I seem to be on a self-help kick here (maybe I’ve got interest rate PTSD and simply need to talk about something else). Last week I was pleading for a return of the in-person closing and now here I am bloviating about on how to be a good entrepreneurial lawyer.  This commentary is derived from numerous presentations I’ve given to young lawyers joining the Dechert’s Global Finance team over many years (not saying how many).  

Let’s start with a definition.  By a good entrepreneurial lawyer, I mean a lawyer who is successful in generating new business opportunities for his/her practice for his/her team or his/her firm.  Let’s be absolutely clear at the outset, the skills we’re talking about here overlap with, but are not the same as, the skillset required to be a good lawyer.  By confusing and conflating these two skillsets, we unfairly diminish those who are excellent at the craft of lawyering but not the craft of rainmaking.  It’s a little like saying someone is a great pianist but simply can’t play rugby (or vice versa).  Do we think lesser of either?  Of course not, that would be silly.  Entrepreneurship and lawyering skills are equally unique and diverse but regrettably we tend to view a great technical lawyer that is not a great rainmaker as in some way a failure.  That is simply not true.  Moreover, it’s wrong.  

Nature or nurture?  While it’s probably true that nature plays a real role, and folks often think that rainmakers are born not made, rainmaking skill can be learned and developed.  

So, let’s build out the entrepreneurship skillset.  I’d begin with an observation that it’s extraordinarily useful if you want to be an entrepreneurial success, be a good lawyer.  Duh!  Critical but not sufficient.  A good lawyer is someone that is “smart enough” in technical expertise in the client’s core concerns but also has as broad as possible an exposure to all the issues that might affect the client.  This is not an easy thing to achieve in the modern large law firm where there is an enormous bias toward specialization.  Yet the sine qua non of the successful consigliere, another definition of a successful rainmaker, is a broad experiential set.  For instance, if you’re a finance lawyer, best you know what happens when your client ends up in front of ladies and gentlemen wearing the long black robes.  (Never a good thing.)  

Getting some experience in litigation is important.  You really do need to understand what happens when the wheels come off.  How about tax?  Yep.  Corporate practice?  Absolutely.  Banking law?  ERISA?  Insurance company regulatory regimes?  Yep.  For a finance lawyer, it helps to have some material exposure to all of these.  Look, no one can be an expert at everything.  What we’re looking for here is deep expertise in something critical to the client and not immaterial exposure to the key shoulder silos of expertise which impacts the client…an inch deep and a mile wide.  You want enough exposure in that mile wide to know when an issue lurks, when it’s time to bring in the specialists and to know when a specialist is nattering nonsense.  Back in the day when many law firms circulated young lawyers through various departments, this could come somewhat naturally.  Those days are gone and today it takes a highly motivated young lawyer to build out that sort of broad expertise, but it can and should be done.  And remember to learn something new every day.  Indeed, one of the best tells for who will succeed in the law business is curiosity.  A natural curiosity will drive you to success.  It will drive you to understand what happens when litigation ensues or when the tax lawyers say something can’t work, or there’s an ERISA issue.  

For rainmaking, it’s all about having something to sell, isn’t it?  Oops!  Did I say sell?  How tacky.  Shudder the thought.  But once the shuddering is over, let’s get real and understand that part of success as a lawyer is getting good at what we broadly disparage as selling.  A brilliant lawyer without engagement with potential clients is the equivalent of the sound that a tree makes falling in a trackless forest.  Selling, as I’m using it here, means making potential clients know that you can help them, that you want to help them and that you are at least moderately engaging. 

And here’s where curiosity pays off.  When engaging with the customer (yes, clients are customers; get over it), you can tell something old to a new customer or something new to an old customer, but you can’t tell something old to an old customer and expect them to pay attention to you.  We have to grow; we have to be driven by that curiosity to understand how things work.  We have to continue to absorb knowledge and information.  We have to think about innovation.  Think about connecting the dots.  Think about how to help a client look at old problems in new ways.  

I haven’t even begun to talk about marketing, which we’ll come back to in a moment, but let me first mention the elucidative properties of writing and speaking.  What happens when you write or speak is that you get smarter and learn a lot.  I’ve never gone through the process of getting ready to speak, or indeed to write an article, without learning more than I knew before.  Most especially, a microphone and an audience focuses the mind most wonderfully.  

What do we talk about when we talk to a client?  What will excite them and convince that person that they ought to retain you to do something fun, interesting and lucrative (particularly the latter)?  We pride ourselves on our technical competencies and talents, about how well we draft or how well we can construct complex structures (which are, let’s agree, critical skills).  But that’s not the client catnip; that’s not the stuff that sets the hook.  I hope you won’t be shocked if I told you that I’ve never had a client call me up and say they were brought to tears by the architectural beauty of my Pooling and Servicing Agreement.  That’s not what excites a client.  

