he age-old debate among lawyers is whether the practice of law is a profession or a business. "Profession" implies that quality of work product trumps profitability, whereas "business" implies that the objective is to maximize profitability.
The truth is that the practice of law is both a profession and a business. The practice of law, like the other professions, such as the medical profession, requires that lawyers help clients solve their problems. But the business of law requires that electric bills and employees get paid.
As any fourth or fifth year law firm lawyer probably knows, the partnership track requires a young lawyer to attract and retain clients. Law firm job postings often provide that candidates be able to bring a certain dollar amount of “portable” business, meaning clients who will arrive with the attorney. Simply put, you can be a top law student with top credentials from a top school, but if you can’t attract clients you will limit your success potential within a law firm.
So, what’s the secret? How does a lawyer attract clients?
In my career, I’ve been on both sides of the transaction, that is the law firm side and the client side. I started my legal career as an attorney in a law firm, dealing with clients. Today, I am an in-house lawyer, and I procure the services of law firms. And this gives me a bit of a unique perspective on what it takes to attract and keep clients.
I believe that that if a lawyer acts as a professional and focuses on solving the client’s problems, the business aspect, to a great extent, resolves itself. This is because clients tend to send repeat business to effective lawyers. In addition, the successful lawyer understands the business equation; that is, she understands the value of solving the problem to the client. More importantly she is careful to ensure that the cost of the solution does not exceed its value to the client.
Achieving this equational balance is difficult because the value of the solution may be difficult to quantify. This, by the way, is where the comparison to doctors breaks down at least in some cases. In the case of a medical problem, the value to the patient may be infinite. For example, if a doctor can restore a your eyesight, how much would you be willing to pay? There, the value would be infinite. And in criminal cases, where a person’s liberty is at stake, the value of their freedom might justify expending countless hours in resolution and sparing no expense.
But in the case of a business or personal problem, the value is typically quantifiable to a very specific amount. Damages in a breach of contract action for example, may be the expected “benefit of the bargain.” If I don’t pay you for the car I bought from you, you most likely can quickly calculate how much I owe you. And if you hire a lawyer to sue me, that lawyer should rightfully be able to bill hours worked for her client. But there may be times when, for a variety of reasons, the cost exceeds the value. If you lose the car lawsuit and appeal it, you may quickly find yourself in a diminishing returns situation.
This is where the astute business lawyer can differentiate herself from the competition. By delivering value that exceeds the cost, a lawyer can earn the lifelong loyalty of a client, and that client’s friends and associates.
For example, one lawyer that I work focuses his practice in a specialized area of the law. I’ll call him “Stan”. He is one of the country’s foremost authorities on a highly specialized area of the law. There aren’t a lot of people who can do what he does. A less principled person might take advantage of the situation. When faced with a legal question, he could assign legions of young associates to research the issue. This would result in much dialogue, collaboration and legal memoranda. Eventually, many billable hours later, I would have my answer.
But Stan doesn’t work that way. First of all, he has massive internal knowledge and experience already imbedded into his process. In plain English- Stan knows a lot about his subject. So Stan doesn’t necessarily need to research every issue, or have an associate do it. Secondly, Stan doesn’t over-engineer the answer. In some cases, Stan answers my query with a simple “I would advise against it.” Further, Stan is incredibly responsive. He is available by email and telephone virtually any time I need him. Simply put, when I have a problem and I need help fast, Stan is the man.
This brings me to the point about rainmaking. A lot of young lawyers mistakenly believe that rainmaking is akin to selling, that it’s based on connections, relationships, schmoozing and the like. The very thought of this is enough to turn idealistic young lawyers’ stomachs. They didn’t get into the practice of law to schmooze. They got into it to help people. The very thought of schmoozing discourages young lawyers who know that rainmaking is critical to the partnership track.
However, the truth is that a good rainmaker is simply a good lawyer. A good rainmaker delivers value to the client that exceeds the client’s expectations. This, in turn, results in client loyalty and repeat business. As an in-house lawyer, I have engaged many lawyers. There were some that I worked with that I liked a great deal. There were others that I didn’t care for at all. But the common thread among all of the lawyers I continue to engage are the ones that delivered value that was worth the cost.
Certainly, to become a rainmaker, you need relationships with clients and potential clients. But more importantly, you need to develop your craft, your skill as a lawyer. You need to become a trusted advisor and problem-solver to your client.
There are numerous ways to begin to develop relationships- get involved in your community, your church or synagogue, your schools’ alumni association and the like. But having relationships without having a solid foundation as a lawyer will likely lead to short-term success at best. To develop the ability to attract and retain clients, you need to be the very best lawyer you can be. You need to consistently deliver client value. You need to develop a reputation as an ethical, responsive and effective lawyer. If you do, you will find yourself attracting and retaining clients without trying. And more importantly, you will be serving your community and profession in the best possible way, just as you had hoped when you started law school in the first place.