Friendly advice

Your training contract starts and at last a career as a lawyer hoves into view. But as Watson Farley & Williams’ David Harvey explains, it may be your success in building relationships that holds the key to a profitable future

If you are new to the Square Mile, the first time you step inside a City law firm proper – be it as a vacation scheme student or when you start your training contract – can be an intimidating experience.

The halcyon days

There was a time, long before you would have been thinking about your choice of career, when lawyers used to be treated by their clients as if they were doctors. A lawyer was accorded the same degree of reverence and respect as a doctor who had cured a patient of some debilitating illness.

This deference to the lawyer’s professional status carried over into the client’s attitude towards fees – when it received the bill for the lawyer’s work it might flinch a little, but more often than not would reflect that quality costs money and reach for the chequebook. Rare was it for a bill to be queried. To add to this comfortable state of affairs, a client would be unquestioningly loyal, bestowing on its lawyer all of its legal work, come hell or high water.

These days

Those days are no more. A law firm can have no assurance that a client will use it for its next job and fees for transactions worth tens or hundreds of millions of pounds are typically kept down by asking a range of firms to bid for the work. The recession has merely served to hasten these trends.

To survive and prosper in this commoditised new world, law firms seek to differentiate their offerings by focusing on their core areas of practice and building strong teams around them.

Marketing departments support the effort by organising events, producing brochures and podcasts and helping with client pitches. This is the environment you will enter as a trainee. A career path in the law will then see you become an associate in your chosen practice area and build your expertise in that field, be it banking, corporate, real estate or whatever. Partnership will hopefully be offered somewhere along the way.

But that is only part of the story. Law firms expect their lawyers to develop business as well as process it, and this has never been more true than now, with competition for new clients and work at the most intense that many can remember.

Winning mentality

You may think that, as a trainee, you have no part to take in winning business for your firm. And it is true, of course, that nobody will be expecting you to bring in clients in your early years. Nor, after the stresses and uncertainties of gaining and commencing a training contract in these fraught times, am I trying to heap any additional expectations upon you. But it is important that you go into legal practice with your eyes open with regard to playing a role in business development, both by way of contributing to the financial wellbeing of your firm and building the sustainability of your own career.  All the more so, as you will probably have had next to no preparation or training in business development (BD) prior to starting work.  There are three basic points to impart about BD: first, there is no mystery to it much of it  is plain, old common sense; second, the earlier  in your career you start implementing simple  BD routines the more you will gain later on  and third and most critical, successful BD is  largely about building personal relationships. 

Watchwords: trust and confidence 

So where do you start? When in my early days as a lawyer I first began wondering how to go about gaining legal business, I used to look wistfully at the example of my late father-in-law. He was in the watch industry and each year would go on the road armed with two metal suitcases containing the season’s collection of watches. He would meet store buyers, show them the wares and come away with immediate orders.  The law is not like that. You are providing a service – advice – and people rely upon it and base major decisions upon what you tell them. Imparting the right advice can have huge implications for the prosperity of clients’ businesses. For that, nobody is going to hire you unless they have trust and confidence in you. 

This is where personal relationships come in. It is by building relationships and networking with people that trust and confidence in you  and your firm’s competence can take root and lead to winning new clients. Unlike my late father-in-law with his watches, this takes time. As lawyers, we cannot show a product that can be looked at, desired and purchased on the instant.

Relationships have to be nurtured, invested in and cultivated. It is rather like putting money into a savings account: you deposit amounts over a long period of time and, while each amount on its own is small and insignificant, over time it grows incrementally into something much more large and valuable.

Most firms now recognise the importance of giving training in networking techniques and will encourage their younger members to start developing their own relationships. Training will typically be aimed at helping you to gain confidence to meet people at public gatherings, such as receptions and conferences, and to develop the skills to engage with them. The tools used for networking and how to deploy them will also be explained.

Tools of the trade

These tools include the following:

  • Business cards. These are to hand to the people you meet and give basic details about you and your firm (your name, job title, firm name and location, contact numbers and
    email address). Trainees will usually be given personalised business cards soon after joining.
  • Telephone calls, emails, texts and letters. These are the basic tools of communication with contacts. Which one is used at any time will depend on the context and the message.
  • Published material. This can be anything that is likely to be of interest to a contact, such as an article in the legal or national press or something appearing on the web. Keep a look-out. Popping an interesting item in an envelope with a handwritten note, or sending a link to a web page by email, shows a contact that you are thinking of them. But check first that there are no copyright restrictions on doing this.
  • Firm brochures. These are used to send to a contact to demonstrate the firm’s competence in a legal area important to the client’s business activity.
  • Firm events. These will typically be seminars, training sessions, receptions or social gatherings put on by the firm as an opportunity to generate goodwill among existing and prospective clients. Numbers are usually restricted, but as you progress you will have a greater chance to invite some of your own contacts to participate. Some firms earmark events solely for associates and their contacts.
  • Meals and drinks. As your network develops these will probably become the most valuable of the tools at your disposal in the relationship building process. They allow an exclusivedialogue with contacts in a relaxed atmosphere, away from the intrusions and pressures of their office. You will rightly be hesitant in the early stages to propose spending the firm’smoney on eating and drinking. Most firms, however, will encourage activity that builds networks and so will be prepared to allow associates to extend hospitality to serious contacts.

Networking in action

Now take a look at an example of how some of these tools might be used. Let us suppose Ed, a partner in a law firm and a seasoned networker, strikes up a conversation with Frank, the finance director of a company manufacturing widgets, at a widget industry drinks reception. They chat for 10 minutes and before moving on swap business cards.

Ed notices that Frank’s office is near one of his clients and asks if he can pop in to see Frank the next time he is in the area. Frank agrees. A few weeks later Ed is in the locality seeing his client and he and Frank duly meet and chat over a coffee at Frank’s office. Ed is a good listener (an important networking trait) and they seem to get on well.

A little later Ed learns that the European Commission is planning a new regulation to reduce emissions from widget manufacture (and, as we all know, widgets are a mucky business). He sends Frank details. Unaware of the proposal, Frank is grateful for the tip-off.

From here Ed invites Frank to lunch and some time later Frank reciprocates. At one point Ed invites Frank to a seminar his firm is hosting on clean air legislation. Frank attends and while there Ed introduces him to a couple of his partners in the M&A field.

Then, a year or so after the two men first met at the industry reception, Frank’s company decides to buy a competitor whose family shareholders are selling out. His
company’s day-to-day lawyers do not handle much M&A work, and so Frank’s chairman asks him who they should use. Ed and his firm are clearly going to come quickly to Frank’s mind. While the firm would not necessarily be awarded the job directly (Frank might put it out to a number of firms to get the best deal), all things being equal, with
the investment Ed has made over the past 12 months in building the relationship, his firm should be the front runner.

In short, good relationships lead to good business. Start to build your own early on, both outside and inside your firm, going about it steadily but surely. If any training is offered in BD, go for it. Likewise with opportunities to help in business-winning efforts such as beauty parades, where firms are invited by prospective clients to present themselves.

Over time the careers of the contacts you make will go off in a variety of directions and they will become valuable relationships as you, with your legal skills, will become to them.

David Harvey is a consultant at Watson Farley & Williams and head of the firm’s Swiss desk