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Developing Skills For a Successful Legal Career

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Know what you want in your career

Just as successful law firms set goals and devise strategies to achieve them, new lawyers must ask them-selves, "What do I want to accomplish in 1 year, 2 years, 5 years, et cetera?" and take the initiative to chart their own professional development. And, consciously or not, most firms expect their associates to take the initiative in building skills for a successful career. Similar to the planning phases of other processes you have undertaken, career planning involves setting realistic, achievable long and short term goals, and developing strategies and tasks to reach them.

You can begin setting your goals, absorb what is going on around you. Identify capabilities needed to become an able lawyer and to succeed in your law firm. You will find that successful lawyers possess multifaceted capabilities that often include managing a team of lawyers and legal assistants on significant client matters and developing clients, as well as contributing an important expertise, producing a designated amount of work, and honing legal writing, negotiating, and oral presentation skills. Also develop an awareness of economic realities influencing the firm's goals and strategies such as competition for clients and recruits, types of operating costs, its search for ways to increase efficiency, and investment made in new associate lawyers.

Determine how you can draw upon firm resources in carrying out career planning strategies. Assess how you can better use your supervising attorneys' guidance to develop substantive expertise and certain practical skills. For example, if you are in the litigation practice area, create an opportunity to observe your supervising attorney's courtroom skills. Prepare a list of factors to observe about his or her strategy and style. Then record your observations.

Also consider requesting that the supervising attorney attend and critique one of our negotiating sessions, a deposition, et cetera. Also locate and tap outside resources such as seminars and articles on effective speaking or negotiation that will be valuable tools in building capabilities, such as those listed below.

The following is a partial list of capabilities to evaluate as goals, or as strategic prerequisites to reach other goals you define:
  • Client Communications Skills
  • Client Development Skills
  • Courtroom/Arbitration Skills
  • Creativity
  • Delegation and Supervision Skills
  • Knowledge of an Industry's Practices, Problems, Trends
  • Legal Writing Skills: Advisory, Persuasive, Technical
  • Meeting Skills
  • Negotiation Skills
  • Oral Presentation Skills
  • Productivity/Workload and Time Management
  • Project Management Skills
  • Specialized Expertise — Mastering a Niche

List specific, realistic actions or tasks to carry out your strategy and determine how you will measure the results.
Assign dates by which action will be taken on each step; without assigning dates to intentions, it is likely
that the actions will not be taken. Record and track the nonbillable time spent in developing these skills.

  • To begin to chart your career, set short and long term goals.
  • Subdivide goals into achievable objectives.
  • Develop strategy to reach the objectives.
  • Plan and take specific, realistic — and measureable — actions.
  • Track the effectiveness of each step;
  • Make adjustments.

Start developing your business skills

As firms respond to external economic pressures, many are redefining their expectations of associate lawyers. More are placing client development responsibilities upon senior associates. Others are assessing an associate's capabilities to develop, manage, and retain clients when considering his or her potential for partnership levels. What are your firm's expectations?

New associates can begin to devote thought and preparation to this additional expectation by becoming aware of:
  • How the firm generates business
  • Firm's policies and procedures on screening and accepting new clients
  • Future client development responsibilities
  • Groundwork needed to lay in building client development capabilities

In some firms, associate lawyers are introduced to marketing activities and encouraged to participate. Other firms provide little notice of forthcoming client development responsibilities or preparatory direction. Therefore, the purpose of this chapter is to provide some ideas you can adapt, to undertake a focused, realistic planning process.

Planning Prerequisite: Know Your Firm's Services and Client Markets

During the interview process, you evaluated various firms and their practices to determine which was the best choice. What qualities did the firm you selected project that gained your interest and set it apart from competitors?

More firms are identifying and targeting specific client markets and they are adapting their services to respond to the market needs. Some of the services cut across practice areas. For example, services offered to start up high technology companies require a range of expertise including corporate, intellectual property, tax, and financing. Other services, such as appellate representation, are performed within a single department.

Acquaint yourself with your firm's key services and "products" and with the benefits and features of each in terms that are meaningful to potential clients and referral sources. Read the firm's client newsletters. Attend firm and department breakfasts or luncheons. Notice what client meetings are scheduled for conference rooms. Also become aware of opportunities, problems, and trends in key clients' industries that shape or influence a client's objectives and expectations of the lead lawyer and the firm team. Your client-oriented research will help you refine and apply your substantive expertise and your delivery of services to respond to client needs. It will also assist you in identifying prospective clients and future referral sources among your contacts.

By finding out what other departments and practice areas do, you will also become better able to recognize when a client has a need for a service in which another department specializes. For example, a litigation client who is a real estate developer mentions to an associate working on the case that he will need financing for a transaction. The associate comments that the firm specializes in working closely with financial institutions on behalf of its clients to assure that all aspects of a transaction are appropriately structured and coordinated and cites an example from the firm's newsletter. He also informs the client that a team of real estate and financial services lawyers specializes in assisting in the formation of joint ventures between developers and institutional investors. The associate relates the conversation to the supervising attorney.

