The Street Smart Law Blog

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  • Frederick L Shelton

How a Thomas Jefferson Grad Came to be in Charge of the Ivy Leaguers

  I’ve been a legal recruiting and business consultant for about 25 years. I’ve heard every

legitimate reason an attorney might have for making a move. I’ve also heard every specious rationalization and gross err in judgment imaginable.

   I’ve probably told more attorneys to stay put than anyone in my profession. Why? Because people trust me with their careers and honestly, staying put is often in their best interest.       Thus was the case I was reminded of, and thought back on recently.

   A partner from a 1,000+ firm was referred to me by a friend back in San Diego. He didn’t like the direction in which firm management was headed.

   He had excellent credentials i.e. nineteen years at an AmLaw 100 doing sophisticated Mergers & Acquisitions (a high volume, high demand area). He also graduated from Harvard cum laude and Editor of Harvard Law Review. As I’d seen so many times before, his considerable advantages ended up being his greatest liabilities.

   It became almost immediately obvious that he was in an untenable position, largely of his own making.

   “John” had held the title of Practice Chair for years. He referred to himself as a “Gentleman of the Profession”. I appreciate the concept but that usually describes well-intentioned attorneys who don’t want to adapt to the rapidly changing business climate.

   John graduated well from the right school, was an excellent writer and solid biller for over a decade. When he became partner, there was more than enough work to keep everyone busy or at least steady during economic downturns. His compensation at the time, was five hundred thousand a year – which back then, was a lot of money.

   He’d gotten a few clients here and there, but in his opinion, client development wasn't a primary priority. After all, he was an excellent lawyer and his credentials and work product spoke for themselves. He also contributed to the firm by sitting on two committees and handling the administrative burden of being Practice Chair. All of these very right things ended up being his biggest mistakes.

   Now the Executive Committee had just given his title to a younger partner who traveled so much, it was obvious he wouldn’t be up to the task of Practice Chair. Worse than that, was an understandable blow to his ego.  

   “Bob” as we’ll call him, had none of the advantages John started out with. In the long run, this was his biggest advantage.

    I knew exactly who John was describing was, when he said:

   “He’s a Thomas Jefferson Law School grad. I have no problem with that…” (I think he did) “but he’s an insurance salesman. I mean literally.” He continued. “He worked his way through law school hustling insurance to all his dad’s rich friends and that’s how he got all his business.”

   This story I knew was not quite congruent with the way he was telling it.

   “He also goes around speaking and glad-handing and working every possible club in town. Which you know, I respect that.” (again, I suspected otherwise) “I publish often myself.”

   Okay I respect that John did what he could with his strength and time. On he went.

   “He’s at every meeting of The Women Lawyers Club, Bio-Tech, VC’s. He’s also on the board of a charity I genuinely admire so I get that.”

  I’d met Bob on several occasions. He wasn’t necessarily the most charismatic guy in the room but he was incredibly authentic – somewhat of a rarity in any professional nowadays, let alone attorneys.

   I also knew his dad did fairly well financially, but was by no means, rich. Bob had made his own way.     “But…?” I asked.

   “But not all of us have that kind of time. I serve on two committees and I’m an adjunct professor.”    Perfectly reasonable points.

   “So he’s got a big book of business and let’s be honest, that’s how he bought his way into the firm.” John was indeed, being honest. Back then and even now, a lot of firms won’t look at someone from a lower tier law school. Oh wait. Did I mention that $2M+ book in the 1990’s?

  In any case and whether or not I agreed with his reasoning,  John had made another legitimate point.

   “Now why take responsibilities he won’t have time to live up to?”

   Ah the folly of lawyers and especially "Closers".

   Take heed Rainmakers who are considering Titl for the sake of Title:    The ego gratification which accompanies a title, usually ends up being a royal pain in the ass and internal political nightmare.

   Of course, the same things that create political nightmares also create political power. Let me just share with you that those who prioritize political power over control of their lives, are rarely happy people. They were quite often, miserable. One need only look at their relationships with their families.

   So make the money. Control your practice and lifestyle. And avoid the politics.

   Trust me on this one.  

   John's view of the practice of law was legitimate. That's how things have been for a long time. But knowing the upsides to intentionally trying to become a Rainmaker, is Street Smart Law. Build a client base. Keep building it and scale.  Understand the Principle of Leverage and apply it. If your firm can't handle or doesn't reward you for your abilities in this areas, guess what? There are a lot of firms that will.

   The Rainmaker Reward has always been a part of  law but now even BigLaw attorneys have to start becoming more entrepreneurial. The only security is a solid client base.

   I’ve seen and heard attorneys like John, describe Rainmakers like Bob dozens of times. Men and women who built solid books of business and leveraged that into an AmLaw partnership, were the ultimate Street Smart Lawyers. They were the epitome of “The 'A' Students End Up Working for the 'C' Students”.

   This is especially true of attorneys who graduate in the middle of their class from a fairly high-ranked or well-networked local school (e.g. Hastings grads in SF, John Marshall Grads in Chicago etc.).

   Students who are more adept at developing friendships, advantageous  relationships and are smart enough to develop a valuable network in college, aren’t always those who come out at the top of their class.  But they are predictably, more likely to become Rainmakers than their summa cum laude classmates. Obviously, there are exceptions.

Rainmaking is Always Good

   Let’s just eliminate any delusion or rationalization that there’s a downside to being a Rainmaker. Take three attorneys with identical credentials and legal skills. They are all equal in every possible way. But one of them has a huge client base that will follow them anywhere, including should they go out on their own. The other two are service partners with no clients of their own.

   Who gets paid the most?

   Who gets more control over the work product submitted to their clients?

   Who oftentimes, has fewer billable hours?

   Who could go to another firm instantly, if things got bad or they wanted more money?

   Who could start their own firm and take people with them?

   Are we clear?

   The Street Smart Takeaway:

   If you can develop strong enough networking, marketing and closing skills, you can become a Rainmaker. Your goal is to be the partner who owns the most valuable clients in your firm, your office or your space.

   At minimum, you want to be a partner who has a significant, loyal client base that will follow you to another firm, should you decide you’re not being treated equitably by your current employer.

   Achieve this, and you have more control over your life as well as the following three options at any time of your choosing:  

You can choose to stay where you are and leverage your client base for a better compensation package.

You can shop around and / or have an expert do a market analysis, to determine whether you’re being compensated in a manner commensurate with what you bring to the table. If not, your client base will open doors to firms that will pay you more aggressively and / or give you more control over your practice e.g. rates, structure etc.

You can start your own firm. This is never as easy or glamorous as it sounds but for the small percentage who excel in this endeavor, nothing is more as rewarding.

   None of these are a downside. Everyone of these concepts is equally advantageous to those wanting to enter politics.

   It all comes down to developing an individual network and client base. If you don’t have one, it’s time to get to work. Nothing you do will have a more beneficial impact on your career and your finances.

Frederick L Shelton, CEO,

Shelton & Steele

Legal Recruiters & Consultants