re-earn success every day

Today's title is taken from a quoted remark in As Clients Grow Globally, So Do Law Firms, an article in the June 10 edition of The Lawyers Weekly, about the implications of globalization and consolidation. "Basically, one needs to make partner every year. As talent management becomes more sophisticated and as margins are under more pressure there are fewer places to hide. Staying under the radar is no longer an option."

This remark encapsulates the issues that surround the imperative for lawyers to develop business. It also struck me as one of the more succinct rebuttals to the (apparent) willful denial that too many lawyers indulge.

Consciously or not, staying under the radar is many lawyers' strategy to avoid engaging in meaningful business development. The "hiding" strategy of choice is billable hours. This is how they stay under the radar and avoid unwanted attention. Plus, by billing lots of hours, they buttress their claim not to have time for business development. However, one has nothing to do with the other. 

For lawyers who don't generate their own clients, billable hours are a measure of demand for the partners who brought in the work -- not for you. They have no bearing on your own financial- or professional security. (If you doubt that, try to change firms with "billable hours" as the asset you're selling.) Relying on billable hours provided by others keeps you in a precarious position. Any number of things could vaporize those hours suddenly:

  • Your benefactor could leave the firm, die, or become incapacitated.
  • His main client could be acquired by a company with a very different legal service philosophy, or lesser price tolerance.
  • Your firm could be acquired by a firm with excess capacity in your specialty.
  • Clients could conclude that the type of work you're doing is sufficiently mature that a more junior lawyer could do it just as well for a third lower cost.
  • Clients' relentless drive for cost-cutting could cause that work to get shifted in-house, or offshore, or to a technological solution. 
  • At the very least, a portion of your compensation could be reallocated to cover inducements to the next lateral partner the firm recruits. 

"But, I have all this billable work to do. How will I ever find time to generate business?"

You won't "find" time for it. You have to make time for it. First, though, you have to arrive at the conclusion that not generating work that you own constitutes an unacceptable level of risk, and that you absolutely must take meaningful steps to become more independent. It cannot remain optional. If it does, you'll continue to find ready (and acceptable) excuses to opt out, as you have so far.

You'll have to make a meaningful time investment, certainly 100 hours/year at minimum. That's two hours per week. If you won't commit two hours per week to protecting your future, you're not serious. Go back to assessing the risks of the status quo.

Making 100+ hours available for business development might mean you have to complete billable work at night, early in the morning, on the weekend. You may have to decline 100 or more of the 2200 hours you bill each year. That will involve modest risk. Your benefactor might look askance at you declining his client's work in favor of pursuing your own. The time you reallocate to BD probably won't pay off immediately. (You might get lucky, but it's not the way to bet.) You'll have to step out of your comfort zone and learn BD skills and get experience. Given your circumstances, your firm might understandably be skeptical about your change in perspective, and be unwilling to pay for training or coaching, so you'll have to pay for it out of your own pocket.

However, compared to the unacceptable risks of being completely at the mercy of potentially ruinous decisions made by others or imposed by market forces, these risks are benign, containable, and survivable. 

Think about what it took for you to make partner. You had to bill your quota of hours, and you had to develop demand for yourself within your internal market, i.e., earn partners' trust in your ability and reliability to do their work, and develop their willingness to risk their reputation on you. The only thing different about what we're talking about now is that you have to identify and stimulate that same demand outside the firm. You even have similar tools with which to do it. As a young lawyer, the only thing you had going for you was that your firm decided that you were worth associating their brand with you. Partners who didn't know you knew only that you'd been deemed good enough to be hired at their firm. That's the same thing you start with in the external market.

Now, instead of selling the partners in your firm on your worthiness to be their partner, you're selling external companies' management and counsel on your worthiness to be their partner in certain legal aspects of their business.

You know how much you sacrificed to make partner in your firm. What are you willing to sacrifice to make partner on the outside?

Mike O'Horo


Want help navigating the scary transition from under-the-radar to out-front-and-visible? Schedule a complimentary call with me to assess your situation and get clarity about what's involved in the journey you're contemplating.