We often talk to associates at top law firms who want to make partner but don’t have a concrete plan for building client relationships. Their firms are pleased with their work, but are not handing them the client development opportunities they need to get to the next rung.
This is typical at large law firms, where partners control relationships with institutional clients and associates are expected to churn out the work. Nevertheless, we have seen some associates at top firms manage to create client development opportunities on their own with a little ingenuity and luck. They often started a process early in their careers to maneuver themselves into situations which increased the likelihood of client contact and proved to colleagues and clients they could be trusted with more.
Associates who care about advancing their careers should not fall into the trap of simply doing excellent work. Building relationships, so that you're in the room when the deal is signed or on the client's speed dial, will make you far more valuable to your firm—and harder to replace. Here are four tips on how to get there:
1. Start by building relationships with counterparts at your rung (not the General Counsel)
You’ll be working for a lot of powerful executives and GCs while at your firm. It’s tempting to see them as your targets for relationship building. Win their esteem by doing great work, but realize that GCs are busy and that you should never interfere with the carefully cultivated relationships between them and your partners.
The much better move early on is to nurture relationships with your counterparts at clients. These are usually people whose help you need to do your job: the junior counsel, the IT person, or the assistant to the GC. Treat them as friends and allies instead of email correspondents. To set things off on the right foot, start with a simple question: “What can I do to make your job easier?”
Your working relationship with them will improve and you’ll gain access to a unique set of useful information. For example, a close relationship with the GC’s assistant could mean that you know how to get a hold of key people when others don’t. That’s valuable. Share what you learn with the senior associates and partners on your case. You will be helping your team build a stronger relationship with the client at multiple entry points on the ladder.
2. Before your second year, identify a partner (or two) whom you admire and foster that relationship.
Most associates bounce around like pinballs in their first few years, leaving to chance the kinds of cases, matters, and experience they get. In year four, they look up and wonder, what do I need to do to make partner?
By that time, it’s often too late. You need to find a mentor early on who will help you navigate the firm’s politics, advise you on your career, and give you opportunities for client engagement. This mentor does not have to be the most brilliant or powerful partner at the firm. Instead, pick someone you relate to. Who at you firm has a life you can imagine for yourself or a career you’d want to emulate? Maybe it’s a female IP litigation partner with two kids. Maybe it’s a transactional partner who bores easily and has reinvented his practice a dozen times. If you can earn their trust, you will earn access to their clients.
How do you ask for this partner’s time? The best way is to find a way to work for them. Another way is to ask to go to lunch with them. Tell them exactly why you admire them and their work, and ask them to contact you if they need work done.
3. Don't just work on popular cases. Gravitate towards a niche.
Most associates want to work on “front-page” cases and deals, but those teams are crowded. There are many smart associates on those cases, and they’re all clamoring for the “lead” role. Very few will become valuable as business developers. Instead, act like an entrepreneur deciding where to start a business: where is there high demand and low supply? What are other associates at your level not doing?
As with a startup, identifying a niche can be hit or miss. Data privacy and communications law are good niches to be in at this moment, but what will be growing four years from now? Your firm might be the go-to place for direct lending by funds. Will that remain the case? A good rule of thumb is to pick a practice with non-cyclical legal issues. It also helps to be versatile and work on several interrelated matters. If you work in a broad practice like M&A, try to find a niche in a particular industry (which industry to choose depends on where you are, but highly regulated industries are often a good bet because such expertise gets top dollar).
Sometimes it’s easier to find a partner who commands a specific area and work for them. Maybe there’s a senior partner who single-handedly runs a book of business doing website takedowns. That may not sound glamorous, but working for him would give you client opportunities earlier on and a key role in their practice.
4. Know what your firm wants. Don’t bring in low-level matters if they won’t be well received.
Trying to bring business to your firm is admirable at any level. But many associates waste time trying to reel in clients that are not a fit with their firms. If you’re at a top-20 firm in New York, your clients are big institutions. Your friend may have an intriguing startup, but your firm cares about the whales, not the minnows. How many times have we seen an associate break their back to reel in a startup client while the associate who worked the Citibank case the last four years goes on to make partner?
Of course, bringing in small clients is the lifeblood of an emerging company practice in Silicon Valley, but you have to realize what your firm is and which relationships they deem important.
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There is almost always a case to be made to stay at your firm. There are risks in every move and you’ll have to rebuild yourself from the ground up, forge new allies, and win the trust of skeptical partners who have never seen your work.
But there are also many reasons to leave, one of which is that your client relationship-building efforts are not well received at your firm. Perhaps you are viewed as a cog in the machine and not a generator. Perhaps you excel at getting small companies to work with you, but your firm doesn’t value that.
One of the more common moves for associates at elite firms is to move to a firm outside the top 20 that endeavors to give associates client development experience. It’s also a good idea to look for firms where associates make partner at more junior levels; that shows that associates get business development experience earlier. Another option for some is to relocate to markets where small clients are actually valued. A number of firms in Seattle, Denver, the Bay Area, and LA, whose clientele include startups and local companies, are more encouraging of those precocious associates who know how to fish.
But if you do decide to leave, then leave when there’s still time for you to build relationships and a book of business at your new firm.
Laterally, the leading hiring platform for top attorneys, has transformed lateral recruitment by offering associates a transparent job market and empirical data on law firm hiring practices. For the latest job moves plus firm and in-house opportunities, sign up on Laterally.com.