As a young attorney, you've probably received advice to develop your legal skills, establish a reputation for professionalism and submit quality written work product. These are the building blocks of any successful law practice. However, in private practice, you ideally want to generate demand for your services with existing and new clients. In addition to the essential business development skills—marketing and networking—there are a number of other client-related skills that you can practice in the beginning of your career that will also help you increase your value within your firm or organization. In this article, I identify four of these skills, along with skill-sharpening tips.
Getting and Giving Legal Advice
As practicing attorneys, the legal knowledge and advice that we convey to colleagues, clients and courts is our stock in trade. In order to demonstrate your value as a counselor, you must be prepared to give sound and timely legal advice. The two basic ingredients needed to convert legal knowledge into practical advice—active listening and sound judgment—can be developed early on by newer attorneys.
In order to learn as much as possible as a newer attorney, you'll often be the one seeking out advice from your more experienced colleagues. Before asking for advice, I have always found it helpful to first develop a proposed solution or answer on my own. Keep in mind that you may have the most knowledge of the facts of a case or situation, putting you in a better position to perform the initial analysis. Even if your proposed solution is flawed, going through the process will help you develop your legal judgment and allow your colleagues to give you better feedback.
As you gain experience, the moment will arrive when a current or prospective client calls you to ask for advice in your developing area of expertise. Even if you're not comfortable with giving comprehensive advice on the spot, you can still provide value to the client and practice your counseling skills by practicing your active listening skills. Keep the conversation going and ask a few questions to fill in gaps that the client may have left out, including how quickly a decision must be made. Even after only two or three years practicing in a given area, you'll begin to develop instincts about when a client is venturing into a risky area. Don't be afraid to identify the risk and identify the pros and cons of a proposed course of action to help the client make an informed decision. If needed, follow up promptly after you've had a chance to do further research and run your proposed solution past a senior colleague.
Get the Next Project
When interacting with a colleague or client, your goal should always be to convince that person to choose you for his or her next project. Early in your career, the best way for you to practice this skill is with the senior attorneys with whom you are working. When interacting with your colleagues, don't think of the legal research, memo or brief you are assigned as a discrete project, but rather a foot in the door to additional opportunities. To continue the analogy, put yourself in the shoes of the assigning attorney and be sure you understand his or her overall goals. The information you obtain during the first meeting is critical to your success. Don't forget to ask confirming questions to make sure that you're on the same page about what is expected and what you don't need to focus on. This will help you work more efficiently.
After the first meeting, keep thinking critically and see if you can spot issues that your senior colleague may have missed that you may be able to assist with. Being responsive and following up on your own increases your value and puts you in a position to be assigned more work. Later in your career, you'll apply these same skills when working with your own clients.
Marketing and Expanding your Network
Legal marketing is a creature of statistics. To maximize the chance that a potential client will think about you at the precise moment they need legal help, you must do two things: (1) increase the number of people who consider you an expert in your practice area, and (2) reinforce that reputation over time through published articles, speaking engagements, etc. Following through with these steps can feel counterintuitive for two reasons: (1) it takes away from time to handle actual legal work with deadlines, and (2) some of your networking efforts may not directly lead to new clients.
If you are interested in the independence that can be gained through establishing your own book of business, you must banish those concerns from your mind and set aside time to work on networking. One good habit to establish early on is to take a short break during the day to work on a marketing idea that interests you. Even in the absence of an immediate reward, the simple act of making a phone call to a potential client or referral source, choosing an article topic or signing up for an event that you are interested in counts as progress. My rule of thumb is to always have a handful of marketing projects in the works so that I have something to do during these marketing breaks.
A senior attorney once told me that the practice of law is a lifestyle. While this is accurate, I maintain that there is one important caveat: You do not need to give up your passions outside of the realm of the law to be a successful attorney. To the contrary, your goal should be to make the oft-discussed concept of work-life balance work for you. As young attorneys, we are often still connected to organizations and activities that we were passionate about before we became lawyers. Rather than starting your networking efforts from scratch, incorporate these organizations and peer groups into your practice by making sure that your peers know your area of expertise.
Last but not least, when networking, look for opportunities to help others as opposed to focusing on how others can help you. Volunteering with an organization you care about or sharing your knowledge via a blog, presentation or published article will increase the chances that a potential client will think of you when they need help down the road.
Closing the Deal
As a young attorney, you should try to gain experience closing the deal with an actual client as soon as you get the opportunity. The fact that your first client may not be a big client is irrelevant. The practical skills you will learn by bringing in a smaller client, such as drafting a retainer letter, checking for conflicts and discussing your fee, will be similar for larger clients as well. If anything, these initial small clients are more important because they represent additional opportunities for referrals.
Early in your career, it's not unusual to be approached by potential clients with legal needs outside of your area of expertise. Be honest with these potential clients about what types of matters you handle, but also take the opportunity to practice your business development skills by playing matchmaker. First, market others in your firm with the appropriate expertise and take the initiative to connect the potential client to the attorney best suited to help them. If a potential client needs expertise that cannot be found within your organization, do the legwork and find them the best referral you can. In the long term, these efforts will help you build good will with colleagues, other members of the bar and potential clients as well.
In the course of my career so far, I have found that practicing the above skills is rewarding and has put me on course to become a well-rounded attorney. Hopefully, you will find these tips helpful in establishing your own practice.
Ivo Becica is a member of Obermayer Rebmann Maxwell & Hippel's labor relations and employment law department, where he focuses his practice on counseling management regarding labor and employment issues and defending employment-related litigation brought under state and federal law.
The information contained in this publication should not be construed as legal advice, is not a substitute for legal counsel, and should not be relied on as such. For legal advice or answers to specific questions, please contact one of our attorneys.
Reprinted with permission from the February 13, 2014 edition of THE LEGAL INTELLIGENCER © 2014 ALM Media Properties, LLC. All rights reserved. Further duplication without permission is prohibited. For information, contact 347-227-3382, firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.almreprints.com.