I regularly work with lawyers looking to leave their current jobs. A number of these lawyers plan to practice solo or start a small firm. Primarily I help these ambitious, adventurous lawyers with their rainmaking – how to port over, obtain and maintain a large enough client following to have success in their new venture. When they need additional advice about real estate, technology, employees or other issues, I also help with that.
Over the years, much more often than not, by the time an individual lawyer or small group approaches me about starting a new practice, it makes sense. With consideration and planning, these lawyers get their new venture running, and frequently, eventually, running quite well.
A few weeks ago, someone with whom I worked when he started his firm over twenty years ago called to thank me for that help. With his tongue firmly in his cheek, he particularly thanked me for predicting one less than delightful thing that would happen. I had told him that if his firm grew large enough it would, “reach a size when it will no longer be enjoyable to have dinner with all of your partners at the same table.” It happened. This lawyer realized that although he was comfortable relying on professional advice and assistance from his partners, he did not personally like all of them. He went as far as to say that he had some partners with whom he did not have common personal values.
It’s the same thing with clients. A client would like to have a lawyer he or she likes, but particularly when an unusual or esoteric skill-set is involved, people hire lawyers with a reputation for those skills. Someone who wants to create a REIT, generally hires a real estate securities lawyer who has packaged REITs. If a parent in a divorce has a custody battle brewing, he or she tries to hire a family lawyer who understands and has experience with contentious custody fights.
Although relationships are a great way and common way to get business, lawyers with uncommon expertise have eliminated much of the competition. If you are selected by a client because you are known for a niche practice, that client need not like you. You are a true professional, a true skilled artisan. You may be a friend, but you may also be simply a means to an end. Every client who pays you for work you can do, and is not abusive, is worthwhile. To turn a client who found you for your skills into one who keeps you for the skills and the relationship may involve dinner or a round of golf. The more clients you have the more likely it is you will not want to dine with them all, or that all of them will want to dine with you. When you must socialize with clients who are not your cup of tea, socialize, and make the best of it. You can then use the money you made to go to dinner with your friends.
You do not need to like your partners or your clients. You do, of course, need to have a professional, communicative relationship with them. You have not failed at client relations simply because you do not enjoy breaking bread with all of your clients. It may just mean you have more to offer than companionship and simple competency.