Great Expectations? Getting a Young Lawyer’s Marketing Efforts off the Ground

August 15, 2016

When are you expected to start marketing?

Every law firm is different in regard to its marketing and business development expectations from young lawyers. Regardless of the firm’s philosophies, there is no reason to avoid engaging in some type of marketing plan—be it informal or written in stone—in your early years of practice.

If you are hanging your own shingle or join a small boutique, you will be expected to market from day one. Numerous resources are available through the ABA’s Law Practice Division and Young Lawyers Division to help you with all of the necessary components that go into understanding the business of law.

Midsize and large law firms take many different approaches to teaching and encouraging marketing efforts by young associates. In a few cases, you may have been introduced to various law practice principles in law school. On occasion, some firms introduce marketing concepts to their summer associate class. The vast majority of Big Law firms typically prefer newer attorneys to focus on learning the craft, research and billable hours before even remotely thinking about bringing in business. Your own law firm experience will vary.

If your law firm is already strongly encouraging and supporting marketing efforts, you should appreciate what that means to you and your career. The firm is showing a willingness to invest in you beyond those first few years of practice. It’s demonstrating that it is progressive and entrepreneurial by spending the time and money to help develop your own brand and carry the torch for the firm’s image in the marketplace.

If your law firm discourages “marketing” efforts in the short term, that does not mean you should not be laying the groundwork for when it does matter. It might matter to you sooner rather than later if your current firm is not a fit for you. And it might matter even more if the firm decides you are not a fit for it. Either way, the time to start the process is yesterday. It does not take much, but it will pay dividends down the line regardless of the route your career takes you.

The Low-Hanging Fruit

Let’s start with the simple and easy.

Alumni Networks: The beauty of staying in touch with alumni from college, law school, and sometimes high school is that they are often in the same place on the career ladder as you are. The time to make and keep connections is on the way up the elevator, not once some have reached the penthouse. Nothing warms a future “connection” like that of fellow alum. So join the related alumni associations, send in your occasional news & notes to the magazine and follow the LinkedIn groups.

Digital Everything: More than enough resources are out there to tell you about digital marketing. However, the expectation from senior management is that younger attorneys know what they don’t—the idea that social media is second nature and an automatic part of your DNA. I’ve found that to be true some of the time. But the partners think you live and breathe on Facebook, LinkedIn, Snapchat, Twitter, and stuff none of us have ever heard about. Regardless, it is an expected part of your marketing portfolio—and it does not need money or support from the firm. Most firms have social media policies or guidelines that you need to be aware of and adhere to. However, effectively managing your social media profiles likely predates your arrival at the firm.

Enjoy the Perks of Young Professional Status

A fantastic perk that ties directly into marketing (and one I unfortunately “aged out” of many moons ago) are the special member and event rates offered to young professionals. It is not unusual to see a charity gala ticket that might run me $500/head cost you $150 at the young person rate. Same goes with memberships to many charitable, social, and philanthropic organizations. These are often the same organizations you might seek involvement with for business development as a young partner. Why not join now? It costs less. The young leaders are usually the future leaders anyway. And often the organization showers great recognition of your involvement, as it seeks out the next generation of leaders (and contributors) early on.

I’ve seen bar leaders and rising stars in many professions get high-profile recognition in the business community (accompanied by media coverage) for work done “under 40.” Don’t wait for the law firm to buy a table or pay your way. Get involved now in an organization that you enjoy. It may be tied to religion, culture, business—I don’t care—they are like-minded people who will send you business at some point in time.

Writing and Speaking

You may have an in-house marketing department that would love volunteers for writing opportunities. Finding them is not difficult. Chances are you will be drafted early to “help” (i.e. write the entire article in which the partner gets the byline and you are credited with helping as a footnote—such is life… it is great experience and you’ll pay it forward to a younger associate one day).

In many cases, you and the firm might not want you writing on substantive topics (on your own) too early. But plenty of law-related topics that might be tied to diversity, work/life balance, all sorts of things that get your name in print without ruffling any feathers. If writing is your thing, why not carve out a few hours on the weekend and get your name out there?

Speaking is similarly beneficial. Chances are that unless the firm recruits you to speak at a CLE or conference, you probably don’t want to go out there on your own. However, that does not mean there are not similar “non-substantive” topics in which you can present or join a panel. If you don’t like public speaking, it does not hurt to look for practice in smaller, low-key gigs. Or just do the other stuff.

More Networking

Isn’t networking just putting yourself out there and talking to people? Yes. It is not some sophisticated plan of attack. It is not something reserved for this personality or that skill set. It is about putting yourself out there with people who inevitably ask each other: “What do you do?” I meet a lot of lawyers who can bring me business—by coaching Little League, by serving on my synagogue’s Board of Trustees, going to college and law school alumni events, supporting various charities, volunteering as a class parent for one event or another—none of which I do for “business development.” I do them for me, my kids, my enjoyment—and yet they are as integral to formal marketing efforts as the same time I carve out for my numerous ABA activities, CLE for the Pennsylvania Bar Association, or writing for a variety of publications. Don’t overthink it.

Playing the Long Game

I’ve always been a big believer in playing the long game. This means marketing without a need to show some hard-and-fast results tomorrow. And that is the beauty of getting your marketing efforts off the ground early. No expectations. You pick the things you enjoy and get involved. By the time you feel pressure to produce (and others expect you to produce), you are an established leader in a position to make things happen, cash in chips, and have the network needed to push your career to the next level. It might be as a star at the firm you are with today. It might be someplace totally different. But your name and groundwork is portable. The investment goes with you.

If your firm wants to give you money and support to do the aforementioned, that is awesome. But if they don’t, it shouldn’t be an excuse not to. Take advantage of what you know (social media), lower costs points of entry (young professional rates) and the ability to build something with little pressure and a long term focus. In the end, you’ll see the dividends in whatever you choose to do with it.

BY MICAH BUCHDAHL

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