Firm Culture

How Quickly My Good Idea Becomes Your Great Idea

Now and then I will tell a story about something that I did back in the day when my wife Maureen and I practiced at the same law firm. Typically my story involves a brilliant legal strategy that I developed, a big win, and a grateful client.

Occasionally Maureen will observe, “how quickly my good idea becomes your great idea.” Her point, I guess, is that she was the brilliant one and I just took her idea and ran with it. It could have happened that way. It was a long time ago and it really is not in my interest to remember the details that clearly.

In my early years of practice, I joined a medium sized firm in Mississauga, Ontario. I had 4 ½ years under my belt and my job was to head up the business law practice.

At my firm there were two main rainmakers.

Sid would get a referral in for a corporate matter, meet with the client together with me and then tell the client, “Murray is your guy. He knows a lot more than I do about this stuff and will do a great job for you. You can always call me if you want to, but I know that you won’t have to.”  Off I would go with a new client who would eventually be “my” client, even though Sid had brought them in.

The other equally accomplished rainmaker had a different style. I will call him Greg. Greg would tell the client that I was the guy who was assisting him by doing the drafting. If the client had any questions, they had to call Greg. Although he never said it (at least in my presence), somehow the clients all knew that I and the other associates helping Greg on his files were competent to do the work, but only if Greg was there supervising and making the strategic decisions.

When I was working with Sid’s clients and I had a brilliant idea, they knew that the idea originated with me. That built their confidence in me and over time the relationship deepened.

When I worked with Greg, somehow the clients had the impression that the really good ideas came from Greg, even when in fact they had originated with me. They had confidence in me as someone who got the work done on a timely basis and could draft a document which reflected the business deal, but that was all that I would ever be to them – a competent technician.

When both Sid and Greg left the firm for jobs in industry, Sid’s clients stayed with me and Greg’s clients left.

Both Sid and Greg were strategic, and both had achieved their goals.

Sid wanted to expand the firm and his client origination credits without being responsible for all of the file work. He empowered me and a number of other associates to achieve exactly that.

Greg wanted to maximize his client base and compensation without taking any risk that his associates would steal his clients out from under him. He was successful at doing that.

My point? In law firms there is a lot of talk about building teams, training, and mentoring. All of that talk is only as good as the attitudes of the rainmakers who dole out the work.

When I finally became something of a rainmaker and I had the opportunity to delegate work and supervise and mentor junior lawyers, I used to say that my goal was to empower my associates and hope that they stayed at the firm because they wanted to be there, not because they had no other options.  Some of my partners took the same approach. Others kept their clients close to their vest.

If you are a new associate at a firm, try to figure out what the goals of the rainmakers are. That will tell you a great deal about how long you will want to stay at your firm and how much money you might make while you are there. 

Better yet, become a rainmaker and be the one with the choices.

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