Rainmaking: Tips of the Trade
by James W. McElhaney
Reprinted from the April 2002 edition of the ABA Journal.
I asked Angus to meet me at the Donut Hole at 10 a.m. to talk about something that was troubling me. I got there early so I could have a plate of freshly baked chocolate-cinnamon doughnuts and a pot of Dark Mountain Roast waiting for him when he arrived.
"What’s this," he said, "a bribe?"
"You got it," I said. "My creativity bone has atrophied, and I have a deep need for a good idea."
"I thought you were up to something like that, so I came prepared," said Angus.
"There’s nothing like an actual problem to get your mind working again. Look at this," he said, handing me a letter.
I’m an associate with an excellent firm in the Pacific Northwest that does exactly the kind of work I enjoy. I’ve only been out of law school for five years, and I’ve already started to concentrate in corporate pension and retirement funds—which has actually become an exciting field in recent months.
I’m given important cases, and the people I work for seem to like my work. I’m well-paid and I get along with both the associates and the senior members of the firm.
And yet I’m worried. I find myself looking over my shoulder. None of our clients even knows my name. While the young partners who are four or five years ahead of me have started bringing in cases and are developing their own clients, I have never produced a single drop of rain in the five years I’ve been here.
But I have no idea how to do it.
I don’t play golf, and we don’t have a firm lodge for baseball or football games. I have written a few articles about corporate pensions and retirement funds, but a number of my fellow associates seem to think writing articles is a waste of time that only gets in the way of billing megahours every year.
I’m a good lawyer, but that’s all I am. That’s what troubles me. I’m afraid I’m on the dusty road to becoming a senior associate (who eventually will be let go) instead of on the fast track to firm leadership.
We’ve had a lot of good lawyers fall by the wayside in the past few years. While everybody claims that the most important requirement for making partner is doing excellent work—and lots of it—the ones who get there are the ones who make rain.
So if I’m not a schmoozer, a boozer or a golfer, or I don’t have the right business and family connections, what can I do to make a little rain fall on the firm?
Worrying in Washington State
"There it is," said Angus, sliding the plate of doughnuts to his side of the table. "Have fun writing your article."
"Wait a minute," I said, pulling the plate back. "I bought more than a problem. These are Wednesday Specials—I want some answers."
"OK," said Angus, handing me his reply to Worrying’s letter. "But you have sunk to new depths of manipulative guile."
You have already discovered that while the practice of law is a profession, a law firm is a business. And the ruling partners in some firms show all the warm concern for their junior associates that the managers of an HMO have for the doctors whose practices they control.
But there the comparison breaks down because unlike HMOs, the folks who run law firms for the most part come from the ranks of the worker bees.
And despite all the shiny five-color brochures that both law firms and HMOs send out to their buying publics, the most important marketing of a law firm comes from the quality of its legal work. Anyone can buy a slick brochure.
One problem in a large firm is that sometimes the real source of its best work remains hidden.
So I want you to burn this idea into your mind: You are a rainmaker when the clients start asking the firm to assign you to their cases.
How do you make that happen?
Start with your articles. Your fellow associates are full of beans. Keep on writing. Publishing articles about the areas you specialize in is extraordinarily valuable.
First, it sharpens your understanding of difficult ideas when you explain them to other people.
Second, it makes you known to lawyers in other firms who associate you with the quality of your writing.
Third, if the firm’s clients get copies of your articles, they will learn who you are.
And now for some practical law firm politics.
The best way to become known is not for you to blow your own horn, but to have someone else blow it for you.
When you personally send out copies of your articles to your firm’s clients, the partner in charge of your department may actually feel a little threatened by how "pushy" you have suddenly become.
So instead, ask him to do it for you—to write a little cover letter explaining the kind of expertise your firm has in its ranks. It lets your mentor feel as if he is playing a part in your development. It also says you know how to work inside the chain of command. It makes you a team player instead of a threat.
And when clients call for advice because they read about some warning signal you discussed in one of your articles, you know who they are going to ask to talk to.
That gives you another reason why you should only write in plain English—never in legalese. You’re not just writing to insiders. Besides, even the most erudite specialist appreciates clear ideas expressed in plain language.
Winning briefs are just as good as articles. When your firm has a significant victory based on one of your briefs, make sure your mentor sends it—and a copy of the court’s opinion—
Next, steal a page from the daybook of Douglas D. Connah, Jr., who came to the practice of law after he was a reporter with the Charlotte Observer and then a member of the editorial staff of the Baltimore Sun. When he joined Venable, Baetjer & Howard in Baltimore, he helped defend the Sun in a wide variety of First Amendment cases.
That’s when Connah decided it would be a good idea for the firm to give the Sun Papers periodic updates on freedom of the press as it was being shaped by the U.S. Supreme Court—at no charge to the client. Because it was his idea, it fell to him to put the project together.
This is one way gurus are made.
There are all kinds of specialized areas—such as health law, employment discrimination, intellectual property, corporate pensions and retirement funds—in which periodic updates on what is the new cutting edge of the law would earn loyalty and respect from your clients.
While there is a lot more you can do, I hope this helps you get started.
The very next evening, Dick Mudger—the head of a big insurance defense firm in town—came roaring into the Brief Bag.
"I can’t believe the sniveling, little coddled twerps the law schools are turning out these days," he said. "They expect you to do everything for them. Explain everything three times, then hold the Kleenex for them when they blow their noses.
"They take no initiative to do what needs to be done or dig around and find out how to do it. Three of our new associates—just hired last spring—came to me asking whether we were going to institute a formal ‘road to partnership guidance program’ that would assign individual mentors who would see to it that they all made the cut.
"I told them the real test was whether they could figure out for themselves what they need to do."
Angus looked at Mudger and said, "Gee, Dick, anybody who didn’t know you might think you’re a curmudgeon."
James W. McElhaney is Joseph C. Hostetler Professor of Trial Practice and Advocacy at Case Western Reserve University Law School in Cleveland, and Fred Parks Distinguished Lecturer in Trial Advocacy at South Texas College of Law in Houston. He is a senior editor and columnist for Litigation, the journal of the ABA Section of Litigation. Copyright © 2002 by American Bar Association; James W. McElhaney