Find Out How To Handle Prospective Client Inquiries

You will have opportunities to attract potential clients to the firm. A friend or relative may ask you to handle a matter, or may inquire whether your firm provides certain legal services. To respond in a businesslike manner, find out now what your firm's and department's policies, procedures, or expectations are in qualifying a potential client and submitting a matter to the office. Many firms have a new business committee to screen prospective matters; others require a partner's written approval for new clients. Also learn the categories of information that must be gathered from a prospective client to perform a search for potential conflicts of interest with current or former clients.

Make a Good First Impression

Observe your rainmakers' styles. How do they at-tract clients? They begin with an attitude that every new acquaintance is a potential client or referral source. When they meet someone at an event, good business developers are alert to note his or her expression of a particular interest, hobby, and so forth, and to comment about it. They listen carefully, gather information, and show an interest in what the person shares with them. They also are quick to spot opportunities to tell people what they do and to cause them to share their business concerns and needs.

Before setting a meeting with a prospective client, they conduct research about his or her business and personal interests. They communicate effectively be-cause they have gathered information about the client's needs before describing the benefits of their own services, and appear comfortable with the client's jargon and style. Your rainmakers make potential clients believe that they understand their goals and will devise a way to reach them lawfully. They convey such intangibles as trustworthiness, availability, concern, judgment, and their reputations. They have laid ground-work over a number of years; rarely have any rainmaker's beginning client development efforts been rewarded with the engagement of a major client.

You can stimulate a potential client's and referral source's interest in your firm, always be prepared to answer the questions, "What business are you in?" "What kind of law do you practice?" Communicate the benefits of what you do and your firm's services to maximize the possibility that you will be remembered when a need arises. For example, if you mention that you are part of the business organization group that specializes in assisting business owners reach financing and estate planning objectives, you are more apt to prompt further inquiry than if you merely say, "I am a lawyer" or "I practice corporate law." Look over your firms brochure for examples of networthy transactions, as well as good descriptions of the firms practice areas, so you can respond effectively.

Instead of making "direct" inquiries (such as "What law firm do you use?" or "What legal problems are you facing?"), mention a recurring legal issue that others in the industry are facing. For example, to stimulate discussion of a potential client's needs the lawyer mentions to a new employer of a 200-employee business that a trap which many new employers encounter is failing to comply with overtime pay requirements for non-exempt personnel. Although that employer has taken care of this particular problem, the lawyer's comment may prompt him to mention a problem that he does have.
Situation 5: Last month you encountered this situation:

How would you describe what you and your firm do the next time?

Develop Relationships with Counterparts in Client Organizations

A marketing activity that is closely aligned to an associate's practice is developing and maintaining relationships with counterparts in a client organization. A staff attorney or employee in a client company with whom you work can influence the client's perception of you and your firm. In addition, he or she may later become a decision maker or influencer in engaging outside counsel in that organization, or in another. A staff attorney in a client law department may be placed in charge of litigation, compliance, real estate transactions, and so forth, and be authorized to hire outside counsel as needed. For example, a lending officer with whom you work may switch companies and possess discretion to select counsel to handle environmental aspects of transactions involving real estate.

Develop and Maintain Referral Sources Other lawyers may become a significant source of referrals as your career progresses. If your firm specializes in some services that a colleague's firm does not offer its clients, that lawyer may be ideally positioned to refer matters to you. Practitioners in other communities and regions may also be promising sources of referrals.

Develop relationships with peers in other businesses as well as with other lawyers. For example, advisors whose clients frequently need business or estate planning legal services include: CPAs, lenders, brokers, insurance agents, and financial consultants. Develop and maintain periodic contact with referral sources over a breakfast or lunch and by sending them articles that would interest them. In-house corporate counsel are also excellent sources of referrals as well as potential or existing clients.
  • List advisors with whom you are acquainted.
  • Name Occupation
  • Do you know whether their firms have referred clients to your firm?

Build a Biographical Information Base

Find out whether your firm has a data base that captures marketing information. Also become familiar with its other data bases that can serve as marketing resources, particularly an automated conflicts of interest check system.

Create and build an information base of potential clients and referral sources; use it as a tool to assist you in maintaining contact with potential clients and referral sources. Collect information about their companies (and other business relationships) including: products/services, ownership, management team members, board of directors, the company's market share and competition, philosophy and culture, business goals, objectives, charitable organizations it supports, and so forth. In addition, obtain personal biographical information such as birthdays, children's names and ages, spouse, hobbies, boards, and civic organizations in which they are active. People are impressed when others remember personal interests they have shared; it demonstrates interest in the respective person and can go a long way toward creating the impression that you would also show interest in their legal matters.

Leverage Your Speeches or Articles

When it becomes appropriate or expected that you write articles or deliver speeches, begin identifying subject matter of interest to existing and potential clients and referral source audiences (markets). Determine how to develop a topic into an article of significance to a specific client or referral market. Leverage your preparation time into multiple uses — that is, seek more than one audience for your presentation or article. For example, suppose you will make a presentation on the formation and start-up of a new business for a state bar institute. Determine to which additional nonlawyer groups the talk can be tailored with minimal additional work.

