After hiring associates, help grow them!

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Published on 3/10/08

One standard growth strategy for law firms that take on new business is hiring associates to handle the extra work.

Sometimes firms don't plan for specific growth when the client has a need, and the firm reacts. But automatically hiring new associates without a plan on their future employment, beyond the immediate need, does a disservice to the firm and the new hires.

The fundamental question for any associate new hire is obvious: Is there enough work to justify keeping the associate? If the answer is yes, the next question becomes, does the associate's combination of skill and attitude demonstrate potential for career growth beyond the immediate hiring need? Skills are teachable, attitude isn't. And when we talk skills, it's not just knowledge of the law, it's the ability to learn about the business of the practice of law.

Most small law firms require their associates to have business development skills. Even large firms require associates to bring in new business as their careers advance. 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 opportunity to pursue.

Do the math. Requiring associates to bill six hours a day seems like a lot in one day, yet times five days multiplied by 50 weeks is only 1,500 hours per year — well below what most firms target for associates. Raise the target to eight hours of billable time a day, and you get to 2,000 hours a year, which is close to what most large firms expect.

Yet how can associates get that many billable hours per day and do business development — not to mention do pro bono work, take training and eat lunch?

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. Relationship development is a marathon, not a sprint. Getting an associate involved with the younger management of a business client helps the associate begin the marathon.

Firms should also encourage associates to undertake fundamental business development activities apart from the work that partners assign them. This requires a development plan to get associates out into the public eye. This can be done by writing articles and attending lunch or bar association functions, particularly when these things are done with established older partners; "blawging" (either individually or on behalf of the firm); contributing to client news updates; and a host of other ways to create public awareness of the associate.

Once you look at associates as a business development resource for the firm, rather than a means to meet an immediate workload, the dynamic changes. It's no longer a matter of guessing whether there will be enough work for the associates.

The more firms do to help associates undertake fundamental business development apart from the regular work they are being assigned, the more valuable a resource the associates will become.

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