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Solo and small firm attorneys are always hustling for business, in order to keep the pump primed. Especially with respect to solo attorneys, there is no doubt as to where clients’ loyalties lie. There are a number of advantages that come along with managing a small business, mostly surrounding the ability to call all the shots, and the flexibility attaching to your business life that germinates from that one construct; of course, it’s also all on you, when a you’re small business owner: in many cases, nobody’s generating business for you, if you’re not.
When you work for a law firm, you enter upon a different sort of gig entirely. The overarching advantage of working for someone else is that, in opposition to owning a small business, it’s not ‘on you’, in any meaningful way. You can be replaced, yes; but, so long as you retain your position, your overriding perception is one of stability: the work comes in, the work goes out; the pay comes in, the pay goes out. You need not focus on very much, aside from completing the substantive tasks you are assigned.
But, the plain fact of the matter (and this is especially the case in the current economy) is that employees switch jobs regularly; and, I speak with a number of lawyers who leave law firm employment to start their own law firms — in fact, it’s a dream that a number of lawyers share. (The timing is what depends.) The only problem is that most lawyers aren’t preparing for that eventuality, or potentiality.
In fact, many lawyers, even those who have always had in the back of their minds the kernel of an idea to start their own business, never intentionally go about creating a book of business for themselves, even as attorneys have a unique opportunity to do just that. The primary question for any attorney who is leaving law firm employment should be: how many clients with whom I work will follow me? The lower that number is, the more difficult it will be to start a new law firm. And, if you’re starting from scratch? You’ve gained no personal advantage from the work you have put in up to that time. Even if your starting a solo practice is merely a hedge until you can again find employment, aren’t you more marketable to employers if you can bring a significant book of business into the fold?
This is why lawyers, of any stripe, must be acutely aware of the personal connections that they establish with their clients. Not only is it smart marketing, it’s just good business, for lawyers to create professional bonds with their clients. No one bonds with a company’s nameplate; they bond with the people with whom they work, within the company. If you make yourself memorable via the quality of your work, the level of service you provide and/or your personal style, you can create meaningful connections with your clients, regardless of the auspices under which they come to you. If you can develop a personal service brand within the context of your firm, you can assure that people remember one name on your business card primarily: your own. You should always keep a weather eye to building and buttressing your book of business, because you never know when you will have to take it with you.
Certainly, if you own a law firm, and employ associates, this is all very unsettling news; but, it is the case, regardless of whether I say it, or not. Transportable business relationships are a fact; but, not everybody tends to them. On the other hand, tending to potentially transportable business does not mean that you abandon all sense of loyalty at the door. In large part, you are paid for your loyalty to a business. And, you can be personally charismatic without overtly coveting any firm business that you can get your hands on. Being memorable is not necessarily synonymous with being stealthy. There are, of course, also rules about the contact you may have with clients, and your former firm, if or when you decide to leave.