There are two fundamental questions that define whether a firm can and should keep an associate. First, is there enough work for the associate to do? Second, does the associate's combination of skill and attitude demonstrate potential for bringing clients into the firm? Most law firms require their associates to have business development skills and, more importantly, to bring in new business. But how much time and training do they allocate to their associates to do just that? For many law firm associates, marketing is a skill that's required to make partner but one that they have limited opportunities to pursue.
Do the math. Requiring associates to have six billable hours a day seems like a lot in one day, yet times five days times 50 weeks provides only 1,500 hours per year - well below what most firms target for associates. A target of eight hours of billable time a day equals 2,000 hours a year, close to what most firms expect. Yet how can associates get that many billable hours per day and do business development, perform pro bono work, take training - and eat lunch?
A practical answer for any firm is proactively encouraging succession of clients from older to younger lawyers, perhaps by offering capital incentives to senior lawyers in exchange for sharing clients with associates. Another is to service clients with teams (not just a single rainmaker), and cross-sell between teams according to a strategic plan. Encourage associates to go after target businesses according to a personal marketing plan, and give bonuses to those who get results. With this opportunity to grow business development opportunities, associates shouldn't be made partners unless and until they have a book of business.
Implicit in all this is that the younger lawyers who get such business development opportunities will be able to take advantage of them. To ensure that is the case, a firm must take positive steps to encourage associates' business development skills. The earlier associates begin to market, the better they will be at it. The key to business development success is building relationships with potential clients. An organized effort should get associates out into the public eye by writing articles and attending lunch or bar association functions, particularly when these things are done with established, older partners. Associates should also be encouraged to blog (either individually or on behalf of the firm), and to contribute to client news updates. Especially crucial is that associates should have access and input to a client relationship management (CRM) database that centralizes a firm's collective knowledge, wisdom and experience about clients and prospects, and makes it available to all authorized users. With CRM, relationship information that might have been hidden away in an older rainmaker's files becomes the foundation for an associate's business development.
To grow a career, irrespective of the size of the law firm or the firm's marketing activities as a whole, each associate must use such tools as these and establish the expertise necessary to put themselves before prospects and show the prospective clients the value they would receive by becoming a client. Relationship development is a marathon, not a sprint, and it starts with giving associates the opportunities they need.
For more insight on this topic, see the following articles on the LawBiz.com web site: "So Associates are Dissatisfied? It's Not Hard to See Why," and "How to Manage Key Client Marketing."