The Importance of Client Development—Revisited

Client development is the single most important requirement for your success in the law.  You have heard it from me before, and you will hear it again.  It seems to be at the bottom of most of the dilemmas and career disappointments that I hear from women lawyers today.   Women lawyers, both young and older, are finding out at different points in their careers just how important client development is—-or was.

Having your own clients gives you independence, and independence is what protects your job security.  If you have developed your own clients and can walk out the door with them, the invitation to walk out the door—the pink slip or RIF—-may never come—- or your decision to try something different than your law firm will be an easier one to make.  You have developed something of value by having clients that are loyal to you, and that loyalty is apparent to everyone around you.  Ushering you out the door is inviting clients to go with you and affects law firm profits.  That is never a good thing for a law firm.

Why am I harping on this again?  Two reasons.  First of all, I was recently in a conversation with a woman lawyer, who felt helpless at the end of her career because she had no personal clients and her law firm was shutting down.  This is a real dilemma, and you do not want to risk it happening to you.  It is the result of Old Rules vs. New Rules, and it is not clear at all that any of us should have seen it coming.

It is no longer enough to be “the best lawyer you can be.” Under the New Rules, you now must be “the saviest best lawyer you can be.”  Today, it is simply not enough to sit in an office for most of your career doing really good work for other people’s clients.  What  worked 15 years ago does not work any more.  Here’s why.

Years ago law firms were structured in a way that fulfilled the expectation that the top dogs at the law firms get the clients, have younger lawyers work on client matters, and eventually pass the work down to those younger lawyers when the top dogs retired.  Sounds simple.  And, it worked pretty well for a lot of years because the top dogs who had the work were able to keep the work, and then they retired and passed the work on.

However, enter competition—the kind of competition that pitted law firms against other law firms bidding for the same client work.  It was competition like our profession had never experienced before.  Add to that the economic downturn where potential clients were holding back on expenditures for legal services, and the top dogs did not want to share their clients with other lawyers.  Suddenly they needed all the billable hours they could muster to justify top salaries in the not-so-great economic time.

Are you beginning to see the problem?  Now consider that many of the top dog baby boomer lawyers have not been retiring during the recession, and not as much work is flowing downhill to the mid-level partners.  As I am sure you recognize by now, this is a real problem for the mid-level and younger lawyers who do not have their own clients and are not inheriting them as readily as in days gone by.

So, be smart.  Be savvy.  Get out of your cubicle and sharpen your client development skills.  If you do not have those skills at all, find a mentor who can help you learn them.  Be creative.  Look for clients in your professional life and in your personal life.   Get involved with bar associations, where you can develop relationships with lawyers who will give you conflict work, and get involved in the trade associations and other industry groups where the clients you want hang out.  Although you will have to do much of this before and after your typical workday, you must find some way to do it.

And don’t forget the development opportunities in your personal life.  Never overlook an opportunity to talk to your friends about legal services they might need, and consider every person you meet in your personal life a potential client.  Read my books and find out how to do that without offending everyone and losing your friends.  It is possible, and it is critical to your future independence as a lawyer.

Here’s the second thing that got me thinking about all of this again.  An article in on March 23rd really got my attention.  That article, “Can Women Over 50 “Lean In”? addressed the problems for women either trying to re-enter the workforce after having children or women who cut back on their workload and are trying to ramp up again.  The author points out that “leaning in”, as advised by Sheryl Sandberg, does not work for women in those situations for a variety of reasons, including a disconnect with business and skills during the hiatus period and what really amounts to veiled age discrimination.

Although the article is not specific to women lawyers, I could not help but think of women lawyers when I read it.  One thought kept coming back to me:  Wouldn’t it be easier for those women lawyers over 50 to find their places in the workforce if they had paid more attention to gaining and retaining clients during their earlier careers?   Unfortunately, many of these women practiced under the Old Rules and could not have anticipated this rule change.  I sympathize with their situations, and I wish I had better answers for them.  We all have seen huge paradigm shifts in the economy and in business in recent years, and this is just another one of them.  Past as prologue, learn from it and don’t forget what you learn.

Job security.  That is what it is all about and why client development is and will be so important to all of you. Protect your future.  Client development is like putting money in the bank.  It just makes sense, and it can make a huge difference in how your career unfolds.

And that is why I keep talking about it.

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Thought For The Day

When you look long into an abyss, the abyss also looks into you.

Friedrich Nietzsche

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Thought For The Day

If you have an hour to save the world, spend 55 minutes on understanding the problem and 5 minutes on solving it.

Albert Einstein

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Are You Ready for Career Coaching?

Are you ready to take the next step in your career, but you are not sure it is the right step?  Or, are you confused about what that next step should be?

Maybe you are not getting the feedback that you expect from your supervising attorneys, and you do not know why.  Are you expecting feedback that is unreasonable under the circumstances?   Are you unrealistic about the value of your contributions?  Does the problem lie with you or with someone else?

Or you are not getting the work assignments that you want and that you feel entitled to.  What can you do about it?  How much can you push for the results you want without being offensive and damaging your future professional prospects?

You know that you need to develop clients, but you do not know how to do it.  You cannot imagine adding one more thing to your plate, but you cannot meet your core competencies without showing growth in the client development department.  How can you handle this dilemma?

