Why business development is do or die for attorneys

Did anyone catch James B. Stewart’s piece, “A Lawyer and Partner, And Also Bankrupt,?” It recounts how Gregory Owens, a partner at the now-defunct Dewey & LeBoeuf  became bankrupt. It paints a pretty graphic picture, both of some very personal details of Mr. Owens, but also of the pressures on senior attorneys at BigLaw.

The article does highlight some of the very real economic issues facing BigLaw , and should be as noisy and vibrant a warning sign for all practicing attorneys.

In short, the days of being a “service partner” or “senior service associate”are pretty much over. If you do not have a book, I hope you have been diligently putting money away for the rainy day that is coming.

I hate to be the bearer of bad tidings, but the new reality is if you do not have clients, you do not have a great future in the law. Anecdotally speaking, as a legal recruiter, the more senior you become, the harder you are to place unless you have a book of business. If you are a service partner at a firm, and your practice area is trending toward a downward cycle, get out your rolodex now and call everyone you can.

Am I being an alarmist? Sadly, no. I am working with law firm partners in certain practice areas, as well as senior associates in these same areas, with top-notch credentials, the kinds of pedigrees many of us would have killed for, and firms are not interested in hiring them. In-house remains a challenging market, so the question for many of these attorneys is where do they go?

I too am not always satisfied by the anecdotal, so I share this with you as well from Kenneth Anderson’s Article entitled The rising economic pressures on non equity law firm partners where he quotes Indiana University Law Professor William Henderson:

But anyone who doesn’t have clients is in a precarious position. For the last 40 years, all firms had to do was answer the phone from clients and lease more office space. That run is over. The forest has been depleted, as we say, and firms are competing for market share. Law firms are in a period of consolidation and, initially, it’s going to take place at the service partner level. There’s too much capacity.

Mr. Anderson also points out that Professor Henderson also explained that:

The pressures on Big-Law business models are not cyclical and merely an overhang of the 2008 recession; the shifts are structural and the returns are simply not, and won’t be, what they were.  Although some would contest that big law firm practice is undergoing a genuinely structural shift, I think it is pretty widely accepted in the legal marketplace.

So what do we do? Let’s get busy building a book.