Monday, October 6, 2014

Why Won’t Those ‘Darn’ Associates Make More Rain?

In my last post, I discussed the fear many managing partners hold, that the firm may be leaving money on the table by not effectively cross-promoting the full range of legal services and not encouraging internal referrals.

Today, I would like to discuss a little bit about a second concern that law firm management often express to us.  It is much less a fear than it is a frustration that associates in the firm do not generate the requisite new business activity necessary to move the firm forward.

This creates a conundrum that firms often find difficult to resolve. On the one hand, lower level attorneys offer the possibilities of greater profitability because they command lower rates of compensation.  Yet, in spending time on providing such legal services to the firm’s clients (i.e., billable hours), they are, by definition not rustling up new business.

To resolve this dilemma, smart law firms must ask themselves exactly what they see as the role of their associates.  Typically, most would say that the function of the firm’s lower level attorney’s requires a hybrid of both client-related work and new business initiatives. We have seen instances however, where firm management has determined that associates should focus on clients while management itself should be responsible for generating new revenues.  That is not necessarily a bad approach because, at the very least, it is clearly defined. Less positive are those situations in which firm management chastises attorneys for the lack of billable time while also lamenting the lack of energies towards acquiring new clients.  Hence, most important is developing a clear definition of roles and an articulate conveyance of them to the firm’s staff.

But it cannot really stop there. Generating business is a skill.  And as a skill, it requires proper training. Most young attorneys do not learn how to do bring in business in law school and depending on the firm in which they practice, they may not acquire such training at work either. Firm management must understand that generating new business (whether it be through social media, referrals, internal cross-promotion, more revenue from existing clients, etc.) all requires an investment – not just in marketing and business development activities, but in the people being counted on to build the practice as well.

And even there it cannot stop.  It is foolish to think that each individual possesses the same set of skills of every other. Some attorneys are particularly good at getting out and meeting the world; others at writing engaging legal articles. Similarly, some attorneys may be innately limited in their ability to create new revenue, but contribute to the firm through their legal brilliance and capacity to solve their clients’ problems. Identifying the specific talents and the deficiencies of each associate is a far better way to leverage the collective manpower of the firm than is to make general assumptions about associates as a whole. Much of this evaluation can be made qualitatively. Yet, believe it or not, there is a software application (RainGauge) which allows management to quantitatively assess the degree to which associates (and senior attorneys as well) contribute to the firm through different marketing and business development activities and even offers the potential to compare such versus their working on strictly client-related business.

The bottom line is that getting the most out of associates requires removing the label “associate” from the equation and instead, harnessing the talents of each individual towards the greater good of the firm.

This is the second in a 5-part series on the business development concerns we have heard most often by managing partners and legal marketers.

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