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February 06, 2008

Teaching associates to build stronger relationships

A shorter version of this piece appeared in the January/February issue of Law Firm Inc.

Lawfirminc_jan2008_jpeg_3 When law school graduates start at their first firm, they often seem both intrigued and mystified by marketing and business development.  Intrigued because they know that these skills are absolutely critical to success in an increasingly competitive legal environment.  And mystified because they have no idea where to begin. 

“The practice of a law firm is no longer simply a profession, it’s a business,” according to Catherine Alman MacDonagh, a founder of the Legal Sales and Service Organization and co-author of the recent American Bar Association book, The Law Firm Associates Guide to Personal Marketing and Selling Skills. (Full disclosure:  I am a contributing author.) “Now, more than ever, lawyers must pay attention to client acquisition, service and retention in order to survive and compete, and associates in firms of all sizes have an important role to play.  Just as it is important to build associates’ technical skills, they should be trained and mentored in marketing and business development as early in their careers as possible.”

Paul Hastings, an international law firm with 1200 lawyers in the U.S, Europe and Asia, recently began offering a program to fill this gap. According to Chief Business Development and Marketing Officer Meg Sullivan, “We realized that by the time lawyers get to be partners, habits are engrained.  So we wanted to create a program that would help associates to sharpen the relationship skills that clients ask for, and also enhance client service and satisfaction.”

Midlevel and senior associates in several offices were asked whether they wanted to participate in a ten week training and coaching program on developing new business.  Although it required a substantial time commitment, and most associates have no free time, approximately 25 volunteered in each office.

Sullivan collaborated with the Attorney Development group to create six sessions that reviewed basic concepts of relationship building and business development.  For example, a session entitled “Communicating effectively with clients” was designed to “strengthen presentation skills (e.g., client pitches, meetings with partners as the internal client) and sharpen communication skills (e.g., informal conversations with clients, client meetings).” Others were devoted to networking, gaining business intelligence, leveraging relationships, and more.

Each associate in the program was also required to draft a business development plan outlining their goals and activities for the next 6-12 months.  Finally, coaching subgroups were formed, each with four or five associates led by a partner.  The coaching groups met six times to discuss activities that grew out of the training, including reviewing drafts of business development plans, revising attorney biographies, and organizing activities to build larger and stronger networks. 

The results were obvious soon after the program began, said Sullivan.   “Associates became more proactive in getting out to meet with clients, and they are working very hard to balance their time and fit marketing into their schedules every day.”

One associate facilitated a teleconference call attended by about one hundred clients. Another played a prominent role in responding to an RFP which led to new work. Other associates have run webinars, written articles and white papers for industry publications and served on panels at industry and professional association meetings and symposia.

The lawyers liked it and, more importantly, the clients loved it.  Increased contact led to the kinds of deeper relationships that helped associates progress as trusted advisors.

Sullivan reports that as word of the program spread, “The demand has been overwhelming. By the end of this year, we will offer this training in the majority of Paul Hastings’ offices.”  Then, as the next group of associates rises through the ranks, another cycle of offerings will begin. 

The precise content of the sessions has varied from office to office, because the training sessions are structured for maximum flexibility.   Each begins with basic information and tips, then opens up into a question and answer session.  That’s when lawyers hear the real-life nitty gritty details of how great rainmakers succeed, such as the senior rainmaker who explained how he phones his top 15 clients and prospects every day.  That’s right, 15 phone calls every day.  They also learn that not everyone needs to do this.  Different partners succeed in different ways, as each finds the tactics that are most effective for their individual practice and personality.

But though the details vary, at each of the offices where the training has been offered, three strong themes have emerged, underlining the importance of:

  1. constant communication and relationship-building with key clients
  2. openness and sharing of client contacts
  3. actively managing your network – as you grow professionally, your cohorts will too, so it is important to stay in regular contact.

From the associate’s point of view, programs like this promote skills which will serve them well as they progress to partnership, or even if they move to a different position.  From the firm’s point of view, business development training produces greater associate satisfaction, more satisfied clients and more interesting business opportunities. 

Given that lawyers win, clients win, and the firm wins, it is obvious that programs like this will continue to spread.  And when they do, they will establish good marketing habits in the next generation of lawyers, before they get set in their ways.


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Relationships are money. So teach associates the discipline of how to build and maintain them. See Jim Hassett's piece "Teaching Associates to Build Stronger Relationships".... [Read More]


"Given that lawyers win, clients win, and the firm wins, it is obvious that programs like this will continue to spread." Seems obvious but in reality does not happen. These are convincing arguments to adopt such a strategy but how many practises get around to implementing them?

During my legal career as a litigator I endeavored through the content of my communications and the manner in which I interfaced with my clients to create a strong sense of teamwork. I simply could not believe the number of clients I was able to bring into the firm because they felt their previous attorneys spoke to them in a very condescending way . Big Mistake !

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