The responsibilities of your personal life and your professional life are too much for you, and you need to cut back at the office.  How do you do that?  What are the conversations you need to have?  How do you even start those conversations?  Who do you start them with?

Do any of these scenarios sound familiar?  Most young women  lawyers struggle with these issues and need a guide to help them through the morass of questions and introspective thinking required to come up with a workable plan.  Although you may have mentors and sponsors at the law firm, you may not feel comfortable talking about these issues with them.  Although there are lots of career guides on the market, most of them are not specific to law practice and don’t seem to make a lot of sense to you.

What should you do?  Where should you start?

You can start by reading my books to assure yourself that you are not alone in these concerns and in your confusion.  Best Friends at the Bar:  What Women Need to Know about a Career in the Law and Best Friends at the Bar:  The New Balance for Today’s Woman Lawyer were written with you in mind.  These books are full of advice on all of the above questions and more.  It is not only my experience and expertise that you gain through reading the books but also the experience and expertise of more than 70 women lawyers and judges who have been there and done that.  The anecdotes from the contributors to Book One and the transition profiles of women lawyers in Book Two are  invaluable to problem solving on the job and making the choices that you will have to make for effective career planning.

After reading the books, let me continue to be your guide.  I would love to help you on your exciting journey as a woman lawyer, and I would love to talk to you about how we can work together in getting you where you want to go.  Contact me through my web site and talk to me about how we can work together.

Career coaching is a joy for me, and I am hearing from more and more women lawyers—-both young and older—who need the clarity from confusion and the sense of direction that good career coaching can provide.  When the time comes, let me take that step with you.

In the meantime, remember that it is the rare person who experiences success completely on her own.  We all need guidance, a little push and sometimes a shoulder to lean on along the way.   Know when to ask for help by reading my books………….then contact me.  It will be a pleasure to take your call and work with you.

You will find that it is easier than you think—-specially when you have a partner on the journey.

Career Counselors, Law Students, Practice Advice, Young Lawyer | 50 Comments

Thought For The Day

The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any.

Alice Walker

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Thought For The Day

I’ve always believed [that] a woman brought the ability to negotiate and the ability to understand the importance of trying to work together.

Former Senator Nancy Kassebaum

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Thought For The Day

Take care of your body.  It’s the only place you have to live.

Jim Rohn

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Damage Control for the Female Talent Drain

Finally.  Some action to stop the perpetual talent drain resulting from women leaving the workforce because of the challenges of conflicting home/family and professional life responsibilities.  It is very good news that a consulting giant like McKinsey is tackling the problem and trying to recruit women back to the company—specifically those women who left because of work-life issues.  In the Wall Street Journal on-line article, McKinsey Tries to Recruit Mothers Who Left the Fold, it is clear that, although it is not yet a company-wide policy, it is a first sign that companies are “re-examining some of the most basic terms of women’s working lives.”

The author of the WSJ article, Leslie Kwoh, cites the impact on highly skilled professions like consulting and banking—-and I certainly would add law to that list—of the loss of talent to the work-life challenges. The article also discusses the efforts of other consulting companies in tackling the women talent drain issues and launching innovative programs.

Bravo and compliments to McKinsey!  I hope this catches on in law firms.  We are losing so many talented women lawyers because of work-life issues, and we must do something to get them back and get them to stay.  Although I always encourage young women to look within themselves for the strength to handle the responsibilities of our profession and how it uniquely affects women, I also know that institutional solutions are very important and necessary.  It is high time for law firms and other law employers to address these issues—-to safeguard diversity and to protect best practices, if for nothing else.  Businesses should understand the value of talent to the quality of services and products but also to the succession plans that need to be in place when the Baby Boomers start retiring.

AND that will happen as soon as the economy show signs of permanent recovery.  You can bet on it.  If the female mid-level associates and young partners have left and taken all their experience and talent, what will there be to replace them when the Boomers need to pass the work down into capable hands?  New associates?  I don’t think so.  They are still too low on the learning curve to handle that.  Male mid-level associates?  Perhaps, but statistics show that it is women students who are at the top of law school classes in terms of GPAs and honors and represent the best in the talent pool.  So, it is risky business to have all that important institutional client work passed into the hands of the not-so accomplished.  Lateral hires?  That gets pretty expensive, and good business folks should want another solution.

That solution is so obvious.  Make arrangements in the workplace to allow the mommy/lawyers to stay on the  job in a capacity that will satisfy their desires to use their educations and talents on quality work and to also have more time to deal with their dual roles—whether that is flex time or part-time or some other variation.  Get creative and protect the natural resources that women lawyers represent.  Women are very loyal employees.  Be good to them, and they will be good to you.  Make it a win-win solution.

Let’s work together to plug the talent drain.  Women lawyers will see their children leave the nest, and they will experience new energy and enthusiasm for their professional lives.  They will light the afterburners!  Because, at that point, they can.  If law firms have created safe harbors during the very challenging work-life years, providing those safe harbors will pay off in spades.

But, you have to try it to see if you like it!  Just like Mikey in those beloved cereal commercials.  Sitting on the sidelines will not get the job done.

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