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November 01, 2005

Rainmaking By Associate Lawyers? What!?

I got an instructive comment in response to my October 30 post ("Asking Targeted Clients for Work...Or Why Are Lawyers So Shy, Anyway?"). It's from Chris Abraham, a talented non-lawyer D.C. friend of mine in his early thirties who works for a consulting firm. Chris, who is the kind of guy who will start his own telecom firm some day, commented:

I asked an Associate at a very prestigious firm here in DC if he did any Rain Making for his firm. He told me that Associates were strongly discouraged from doing sales and business development work --and if he were to, he wouldn't be compensated for it. When I bring rain to my firm -- do solid sales -- I get double-digit percentages as an employee. I wonder what the tradition is surrounding the lawyer concept of never wanting to appear needy, greedy, or salesman-like?

This is an old story at law firms--we discourage associate lawyers from developing clients--and it's bad for everybody involved: clients, associates and partners.

When I was an associate lawyer at a larger firm in the 1980's, one of the associates in my class was nearly fired for trying to develop his own clients. (He eventually quit to build his own fossil fuels company.) As an associate, like Chris's friend, I was also told by senior associates that I wouldn't get credit for landing clients. When I became a partner in that firm, I, of course, had no clients. But I was expected to suddenly get them, even though, by that time, I was not "client-oriented" in terms of knowing how to form real relationships with clients. I had some great experiences in my 12 years there, but the firm tended to eat its young.

Unfortunately, many law firms still follow this self-defeating practice despite the fact that associates are key to establishing a client-oriented culture. New associates in the firm Julie McGuire and I started in 1992 in DC and Pittsburgh are: (1) taught that Clients Are Everything, (2) asked to treat existing clients as their own and to deliver services so off-the-chart excellent and personal that they could "steal" (really!) existing clients from our firm if they wanted to (dudes, you are "marketing" while you deliver a service to an existing client--so be that good; we'll fight you for them later if you leave), and (3) told to start finding their own clients now. Oh yeah--if as an associate you develop good clients, and treat them well, you can get paid for that, too.

Posted by JD Hull at November 1, 2005 06:23 AM


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