Topic Initial Use Other Uses

Develop High Profile Involvement in an Organization

Another task in laying groundwork for future practice development is thoughtful selection of (or reevaluation of) memberships in civic organizations. Belonging to an organization, whether solely for personal enrichment or also for eventual client development, is a worthwhile use of your time only if you participate. Following a systematic process in researching and assessing options maximizes the likelihood that you will select organizations in whose objectives you are interested and in which your participation will become personally meaningful and eventually visible.

Factors to research about an organization include: its philosophy, goals, and recent accomplishments; its leadership, membership diversity, and turnover; the industry and business affiliations of its members; the opportunities it provides to build visibility; how much time you would have to commit; and so forth.

As you explore bar organizations and committees, assess how your participation can contribute to your marketing activities, as well as to your professional development and exchange of ideas and information. How would active involvement help you gain speaking engagements at CLE seminars, develop specialized expertise on the competitive edge of a practice area, generate referrals, and so forth?

Organization Plan for Participation

Improve Practical Knowledge of an Industry

List industries that your practice area targets for specific services. Find out what strategies are used to attract that business. For example, some firms have industry teams who focus on developing major accounts or entrepreneurial businesses in targeted industries and geographic locations.

Select a key industry and formulate a plan to be-come knowledgeable of its business practices and trends, companies with significant market share, trade associations, jargon, and so forth. Also become aware of pending legislation and innovations that will impact future business decisions and will create compliance problems. Identify legal/ business problems that employers in the industry are facing. This research will serve as a tool to anticipate opportunities to develop expertise and clients in em-erging specialty areas.
  • Industry:
  • Acquaintances employed in that industry:
  • Name Occupation Title
  • Sources of written data about the industry/client's business:
  • Data Sought Source

Use Firm Tools and Resources

Your firm may have developed a range of tools or resources for its members' use in marketing activities. Become acquainted with them and how they are effectively used. They may include:
  • Firm or practice area marketing plan
  • Brochures, capability packages
  • Data bases
  • Firm sponsored seminars
  • Articles
  • Press releases
  • Event tickets
  • Open houses
  • Community organization involvement opportunities
  • Announcements
  • Newsletters
  • Market research, surveys


What marketing expectations, if any, does your firm have of each associate level?

You can lay groundwork to meet your firm's and your own expectations by:
  • Knowing your firm's key services and client markets.
  • Handling prospective client inquiries effectively.
  • Making a good first impression: every new acquaintance may become a potential client or referral source.
  • Developing relationships with counterparts in existing and potential client organizations.
  • Developing referral sources.
  • Identifying topics for articles and speeches of interest to clients and referral sources.
  • Leveraging your speeches and articles.
  • Developing meaningful involvement in an organization.
  • Building a biographical information data base.
  • Improving practical knowledge of a key industry's problems and trends using your firm's tools and resources.

About Harrison Barnes
Harrison Barnes is the founder of LawCrossing and an internationally recognized expert in attorney search and placement. Harrison is extremely committed to and passionate about the profession of legal placement. Harrison’s writings about attorney careers and placement attract millions of reads each year. LawCrossing has been ranked on the Inc. 500 twice. For more information, please visit Harrison Barnes’ bio.

About LawCrossing
LawCrossing has received tens of thousands of attorneys jobs and has been the leading legal job board in the United States for almost two decades. LawCrossing helps attorneys dramatically improve their careers by locating every legal job opening in the market. Unlike other job sites, LawCrossing consolidates every job in the legal market and posts jobs regardless of whether or not an employer is paying. LawCrossing takes your legal career seriously and understands the legal profession. For more information, please visit www.LawCrossing.com.

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Harrison Barnes does a weekly free webinar with live Q&A for attorneys and law students each Wednesday at 10:00 am PST. You can attend anonymously and ask questions about your career, this article, or any other legal career-related topics. You can sign up for the weekly webinar here: Register on Zoom

Harrison also does a weekly free webinar with live Q&A for law firms, companies, and others who hire attorneys each Wednesday at 10:00 am PST. You can sign up for the weekly webinar here: Register on Zoom

You can browse a list of past webinars here: Webinar Replays

You can also listen to Harrison Barnes Podcasts here: Attorney Career Advice Podcasts

You can also read Harrison Barnes' articles and books here: Harrison's Perspectives

Harrison Barnes is the legal profession's mentor and may be the only person in your legal career who will tell you why you are not reaching your full potential and what you really need to do to grow as an attorney--regardless of how much it hurts. If you prefer truth to stagnation, growth to comfort, and actionable ideas instead of fluffy concepts, you and Harrison will get along just fine. If, however, you want to stay where you are, talk about your past successes, and feel comfortable, Harrison is not for you.

Truly great mentors are like parents, doctors, therapists, spiritual figures, and others because in order to help you they need to expose you to pain and expose your weaknesses. But suppose you act on the advice and pain created by a mentor. In that case, you will become better: a better attorney, better employees, a better boss, know where you are going, and appreciate where you have been--you will hopefully also become a happier and better person. As you learn from Harrison, he hopes he will become your mentor.

To read more career and life advice articles visit Harrison's personal blog.

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