What excites a client is seeing that we understand what they do and care about what they do.  They care that we understand that the legal issues are only a portion of the complex business landscaping which they must navigate.  They appreciate that we understand how legal issues are woven into that broader tapestry of issues, concerns and complexities. Perhaps that’s all a shorthand of saying understand your client’s business.  They care that we know enough about their world to offer innovative ways to get from A to B; help them think about old problems in new ways.  

How do you do that?  Well, you read the rags.  To the extent your firm has access to a variety of industry publications, read them assiduously.  See what’s exciting the marketplace, see what the marketplace cares about.  If you’re in the commercial mortgage space, and certainly the capital markets space, Commercial Mortgage Alert and Asset Backed Alert, which comes out weekly, are absolutely critical reading.  If you’re not on the distro list for these, get on them.  

Read the business press (you can read the lawyer press for fun.  Let’s be honest, reading the lawyer press is like going to a NASCAR event, hoping to see a crash.). In addition to the industry rags, read the Wall Street Journal, read Bloomberg, read the FT, all will give you context of the business environment beyond the edges of your desk.  Talk to everyone with the goal of getting smarter.  Think of this as the human equivalent of CapX.  Smarter means more valuable.  Talk to the clients.  Talk to non-clients.  These are conversations not really designed to get more business (although that’s never a bad thing), but conversations designed to help you to build your CapX; to figure out what the clients care about, what excites them, what keeps them up at night.  

Call clients with ideas.  They don’t have to be brilliant ideas, they don’t have to be fully thought out, they don’t even have to be entirely workable.  There’s nothing so harebrained that it’s not worth talking about.  If your arguments for some new idea is wholly excretable, you might ultimately feel a little embarrassed, but it’s unlikely to actually hurt the relationship with your client…and you may discover it’s not so silly after all.  The other day, with tongue firmly in cheek, I suggested that we repurpose some of our office towers with unworkably large floor plates as high-rise necropolis.  Could be the future of Sixth Avenue.  No need for AC (except for perhaps for the first few months).  No need for views!  Maybe as a package deal we could recapture all those lovely cemeteries sitting around our cities as new, super cool mixed use developments.  Silly!  Absolutely.  But then I found out that this was not uncommon in Korea.   They’ve been doing it for years.  Who knew?  Prospectus and term sheet to follow. 

Now let’s talk marketing and building profile.  Speaking and writing, while not the only way to grow a profile, are two of the easiest and most efficacious.  This is a marathon, not a sprint.  I remember as a young lawyer giving my first speech which implied, but didn’t quite say, that I had way more expertise in the topic, in that case construction lending, than perhaps I actually had.  I remember coming back to the office and staring at my phone, assuming that everyone in the audience would undoubtedly recognize my inordinate brilliance and would indeed compete to get access to the expertise I demonstrated behind the microphone.  The phone didn’t ring no matter how hard I stared at it.  This is a long term brand building exercise but it can be an extremely important tool in the entrepreneurial toolbox.  It can work.   

Writing is easy.  The gaping maw of the trade press is insatiable and an exercise that can be done at your desk or at home without the psychological pressure of standing behind a microphone.  But give speaking a shot.  Everyone is nervous the first time.  Hell, I’m still nervous before I start talking today.  As Mark Twain said about Wagner’s music, it’s not as bad as it sounds.  Once you’ve begun, I can almost promise you it can be fun.  You will grow to the realization that it’s extremely unlikely that someone will ask you a question to which you don’t know the answer.  Having prepped for your speech, you’ll know vastly more about the topic than every single person in the audience.  (In the very unlikely event someone stumped you with a question, just turn it around and ask them what they think.  Get a conversation going.  Works every time.)  

Volunteer in industry initiatives.  Our trade organizations are desperate for member help all the time.  It’s extraordinarily easy to get onto a committee or a task force or some such.  The trick then is becoming useful and important.  Participating actively and becoming a part of that small coterie on every committee that actually does the work is the secret sauce.  

Every day try to build your circle of acquaintanceships.  Follow up with people you meet at industry events, whether they are potential clients or not.  It’s important and it’s usually rather enjoyable.  Use that working party list from the last closing as a cheat sheet for future connectivity.  

While spending firm money is sometimes (sometimes?  Hah!) difficult for a junior lawyer, tag along on events the firm is paying for.  I suspect you or your colleagues are good at sports or food and drink or both and all present opportunities to bond with the client base.  Never turn down an opportunity to join a table at a client event.  

