Preparing for the Future: The Young Lawyer’s Guide to Building a Practice
So you have just been called to the Bar, or you’ve survived your first year (or first few years) of practice. You may have completed your first contentious hearing, or successfully second chaired a difficult trial. Congratulations! You’ve made it. You’ve mastered all that you need to learn about practice. You are set for life.
If only that were the case.
Building your practice is usually one of the furthest things from a young lawyer’s mind. Your day-to-day life is filled with stressing about that next piece of work, or preparing for your next client meeting, or briefing (and facing) that difficult partner. You barely have time for any leisure, much less think about your career five years down the road. However, your first few years in practice are key to how your professional life is going to turn out in the future. Here are a few points to consider.
Five years down the road, you will be dealing with much bigger things than you are now. It might not seem possible. But you will. You will have much more responsibility for one, and you will find yourself working directly with your senior partner and reviewing and dealing with work from your juniors, conducting your own hearings or even trials, or leading meetings with the client or counterparty. In your personal life, you may be starting a family or taking that next step in your relationship.
The last thing you want to do at that point in time is deal with the whole new ballgame that is building up your practice – but that point in time is when it starts being important, because at that level, it is not enough to just be a competent lawyer. If you intend to stay in practice for the long haul, being adept at building your practice is just as critical. Start now, and when it really counts, at least you won’t be a fish out of water.
What Actually is Business Development?
You may have heard your partner say that he/she going to do some BD. You might think that’s secret code for a long lunch, or that they are going to be playing golf or heading to the gym or that yoga session. Not quite.
What your partner is doing is engaging in that amorphous but critical activity known as Business Development.
Business (or client) development quite literally means developing your business practice and your client base. In practical terms, it probably means meeting up or connecting with existing / potential clients to remind them that you exist so that in future, they will think of you if they have a piece of legal work to refer.
Why is this important?
In the not-so-distant future, as a not-so-young lawyer looking to build your own practice, business development is key. Having work and a hopefully stable portfolio of clients (or people who may be in a position to offer work to you) is important for your future in practice. It assures your partner and your firm that you are a Contributing Member, and that you are accordingly worthy of their consideration.
Otherwise, you will just be a highly trained associate. And there are many, many, many of those.
Business development is a critical part of practice, and it is not too soon to start now.
Building Up a Network
Look at that other young associate sitting in the cubicle (or if you’re lucky, in the room) opposite you, slogging through the night just like you. That lawyer from another department whom you have seen in the pantry but never really spoken to before. Or even the associate from another firm whom you meet in the office lift every now and then. You may not know them well, or at all – but it doesn’t hurt to say hi, and more importantly to try and build up a professional relationship with that person. This is because that person may, five years down the road, become a potential client.
Of course, not every relationship you develop should be with an aim to getting a potential new matter. Life isn’t (quite) that mercenary. But it is a fact of practice that in five years’ time, some of your peers, friends, or batchmates will have gone in-house, or have started their own small practices or even their own businesses, and may be in a position to potentially give you work – or at least link you up with their seniors / teammates who can. These are all important parts of your future network that you may have to turn in future.
Keeping an Eye on You
Apart from physically meeting up with people, it is also important to be visible. Write articles. If someone else in your firm has written a useful article or legal update, send it to a client who may be interested in that development. Give talks or seminars. If you have corporate clients, consider whether you can work with your seniors to give training sessions on relevant areas of the law. Use social media (appropriately). Leave a short note on LinkedIn when there is an interesting judgment or legal development. Even better when it’s a case / development that you are involved in – let people know! You will be surprised that people will actually take notice.
But I’m just an associate! No one is going to care what I’m doing!
Remember – this is about preparing for the future. If you don’t start now, you are going to have to play catch-up in the future. Set yourself an achievable goal. One article, or seminar every quarter, or one client engagement event every few weeks. Start small if you have to, but start somewhere.
Follow the Leader
But how do I start?
It is always helpful to have someone to learn from. Your seniors and partners who have been actively involved in building up their practice will (hopefully) be willing to guide you along the way. Observe how they meet clients or reach out to potential contacts. Take the initiative to ask if you can write an article with them, or if they are giving a talk, see if you can present one section. Ask if you can join in when they meet clients whom you have worked with before – or reach out to the junior on the client’s end if you think that is appropriate (but do check in with your seniors first). At the junior level, it is much easier to just tag along with what your seniors are doing, rather than having to take that step yourself.
If your seniors aren’t able – or willing – to help you out, there are always other senior members of the Bar who are more than happy to guide and mentor juniors in their career and in practice, or just to have an informal chat. Various mentorship schemes exist to guide younger members of the Bar, or you can simply reach out informally to other lawyers whom you have come across in your practice. Lawyers love to talk. You will surely be able to find one who is willing to share their tips with you. (Check out the Law Society’s PracMentor scheme here.)
Start Small – But Start Somewhere
Business development doesn’t come naturally to many people. Build up the skills now when you still have the luxury of time and effort, rather than in the future when your career could turn on having built up your business practice. In the meantime, continue working on your legal competencies and making yourself a better lawyer, so that when you actually do get a client, you are able to deliver.
It’s a marathon, not a sprint. Take that first step now.
A Fellow Young Lawyer
Member, Young Lawyers Committee
The Law Society of Singapore