career should be focused on learning, gaining valuable experience and finding mentors. The first couple of years of practicing law should also teach the new attorney something very important. What do they enjoy about the practice of law? In law school students learn about all areas of law. As a first and second year lawyer, they are able to figure out what areas of law they like to practice in. Do they like transactional work? Do they like to go to court? Do they like to write motions? Do they like to work with large companies? Do they enjoy helping the smaller start-ups? Do they enjoy being on the plaintiff’s side or the defendant’s? Do they enjoy the consumer based practices such as family law, bankruptcy and criminal law?

First and second year associates should also join their local bar association and participate in the young lawyers section and maintain their networks. They should go to lunch with law school classmates, take a friend from their undergraduate school out for coffee and reconnect over dinner with a high school classmate who owns a business.

The emphasis is on getting used to getting out of the office on an occasional basis and connecting one on one with people in their network.

Connecting with colleagues is crucial too. At any law firm there are individuals with varying personalities. While I am certainly not advocating that an individual needs to be best friends with everyone in the firm, in order to be successful, they must find ways to get along with these individuals.2

For the third, fourth and fifth year associates, the message is clearer. Have a focus. They should know what area of law they enjoy practicing in and should also be thinking about a niche to develop. This will help  differentiate them  from the crowd. They should find ways, or have a meeting or series of meetings with the Director of Marketing and Business Development, to figure out a plan to develop the niche and act on the plan.

The idea of developing an annual plan and implementing the plan should not end when the associate moves to the partner level. They shouldn’t forget what got them to where they are. Doing good work. Doing what they enjoy. Doing what differentiates them. And, doing what they need to do continue to bring that work in the door – successful marketing of him/herself.

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1 The concept of a partner retiring is the subject of a separate article. Rather than retirement, the model for lawyers seems to be to “fade away” or sadly, to die doing what they love or what they have no other choice except to keep doing. The reason behind this is far from simple, but likely lies in the lack of clear retirement plans for lawyers in place at firms that include client transition and financial security to the retiring lawyer.

2 If by individuals you think I am referring to just the lawyers in the firm, then shame on you. A law firm is a business with critical players in every sector that you must find ways to connect with and work with in order to be successful.

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[Nicole E. Ames, Esquire is Director of Marketing and Business Development at PK Law, the tenth largest law firm in the Baltimore, Maryland area. The firm’s core practice areas are corporate and business services, estate planning and elder law, labor and employment and litigation. Ms. Ames can be contacted at names@pklaw.com.]