And when you’re out there meeting folks, talking to people, trying to build your circle of acquaintanceship, don’t forget the law department.  While the law departments are rarely in a position to allocate work in a transactional practice (as opposed to a litigation practice where they can), they can validate, they are gatekeepers.  Having a positive relationship with inside counsel is critical.  

Perhaps this is obvious, but make sure that when you talk to a client/target, you know a lot about them.  Professor Google is a fantastic resource, and easy.  Your firm probably has some form of data tracking of clients and client relationships.  Ask the marketing team for information about the client if you are not well versed in its operation, history and personnel.  Everyone loves to find that their interlocutor is really fascinated with them.  

When you’re talking to clients, remember you have to have a view.  You have to be willing to expose your thinking.  You have to take the risk that you might be wrong.  It happens.  Everyone is wrong periodically and we get over it.  It’s not career ending.  When you find it’s happened, admit it and move on.  No one is perfect.  But no one is going to rely on your as a key legal relationship if you “one hand and the other hand” them.  We’re paid to make the calls on tough issues.  No one is going to listen to you and you’re always going to ride the second chair if you’re unwilling to take the risk of telling the clients what you actually think.  

Be persistent.  As Edison said, genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration, success in growing an entrepreneurial practice is a combination of competency, periodic innovation and constant perspiration.  All critical, none of the them sufficient.  Persistence is perhaps the important and where we often fail.  Becoming an entrepreneurial lawyer is not a single event, a single day, a single year of work.  It’s a career-long process.  Stay after folks.  Make sure you’re helpful.  Not everything has to be fee generating.  Volunteer to help on issues that your client raises even if the client doesn’t actually have a budget for legal services (yet).  If I had a dollar for every time I heard someone say, “Well, I called Gail and Gail didn’t call me back so I abandoned the effort to connect,” I’d be rich. 

If a client doesn’t call you back, all it means is that she didn’t call you back.  Until someone actually tells you to go away and stop bothering them, take the risk of overcommunicating.  You really have to work hard to offend a client with persistence.  (Also, don’t ignore clients between gigs.  Remember to take an unemployed client to lunch.  You’d be astounded how appreciative clients are for your attention at a time when they are unable to actually allocate work.)  

Finally, you have to ask for the work.  I’ve known a number of incredibly engaging and well-connected lawyers who didn’t succeed entrepreneurially because they had a hard time asking for the work.  You have to ask.  You will not offend a client for asking for their business.  I’ve often speculated that, in our little reptilian fee-earning brains, we divide clients into three buckets – Actual Clients, Potential Clients and Non-Clients.  Because we get some psychic reward from the category of Potential Clients, we’re loathe to press Potential Clients for actual work because, at that point, like Schrödinger’s cat, they’ll either become clients or Non-Clients and the psychic reward of having Potential Clients exceeds the psychic pain of asking for the work and risking a no.  Don’t let that happen.  And remember, if a client says no, it’s doesn’t mean you stop talking to that person.  Stay engaged.  Don’t get pouty and walk away.  As I said, this is a marathon, not a sprint.  

These people are our friends.  It’s always good to talk to your friends, right?  You should enjoy it.  Even if the notion of chatting people up to get work is a bit daunting, I promise you, you will find enormous joy and pleasure in broadening the circle of acquaintanceship and diminishing the line between clients and friends.  

If you do these things, you’ll become an entrepreneurially successful lawyer.  

[1] While much of this advice is entirely applicable to bankers, as well as to lawyers, let’s agree that lawyers need more help.

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Photo of Rick Jones Rick Jones

Richard D. Jones (“Rick”), Rick Jones is a capital markets and securitization practitioner highly rated by both Chambers, USA  and Legal 500.

A leader in the industry, a recipient of both the CREFC Founders Award and the Distinguished Service Award from the…

Richard D. Jones (“Rick”), Rick Jones is a capital markets and securitization practitioner highly rated by both Chambers, USA  and Legal 500.

A leader in the industry, a recipient of both the CREFC Founders Award and the Distinguished Service Award from the Mortgage Bankers Association (MBA) for his leadership.  Rick publishes widely and speaks on a wide range of issues effecting the capital markets and mortgage finance.  He is a past president of the CRE Finance Council; a founder of the Commercial Real Estate Institute (CRI); a member and past governor of the American College of Real Estate Lawyers and a former chair of its Capital Markets Committee; and a member of the Commercial Mortgage Board of Governors (COMBOG) of the MBA. Mr. Jones is a member of the Real Estate Roundtable, serving on its Capital and Credit Policy Advisory Committee. He also serves as the chairman of CRE Finance Council’s PAC.