Generally speaking, law firms use the phrase “client development” to refer to the process of signing clients that the firm will represent in litigation, transactions, etc. I’d like to consider another type of client development associates must consider: internal client development.
As an associate, particularly a junior associate who receives work from more senior lawyers, you must consider two kinds of clients: those who are external, meaning the people we typically call clients, and those who are internal, meaning those firm attorneys for whom you do work, your supervising attorneys.
The more junior you are, the more important your internal client development skills are and the longer those skills may serve you.
Let’s consider an example.
Two associates, Ellen and Mary, begin with a firm at the same time. Both are bright and eager to learn. Ellen is gregarious, always chatting with more senior associates and partners about work, current events, whatever. She enjoys discussing the cases she and others are working on, and as a result a lot of the firm’s lawyers tend to know what she’s working on and to have some idea of how she approaches her work. When Ellen hears about someone who’s working on a case that interests her, she finds a time to talk with that attorney and offers to help if there’s anything she can do. Mary tends to be shy, friendly when someone speaks to her but not someone who will seek out conversation. She does very good work, and she prefers not “bother” the lawyer who assigns work until she’s finished unless she has a question. Mary talks often with the other lawyers staffed on her cases, but she doesn’t interact too much with other members of the firm.
When a case comes in that would be equally appropriate for both Ellen and Mary, who do you think is more likely to get assigned to it? I’d suspect it’ll be Ellen, if all other things are equal, because Ellen has been working on her internal client development. A partner is more likely to know what Ellen’s workload is, to know how she approaches her work, to know how she gets along with other members of the firm, and to know enough about her to be comfortable working with her. Although Mary may do equally good work, by failing to put herself in front of the other lawyers in the firm on a regular basis, they are less likely to think of her, and she’s less likely to get the assignments.
So, what do you do if you recognize that you’re like Mary? First, go back to the business truism that, all other things being equal, people prefer to work with those they know, like, and trust. (In a law firm, performing excellent work is the baseline, so be sure you meet that standard. Otherwise, no amount of being known and liked will be sufficient to override the lack of trust that poor work product will bring.)
Set out on a campaign to become known, liked, and trusted – but start by getting to know, like, and trust other members of your firm. Go to the cocktail parties. Eat lunch in the firm cafeteria if you have one, and make it a habit to invite another lawyer out to lunch at least once a week. Be genuinely interested in the other attorneys in your firm, both professionally and personally. Perhaps the partner has a son who plays Little League, and it can make a difference if you remember to ask how the game was when you know the partner left early to attend it. Discuss your cases, chew over a thorny legal issue with a colleague, and ask what cases others have going. With a effort and authenticity, this approach will put you on good terms with others in your office and you too will be at the top of assigning attorneys’ minds when a new case comes in the door.
And for those who feel that this is a mercenary approach, there’s one other key benefit: your work life will almost certainly improve. True, you won’t be best friends with everyone (or perhaps anyone) in the office, but spending long days at work is more enjoyable when there’s a sense of camaraderie. Camaraderie comes from – you guessed it – knowing and liking those with whom you work and fostering a sense of being on the same team.
This internal networking is, of course, only one side of internal client development. Other aspects of internal client development include building a strong reputation, becoming an expert in a niche area, developing skills faster than your classmates, and last (but certainly not least), asking for the work.
Be aware of your opportunities for internal client development: as a junior associate, you can position yourself as the go-to person in your associate class and you can get superior experience in a relatively short time. If you’re one of the rare associates who stays at a single firm for the bulk of your career, internal client development will propel toward partnership much faster and with a much higher chance of success. If you move to another firm, internal client development can pay off in helping you find a new position and in positioning you for referrals from your old firm in case of conflicts. It’s a win/win proposition.
Julie A. Fleming, J.D., A.C.C. provides business and executive coaching with an emphasis on business development, leadership development, time mastery and organization, and work/life integration. Julie holds a coaching certificate from the Georgetown Leadership Coaching program and holds the Associate Certified Coach (ACC) credential from the International Coach Federation. She is certified to administer the DISC(r) assessment, the Leadership Circle Profile 360, and the Leadership Culture Survey.