The Musings of

Something full of magic, religion, bullsh*t.

Monday, March 14, 2005

They didn't teach that in law school . . .

Wandering through the blawg universe is sometimes like returning to law school. You hear terms that you haven't had to ponder in years, like the "rule against perpetuities" and "spring break." Having practiced for a couple of years, it's interesting to look back on what I didn't know about the practice of law -- even after clerking during the summer. I figured that some of these students and wannabee students would like a glimpse into practice that they may not normally see (outside of the Anonymous Lawyer's fictional accounts). I must add this caveat first, however: My experiences are limited to litigation practice in one large, urban, general practice firm. As such, they may not be universal.

I also recognize that it can be damn near impossible to get a straight answer to questions about the private practice of law. So if you have a question, feel free to jot it down and I will answer it if I can. I will post on this as the mood strikes, so until then I give you

Surprise #1 -- In the long term, private law practice is as much about sales as it is about law.

Law firms don't expect you to bring clients into the firm as a first or second year, but the hope is that, as you approach partner, you are bringing in enough new work to sustain your practice without outside help. This isn't always possible, but it is the hope. In theory the average practice should go like this:

Start work => Begin acquiring knowledge about your field and the general practice of law => Assist partner with client => Begin handling small matters/clients for partners => Begin taking your own calls from client.
(Note: Most good partners support this natural progression, but there are always some partners who are afraid to see anyone taking their work -- beware these louts).

There is a statement that often gets passed around to young associates: "The partners are your clients." This is essentially true. When you first begin practicing, everything you do will likely be read, proofed, and filtered by a partner. If you do good work, the partner will continue calling on your assistance. If you don't, the partner will likely dial up another associate next time. If you can't "sell" partners, you won't get work, and you won't make hours (which is a story for another day). Eventually, you won't need to impress the partners because you'll be "hanging out your own shingle," or as it's known in the real world, "collecting unemployment." Therefore, the first rule of private practice is simple: Do good work.

Assuming you can meet this standard, you will need to start thinking about "outside" business development. You would be wise to put together a business development plan that you periodically update so that you can stay on track. The idea is to take baby steps that will ultimately lead to your own incoming business. Toward that end, you will be forced to socialize with clients during social events (football games, dinners, etc.) that help you connect with the clients' decision makers (e.g., general counsels), which is an important first step for cultivating them as contacts of your own. Additionally, you are encouraged to be aware of situations where classmates and/or acquaintances get moved into in-house gigs. These individuals have business to give.

Firms also generally like it when you get out into the community because it helps establish the contacts that when fostered may bloom into new business several years down the road. You will likely be poked and prodded to get involved with charity organizations (for which you will be forced to cough up money), professional associations (the ABA, the local Young Lawyers, etc.), and other civic groups (the symphony board, church, the local chamber, etc.) The idea is that you will become a respected member of the community and will meet people who will eventually think of you when there are legal questions to be asked.

All of this doesn't happen overnight. Some firms rely on mentors and partners to pass down the message by example. Others make a point of teaching business development early on through speakers or small groups and to encourage associates to develop their practices. Whatever the case, if you ever expect to become partner at any reputable firm, you must be prepared to at least look like you can bring in additional client business, which oftentimes is dependent more on your ability to sell than your ability to practice law.
Centinel 12:36 PM #


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