Client Development

How Law Firms Drive Associates Crazy – Part 2

(About the Marketing Thing)

New lawyers have a lot to learn about both the law, and how to practice law.  Typically doing that will take up their entire workday, and then some.

At some larger firms, the “marketing thing” is not really a thing at all, because those firms are looking to serve existing institutional and other large clients, and they do not need their associates distracted and their billable hours decreased by spending time trying to find new clients.   In that respect, their associates have one less thing to worry about.

Even at some medium sized and smaller firms where marketing by all lawyers is often more highly valued, the prevailing wisdom may be that lawyers in their first few years of practice should concentrate on learning their craft and developing their confidence, and that marketing can happen after that.  I subscribed to that theory for many years.  In fact, the most entrepreneurial articling student that I ever met kind of rubbed me the wrong way a bit, because I thought that he seemed too anxious to get on with the selling thing before the learning thing. (It may be that I was wrong about that.)

On the other hand, most lawyers cannot learn to turn on the marketing switch overnight, and many new lawyers have no natural inclination toward marketing.  (In my much younger days my attitude was that I became a lawyer because I did not want to be a salesperson.  Little did I know…).

Firms must learn to balance these attitudes towards marketing.  On the one hand, they must ensure that in their early years their associates are spending the required time to learn their craft.  On the other hand, they cannot ignore “the marketing thing” and then expect their associates to easily become marketing machines in their later years.

A firm that I was associated with got a few things very right about the marketing thing.  This firm was committed to have every associate involved in marketing from their earliest days at the firm, with their responsibility for marketing increasing as they became more senior.  To support that, there were some formal training sessions and access to a marketing consultant.  In their first year as a lawyer, an associate’s marketing responsibilities were quite limited.  For example, for the most part their marketing responsibilities were limited to writing articles for publication and to learning how to handle themselves at a reception.   

Some of the useful knowledge bites that I recall from the education about how to handle yourself at a reception were: 

(a) always hold your glass in your left hand so that when you shake hands with your right hand it will not be clammy;

(b) you are there to mingle, not to eat, so eat before the guests arrive or after they leave;

(c) always have your glass less than ½ full so that if you get caught speaking to someone who will not let you go you can say you are going to refresh your drink (and not come back);  

(d) approach a group of people where there is already a lawyer in the firm speaking so that lawyer can introduce you to the group and then extract themself;

(e) once you are in the group, introduce another lawyer from the firm after awhile and extract yourself and find a new group;  

(f) be prepared to say who you are and what you do, and if you are very junior just admit that you are in the learning stage and feel so lucky to be learning from ‘whoever’ at the firm, who is just ‘oh so talented’;

(g) be ready to speak about things other than law, which frankly usually bores the client; and

(h) look for opportunities to introduce clients to each other or to lawyers in the firm who they do not already deal with, particularly in areas of practice for which the client is not yet using the firm. 

All basic stuff, but it can be quite new to very junior people. 

Now, none of the above drives associates crazy.   What drives associates crazy is being told how important marketing is while they have a large billable hour target and are still learning how to practice law efficiently.  

In my firm, we tried to address this by giving each associate a “non-billable hour” target to attach importance to marketing. However, the associates quickly surmised that they would be in far more trouble for not reaching the billable target than the non-billable target and acted accordingly, which was often consistent with their initial inclination to avoid marketing.  After all, few people go into law school because they see themselves as natural salespeople and given the slightest off-ramp, they will take it.  And perhaps that is as it should be – if you are busy with client matters, they do have to be the priority.

What should drive associates crazy about the marketing thing is that eventually putting off developing a client base catches up to them and they start hearing about how they will not become a partner because they do not have a client base, or that their salary has been capped because they are not able to contribute beyond what the more junior lawyers contribute, or even in some cases that they are no longer welcome to remain at the firm, especially in an economic downturn. 

The client base that those associates do not have is the very same client base that they might have developed if they were not inundated with billable work and receiving the subtle message that they could put aside their marketing efforts if their billings were high enough.  In some firms, there might have been little effort to teach the associates how to market themselves and they may even have been excluded from client meetings or marketing events where they could observe how it is done.  There may even have been active discouragement of their marketing efforts.  But eventually it often comes home to roost, and that is guaranteed to drive anyone crazy. The lesson to young lawyers:  At many firms, and especially at medium sized and smaller firms, your transportable client base is your job security.  Don’t go too long before learning how to develop it.

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