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Being a New Partner: Techniques for Developing a Client Base

February 3, 2023

Stewart Weintraub's article "Being a New Partner: Techniques for Developing a Client Base" in The Legal Intelligencer

The Legal Intelligencer

Being a New Partner: Techniques for Developing a Client Base

By Stewart Weintraub

There are many career paths newly minted law school graduates can follow but the traditional path, for at least two-thirds of them, remains beginning their careers at a law firm. For some, following this path may be a stepping stone to alternative legal careers (e.g., in-house, trade association, government lawyer), business, finance or otherwise.  For those who choose to practice in a law firm environment, long term, the goal for many is eventually to become a law firm partner. Virtually all law firms will consider highly-regarded associates for partnership after the passage of a discrete period of time. The amount of time can vary from firm to firm but generally speaking, law firms are likely to consider an associate for partnership after the passage of between six and twelve years of practicing law, with the longer timeframe typically associated with the partnership track of larger firms.      

Once an associate is elevated to partnership, the responsibility of the new partner can dramatically change. Apart from providing quality legal services to clients (which is a sine qua non for all successful lawyers), the ability to attract new clients, as well as retain and enhance existing client relationships, is certain to meaningfully bear upon the new partner’s continued rise within the firm. This article will discuss some of the techniques new partners might consider when trying to develop a client base.

The techniques used to develop a practice is not a “one stop fits all.” Each lawyer must consider the techniques that feel most comfortable to him or her and that are best suited for his or her practice. A technique that may work for a general practice lawyer or personal injury trial lawyer may not work for a lawyer with a highly specialized practice. Nonetheless, one general maxim applies across the entire spectrum of legal practice; after spending “years in the trenches” developing skills as a lawyer, new partners cannot just sit behind their desks and expect that business will come to them. 

The opposite is true; new partners need to get out from behind their desks to meet people and to show off the skills and expertise they have spent years developing. How do you do that? The first step is to define your target audience. Is your target audience a potential client or is it other professionals whose clients could become your potential clients? This choice is not mutually exclusive. The new partner could consider either or both options. For example, for corporate or tax lawyers, there are trade associations comprised of in-house professionals who seek out and collaborate with outside lawyers. Once you identify your target audience, join the trade associations and become an active participant to build your network of connections and enhance your reputation. By joining committees and attending meetings, the new partner becomes known and solidifies these relationships. 

How does the new partner build relationships? The initial relationships the new partner establishes are the ones developed while an associate. By demonstrating to the client your skill and expertise as a younger lawyer, they can become your initial relationships. Apart from coming to you for new/additional work, your relationships are your best marketers. If, when speaking with their contemporaries, they are told about a problem within your area of expertise, they can be your best referral source.

The next relationship you want to cultivate is with your colleagues at the bar. Speaking as a lawyer with a very narrow specialty, I recall a time during my early career when I was speaking with a friend of mine in another firm. I was telling him that I wanted to leave the large firm I was then with and he suggested I go to a small to mid-size firm. His reasoning was that because very few firms have a specialist with my expertise and because of the reputation I developed, other law firms could be a source of referral business for me. If I joined another large firm, other lawyers at large firms would be afraid to refer work to me from fear the firm would steal the client but at a small/mid-size firm they would not have such fear. I took my friend’s advice and joined a mid-size firm. I found other lawyers, not only began referring clients to me but their firm’s also became my clients. I relate this anecdote not to suggest the new partner change firms. I relate this anecdote to demonstrate that when you have a narrow specialty, other lawyers with whom you develop a relationship could be a significant source of business.

The Pennsylvania Bar Institute and the Philadelphia Bar Association administer many Continuing Legal Education programs. By organizing programs or being a panelist at programs, you can demonstrate the expertise you have to an audience of potential clients or an audience of referral sources. Here I can give you another anecdote.  A few years ago I received a call from a lawyer who wanted to refer one of his clients to me. He told me that I would not remember him (and I did not) but he saw me speak at a program at Philadelphia Community College (PCC). For my entire career, I gave only one presentation at PCC. That presentation was during 1981. More than thirty-five years later, this lawyer became a referral source for me. 

Finally, notwithstanding the pressure of billing hours, you must be prepared to invest in non-billable hours. When meeting with a potential client, do not be afraid to offer free time to review the potential client’s operations to see if there is anything you can do to help. For example, as a tax lawyer you can review the potential client’s operation and see if there is anything which can be done to generate tax savings for the potential client.     

One fact the new partner must always remember is that building a practice takes time. It does not happen overnight so patience and persistence will serve you well in the end.

Stewart Weintraub, shareholder at Chamberlain Hrdlicka and the firm’s S.A.L.T. practice chair emeritus. He can be reached at sweintraub@chamberlainlaw.com.

Reprinted with permission from the February 3, 2023, edition of The Legal Intelligencer © 2022 ALM Media Properties, LLC. All rights reserved. Further duplication without permission is prohibited, contact 877-257-3382 or reprints@alm.com.