First-Year Associate Marketing Plans - It is Never Too Soon to Start

By Micah U. Buchdahl, Esq.

The Legal Intelligencer, 2006

It was not too many years ago that the simple concept of talking to summer associates or first-year associates about a law firm’s marketing initiatives would be considered utter blasphemy. In year one, you had one job to do—keep your head down, do as you are told, and bill like nothing else exists in the world.

Times change.

Today, lawyers talk about crazy things like “work-life balance,” “flex time” and “attorney sales and marketing.” And they start talking about those things during the recruiting dance—not as some possible future consideration.

Joshua Ryan is getting ready to begin his third year as an Associate at Volpe and Koenig, an intellectual property law firm in Philadelphia. Just months into his first year, he sat down with the firm’s marketing shareholder to discuss an initial business development plan.

“I was asked about my interests and how I might get started,” said Ryan, who attended law school at Villanova and college at Penn State. “I decided to join the Young Lawyers Division of the Philadelphia Bar Association. That has led to many new contacts and involvement in some pro bono efforts. I’ve also now joined the Public Relations Board of the Young Professional's Network through the Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce. After just two years of practice, I’ve had a chance for public speaking, authoring articles and lots of association involvement. They say that it takes years to develop all these networks, so get started early.”

In just his second year as an Associate out of the Temple University School of Law, Ian Fredericks practically has a full-fledged marketing portfolio. The bankruptcy lawyer at Young Conaway Stargatt & Taylor in Wilmington, Delaware, is editor of the American Bankruptcy Institute’s financial advisors’ committee newsletter. He has co-authored multiple articles for publication, attended networking functions with partners, and created a bookmark summary of the recently amended bankruptcy code—all in his first 24 months!

“It really makes you feel like a part of the firm’s overall business rather than just another associate in a large practice,” said Fredericks. “There is definitely a sophisticated business development philosophy here.”

These experiences by young attorneys are not necessarily the norm, but are reflective of a changing attitude in developing a better-rounded Associate that will be more prepared for “rainmaking” responsibility when the time comes.

“There are two schools of thought at play,” said Michael Nestor, Young Conaway’s marketing partner. “Some believe it is important for newer attorneys to just focus on the basics and not worry about things like marketing. Our feeling is that it is never too early to learn, and if you have the desire, we do not want to discourage it. At the same time, none of this is going to be forced on you in your early years.”

So, how does a first-year associate or his/her law firm get the ball rolling? The key is to remember that this is truly preparation for a marathon and not a race to develop business. You need to craft a short, mid and long-term marketing plan based on your own strengths and interests, paired with the firm’s practices and business plan.

Remember…networking trumps all.

You can write until your hand is numb. And speak until laryngitis takes its toll. People in this business will tell you that it is as much “who you know” as “what you know” when it comes to business development. And they speak the truth. It is never too early to build your network. Those relationships will provide a flow of business for the rest of your career. Whether you realize it or not, your college and law school classmates are most likely to be the easiest to build upon. Try your best to stay in touch. Nobody wants to hear from you after they’ve already become a CEO or in-house counsel someplace. Unless, of course, you have taken the time to stay in touch all along.

The myth for some is that most organizations are cliques, and it takes years to become active. Not in today’s world, my friend. Organizations of all size are usually desperate for people willing to “get their hands dirty.” There is no quicker route to boards, executive positions and great speaking & writing opportunities than to actually do something. There are plenty of potential routes to take:

  1. Bar Associations – No brainers. State, county, national, international. There is no lack of choices. Pick one or two and devote some time and dollars. Your practice and firm size will guide you along. For example, if you have a local-oriented practice (i.e. family law, real estate, personal injury), keep your association local. If the practice is more national or international in nature, go that route. At the same time, while not always the case, the smaller the firm, the smaller the association. A sole practitioner will often join a county or city bar. A large firm associate will often lean toward the ABA or a related practice-specific organization. Think long-term.
  2. House of Worship – I never advocate pulling out an “elevator speech” on Yom Kippur, but religious institutions often put people in a friendly, spiritual, non-threatening environment. Get on the board, join a committee, attend a service. Being a first-year can get trying; you would not be the first to reach out to your Almighty for guidance.
  3. Charitable Organizations – It is often most effective to pick a charity near and dear to your heart. Besides the contacts you make, it is good for the soul. And lends itself to the intangible “human factors” that truly go into many decisions for selecting legal counsel.
  4. Neighborhood Associations – Another network where you already have something in common with everyone else.
  5. If you’ve got kids, use them – In a good way, of course. Volunteering for activities at school, scouts, karate, ballet, soccer. You might not think it is a “law firm business development opportunity”, but you’d be wrong.
  6. Ply them with food and alcohol – Some of you have small business promotion accounts that can be used to entertain clients and potential clients. If you do, use it to build upon professional and personal relationships (in the end, the two blend together). If you do not, take some of your newfound wealth and invest it here. I read the Legal. I know what you are making. Pick up a tab, for goodness sakes.

Crafting the marketing plan.

  1. In year one, pick one marketing activity to call your own. And devote a pre-set amount of time each month to business development. It can be an hour or a day, but lock in a reasonable time commitment.
  2. Figure out a budget. And do not be shy about soliciting funds internally.
  3. Don’t hesitate to market your own marketing. At a minimum, be sure to send your “news” to college and law school alumni magazines, your hometown newspaper and your current “home” local. Some large law firm marketing departments will do this for you.
  4. Be sure your activity is making it onto the firm’s web site and onto your bio.
  5. Regardless of your new law firm’s marketing department size, they are always looking for volunteers. Let them know you’d like to do some thing.
  6. Attach yourself to a good rainmaker or marketer. Your mentor may be the right person, or not. Learn from those that are doing seminars, writing and networking. They are often eager for associates to help them with current initiatives.
  7. Do not overdue it. “I was trying to be a rainmaker,” is not a justifiable defense when review time comes along. While your efforts may pay long-term dividends, the “super biller” is going to clobber you in the short-term.
  8. However, if you just hate your new law firm and must get out, increase efforts to promote yourself through writing, speaking and volunteering. You are not on the partnership track anyway. You’ll need to beef up your post-law school credentials quickly.
  9. Be patient. ROI (return-on-investment) in professional services is a little more difficult to track. But you’ll know when it starts working for you.
  10. If you are not having fun doing it, you probably picked the wrong activity.

Pro Bono Counts!

If your firm has a significant pro bono program, that does count as “marketing” in my book. It provides networking, media and public relations opportunities, the “do-good” in the community, and can often be parlayed into many of the aforementioned marketing activities. It sometimes seems in poor taste to use “pro bono” and “marketing” together—but they do work hand in hand.

Advertising, Sponsorships and Conferences

While they all have marketing benefits, and are a big part of a law firm’s budget, for the new associate, the focus should be on the longer-term, more grass roots type of business development. There is a time for spending dollars on ads and sponsorships, but first you need to lay the groundwork that you build upon. Conferences are best used to support the organization’s you have selected as part of your network. And, no, getting your CLE is not a true use of a marketing budget (yet is sometimes an ancillary benefit).

Good luck!

Welcome to the practice of law in the 21st Century—where you might not need to practice business law, but everyone needs to understand the business of law.