A New World Order: Best Practices for Rainmakers in the 21st Century


In 1977, a small legal clinic challenged the Arizona State Bar’s censure for advertising its services in the local newspaper, and the Supreme Court found that the clinic had a First Amendment right to do so. That decision allowed competitive market forces to have their first real influence on client acquisition and retention in the legal industry, forces that have only grown stronger in the subsequent decades, particularly in the wake of the far-reaching economic collapse of 2008.

The rule of the status quo is no more; law firms are required to bid for virtually all new business, as well as work they have been doing for years. Clients are applying downward pressure on hourly rates and asking for more value in return for their fees; competition is not just from the firm down the street, but from the one on the other side of the planet, as the Internet has globalized the marketplace. This “new world order” is forcing attorneys to consider new strategies and practices to drive new business opportunities.

How does the woman rainmaker fit into all this? As it turns out, probably in the same way her male counterpart does. And though women across a wide swath of critical industries have made great strides forward—Sheryl Sandberg, the COO at Facebook; Indra Nooyi, the CEO at PepsiCo; Virginia Rometty, the CEO of IBM; Meg Whitman, the CEO at Hewlett-Packard; Ursula Burns, the CEO of Xerox; and Mary Barra, the CEO at General Motors, just to name a few—it remains important to nurture this progress to provide further opportunities. However, from my position as the chair of an AmLaw 200 national law firm, success in the 21st century is increasingly dependent on a shifting industry culture to which both female and male leaders must adapt. Whatever one’s demographic, some crucial mindsets must be adopted to thrive in the new economy; a firm is only as strong as the full range of all its diverse parts.

Moving From the “I” to the “We”

Traditionally, law firms have been alliances of individual practitioners who cultivated their own clientele. Now, the practice of law is more of a group effort. With clients seeking more value, we have found if we understand their business better, we can add value. If we are able to serve the client in various areas of their business, we develop a deeper relationship with them and again can add more value.

Here are some of the steps that can move your firm from the “I” mentality to the “We” (or to function as a team):

  • Reward cross-selling and disincentivize “lone-wolf” behaviors. Positive action and results drive culture, so establish policies that create an impetus to strengthen relationships and fully serve clients.
  • Educate the partnership on the many skill sets within the firm, so lawyers can make informed offers of services they themselves don’t provide, creating tangible value for the client.
  • Proactively build trust between parties by touting collaborative successes, so everyone can see the talent that drives the firm. This also puts the notion of teamwork top-of-mind; nothing breeds success like success.
  • Cultivate a deep understanding of clients’ multidisciplinary needs. Learn as much about the client as you can, so that you can see potential issues before they become issues, and potentially direct them toward a low-cost, low-pain remedy.

“A Ten Every Time”

In another era, each matter on which an attorney labored was one in a virtually eternal continuum of work from the same client. That is no longer the case; the days of guaranteed work have gone the way of that old status quo. The legal industry of the 21st century is fully competitive, which brings with it an entirely new set of rules for acquiring and retaining clients. It is not enough to simply be excellent; one must be consistently excellent. This is the bar the best set for themselves.

  • Responsiveness is of critical importance. Clients expect it in today’s marketplace, and attention to it can separate the good from the great.
  • Constantly develop your listening skills. Find out what the client needs and then provide it.
  • Stay in regular contact, even if you’re not currently working on any matters.
  • Adapt your communication style to what the client desires. You’re working for them, so be considerate of how they want to communicate.
  • Keep giving clients reasons to hire you again and again.

Embrace Change

Innovation is the key to survival in any business, and the legal industry is no different. Looking at processes—even those that are tried and true—with new eyes is hugely beneficial not only to your practice and your firm, but your clients as well—it creates efficiencies and value for everyone. In the fast-paced, competitive environment we find ourselves, a good result is one thing, but finding a better way to get there is a true achievement.

  • Seek new ways to do everything. This does not mean reinventing the wheel, or creating busy work, but take the time to regularly—and intelligently—review what you do and how you do it, looking for opportunities to tweak and improve.
  • Never be shy about questioning the status quo. As we’ve seen, it’s already headed out the door.
  • Take chances. Failure is simply the first draft of success. Progress doesn’t happen overnight, and it certainly doesn’t come from doing what you’ve already done exactly as you’ve always done it.

The successful 21st century rainmaker—man or woman—embodies each of these principles. He or she is collaborative, seamlessly working with peers to provide the broadest, highest-quality service possible to clients—the real world application of the whole being greater than the sum of the parts. The modern rainmaker aims for a “10 every time,” consistently delivering promised service in all interactions, day in and day out. And finally, this successful attorney embraces change—not just that inherent in our industry, but within their own practice and their own methods. These best practices can make the difference between riding the crest of the new (legal) world order and sinking below its surface, joining the wreckage of the status quo and the old prejudices soon forgotten.

Originally published in ABA Law Practice Today, August 15, 2014

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