Guest post by Eric Christensen.
Many junior associates assume they could never land a whale of a big client for their firm, so they let this element of their practice slide, leaving rainmaking for the senior partners. Consequently, as these junior associates rise up in the firm, they are left scrambling to learn client development skills–on top of a rapidly growing workload. But a network is valuable only if it is in place before you need it. Build your network now, so you can rely on it later.
What many junior associates often overlook is that the future decision makers of a big client also start out low on the corporate ladder. By following this simple five-step plan, junior associates can start learning client development skills and building a network now. By forming relationships with peers at a variety of companies, junior associates can put themselves years ahead of their fellow associates and increase their long-term value to their firms.
Identify who are your firm’s big clients, and do not focus exclusively on your practice group. Once you have identified the clients, learn why they hired your firm. What problems are they experiencing? What are their fears, risks, and concerns? How did your firm help these clients fix their problems, address their fears, allay their risks, and respond to their concerns? At this phase, focus on gathering specific data, particularly when it comes to settlement figures.
Ideally, you want to be prepared in case you hear of a potential client’s problem (or a current client’s new problem). You want to know when it is appropriate to respond, “Oh, we can help you with that. We’ve already worked with other clients in a similar capacity and were able to achieve the following results for them”
Once you have gathered data from across the various practice groups within your firm, look for trends. Are there particular industries or sectors in which your firm’s clients tend to cluster? Do your firm’s clients have similar problems? Does your firm tend to specialize in a certain type of solution or use a certain set of tactics when working toward a solution?
Then begin researching companies that face similar problems or could benefit from your firm’s specialties. Creating Google alerts for your firm’s big clients as well as key phrases relevant to your practice group will help you in your search. And don’t focus only on companies that fit the bill today. Think about which companies might fit the bill five to ten years into the future. Don’t worry if you cannot identify very many companies. At this stage, even a couple ideas is enough to move on to the next stage.
Look at your clients and identify your peers within those organization. Where do they hang out or volunteer? What organizations do they belong to that you can join? Do your peers at potential client companies also frequent such organizations?
Don’t schmooze. Ask questions, and get to know the members. Offer to help them if you can. Become active in these organizations. At this stage, the point is to build relationships and start creating a network of contacts outside your firm or alumni group.
When you meet someone, whether or not you receive their card, take a moment shortly after the meeting to record their name, position, where and how you met them, and any other relevant information. As you get to know this person better, return to this record and add details. Ideally, use a uniform structure and software that is easily searchable when making these records.
Regularly check in with the people you meet. A short e-mail, an offer to meet for coffee or drinks, or even a quick lunch should suffice. You want to stay on their radar and help them when you can: introduce your contacts to others, for example. The best networkers are generous and give freely, strengthening the ties of their network through favors.
At the same time, look for writing and speaking opportunities to start building your status as an expert. Start small, and then think bigger. Volunteer to draft client alerts that responds to new legislation or important legal decisions or that summarizes Congressional hearings, convention presentations, or press releases.
Once you have familiarized yourself with your clients’ problems and the latest legal developments, approach a senior partner with the idea of writing an article for publication in either a trade journal or academic journal. Many senior partners will appreciate the initiative. And many articles can then be used as talking points for speaking engagements.
Although the previous steps have involved you seeking out potential clients (or outbound marketing) this step will help potential clients find you (or inbound marketing). Create opportunities for potential clients to come across your name among online search results or to approach you after a presentation.
5. Report Up
Keep your mentors and senior partners appraised of your ideas and activities once you have built a valuable network. If your efforts complement others within the firm, you may be asked to coordinate your efforts or to participate in pitching potential clients. Not only will this tie your professional success to that of the firm, but you will also be primed for the responsibilities of partnership. As an added bonus, this could lead to your network plugging into that of a senior partner, dramatically increasing your client development power.
The trick is to begin following this plan as early as possible in your career so that your network will grow dramatically over time. Pursue both outbound and inbound efforts in order to make your client development efforts as robust as possible. And repeat the cycle regularly as your firm’s priorities and practice areas evolve. As you rise in the firm’s ranks, so too will your network of contacts rise in their respective companies until you and your contacts arrive at positions of power. Your wide-reaching and well-developed network of contacts should drive business toward your firm, cementing your long-term professional success.
Eric Christensen is an attorney and a freelance writer. You can find him online at www.christensencommunications.com or on twitter (@erchristensen).