Advice to New Associates on Becoming a Rainmaker

You passed the bar and got your first job in a law firm. Congratulations. Now it’s time to start becoming a rainmaker.

“Whoa,” you say. “Slow down. Become a rainmaker? I still have to become a real lawyer. You know, one whose work clients will actually pay for.”

Calm down. I didn’t say become a rainmaker today. I said “start becoming” one. As Lao Tzu, the Daoist philosopher, said, “The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.”

The problem with becoming a rainmaker is that we don’t know if the journey is 1,000 miles, 100 miles, or more or less. It turns out nobody knows how long it takes law firm associates to develop business development skills.

When Will You be Ready?

Go ahead, Google it. I did and got nada. I tried a number of search strings. I looked at more than 20 pages of search results and read dozens of individual entries. Oh, there was a flood of advice about the why, what and how, but nothing about “how long.” Next, I sought corporate trainers’ wisdom on the length of the sales-skill development cycle, thinking I could project from that some guesstimate about the law firm associates’ cycle. The results? Zip. Zilch. Again, pages and pages of why, what and how, but no “how long.”

From this exercise, I conclude that (a) either nobody knows, or (b) they know but aren’t telling. Since Google is pretty good at finding things, I’m going with “a.”

If we know you’ll need to generate business four, six or eight years into your career, but we don’t know how long it will take you to become capable, the only rational answer to the “when to begin” question is “now.” The only part of Lao Tzu’s wisdom available to us is the “one step” part.

The first step is to adjust your attitude about business development and get your mindset right in the following ways.

Accept It: Business Development Isn’t a “Someday Maybe” Thing

This isn’t 1995. There’s no more eight- or nine-year honeymoon where you only practice law, then gradually ease into rainmaking. Resolve to embrace business development as an integral part of your job from day one. Yes, there are practical limitations in terms of what and how much you can do now, but it’s not “zero.”

Unbundle Your Monolithic Concept of Business Development

It’s much more than direct sales, just as litigation is much more than being a first-chair trial lawyer. In both disciplines, there’s a lot of background to absorb, foundation to learn, and many valued contributions to make along the way. Start that now.

Be Business-Curious So You Can Make Yourself Business-Savvy

If you don’t understand how businesses operate, what kind of challenges they face, and how they make decisions and make a profit, you have no chance of being relevant. If you’re not relevant, nobody has any reason to pay attention to you.

Choose an Industry to Invest In

Ask your firm’s CFO which three to five industries, combined, are responsible for the largest chunk of your firm’s revenue. Investigate each one to ascertain whether they’re in growth mode, flat or declining.

  • Look online for sources (like PwC’s MoneyTree) that monitor venture-capital investment. If people won’t invest their money in a particular industry, why would you invest your time there?

  • Try to avoid declining industries. There’s no opportunity there until someone disrupts them.

  • If there’s more than one growth industry, pick the one that interests you the most. You’re going to live with them.

By choosing an industry that your firm is already invested in, you’ll automatically align yourself with influential partners. Now, you have to deliver something valuable to them, that makes them more valuable to clients and prospects. The key is relevance.

Monitor That Industry and Start Positioning Yourself

Set up Google alerts on the pertinent topics (for example, “autonomous vehicles” or “medical devices”) and review them daily. You’re trying to get familiar with the emerging problems, challenges and opportunities that reflect the conversation already occurring inside client- or prospect companies — issues that drive demand for high-value legal services. Alert appropriate partners so they can contact clients and prospects and insert themselves into these conversations.

Over time, you’ll become an industry expert, which will enable you to participate in the physical or online industry conversation, independent of partners. Eventually, you’ll have associated yourself with the industry and an important problem. That’s called “positioning.”

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