When I started practicing law, back in the old days, the rules of the game were well known:
- You went to law school and got good grades.
- When you finished, you went to work for a high quality law firm.
- While an associate, you worked hard and billed lots of hours (far fewer than what is considered lots of hours now.)
- At the appropriate time, you made partner.
- In at least some firms, compensation was “lock step,” meaning even as a partner you made what others in your class made.
You never had to worry about bringing in clients, because the firm had all the clients it wanted. The firm leaders likely told you the firm did not want you to learn about client development. Your job was to keep the firm’s clients happy.
I know you realize that practicing law and law firms have changed. In most firms, the new reality is if you do not bring in clients and business, or at least expanding relationships with existing clients, you may have to find another job.
Why did the rules of the game change? I think because the practice of law went from being a profession to being a business. When did it occur? It had to be as early as 1988 because there is a Vanderbilt Law Review article that year titled: The Law: From a Profession to a Business.
To show you how practicing law has changed, I want to share with you a question I received years ago when I spoke at an associate retreat:
Why should I want to take time to develop business and have clients who rely on me?
She went on:
Why do I even want to make partner – what’s in it for me? I don’t mean that to sound cynical, but as I get closer to the goal it’s clear that making partner no longer means what many of us thought it would when we were young, namely prestige, lower billables, or more money. What are the actual advantages?
When law went from being a profession to being a business, young lawyers like the one who asked the question debated whether they even wanted to become a partner in the new game.
Sadly, in 2020, without clients, at best you will have no control over your life and career. At worst, you will not be in private practice. See: Pay Cuts, Layoffs, and More: How Law Firms Are Managing the Pandemic, or Adjusting the COVID-19 Response: How Law Firms Are Altering Austerity Measures
When I began at my first law firm, I had already practiced law for five years in the USAF, mostly litigating government contract cases. I quickly discovered that to have any control over my life and my future, I would need to develop business and client relationships. When I began my client development efforts, the partners for whom I worked were not happy. They would have preferred for me to remain dependent on them.
I was motivated by my desire to control my destiny and by the satisfaction I felt from the relationships, including friendships, with my clients. But, naturally having a book of business and client relationships enabled me to become a partner also, and it kept me in the game during each recession that followed.
So, if you want to build a career in private practice and want control of your career and your life, begin focusing on developing and expanding relationships with clients.