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Building a practice you can be proud of - client development for young lawyers.
By:  Cory R. McDowell

Not long ago I was at a point in my career where I didn’t think I would need to spend much time developing clients.  I was in an established and thriving estate planning and probate practice.  I had never been encouraged to take on clients of my own because we "were just too busy" taking care of my mentors' clients, and I looked forward to continuing to service those clients well into the future. 

Unfortunately, my primary boss and mentor tragically and unexpectedly passed away at the young age of 58.  It seemed that my whole practice was turned upside down and I started questioning the nature and direction of my future practice.  About that same time, I had an amazing offer to rebuild a high-end estate planning practice at a youthful and revitalized firm with ambitious goals for the future. 

I made the leap to my new firm along with a brilliant third-year associate and legal assistant from my old firm.  The catch was that we would now be expected to build up a practice and I would need to ensure that the three of us had plenty of work.  I had very little experience in building a practice and not everyone believed I had enough gray hair to keep serving the types of clients that I had grown accustomed to helping.  Nonetheless, my team and I forged forward into an incredibly challenging, yet rewarding year.

I’m extremely proud of the practice that my team has developed in a short amount of time.  We’ve been blessed beyond what we could have ever hoped for, and I hope that the tips below will be helpful to other young attorneys looking to build a practice. 

I.  Identify Referral Sources.

You need to be able to identify the people that are sending you work, or that could potentially send you work, so that you can create relationships with those people.  In my area of practice, we tend to get referrals primarily from existing clients, other attorneys, accountants, financial advisors, trust departments, and bank officers.  I found it helpful to create a list of every potential referral source that my team and I contacted.  My “advisor spreadsheet” includes information such as when we last made contact with the referral source and each client referral they may have sent us so that we know which referral sources are actually sending us work. 

II.  Build Relationships.

Nothing is better than having referral sources and clients who are truly your friends.  Find people that you enjoy being around.  When you care about people, you will try to help them, and when they care about you, they will try to return the favor.  Within the first six months of building our practice, my team and I had met or had lunch with 117 advisors.  Every time you go to a bar event, a charitable event, a social gathering, or a CLE course, you have opportunities to build relationships.  Find common interests, and get to know people on a personal level.  Be a listener: find out what people’s needs are and find ways to help them meet those needs.  Make sure you let people know what you do and how they can help you as well.  Once you have established great relationships, don’t forget to maintain them and stay in touch. 

III.  Find A Need And Fill It.

Is there a need in your community that isn’t being fully met?  I had a lot of clients who struggled to find parking just to meet with me.  They were often elderly, had physical impairments, and would need a loved one to take off work to get them to a downtown meeting.  We now offer an optional concierge-like experience where we allow a client to do everything from the initial meeting, to executing documents in the convenience of their own home or business.  Finding a niche to fill can really accelerate the growth of your law practice.

IV.  Distinguish Yourself.

First and foremost, work hard on a client’s behalf to obtain the desired result.  Make sure you are educated on the matter at hand and that you are practicing both adeptly and efficiently.  Become an expert on specific issues in your field.  If you have opportunities to speak on topics in your area of practice, go out and speak.  If you have interests in topics you can write scholarly papers on, do so.  Get your name out there and build a reputation for doing great work.  If you can serve on committees and boards, or get involved with the State Bar, you will find opportunities to distinguish yourself.

V.  Find Mentors.

When I started building my practice, I reached out to all of the local attorneys who had been practicing in my field for longer than I and invited each of them to lunch.  It is a huge blessing to have mentors whom you can call and bounce ideas off.  I believe that most experienced attorneys are open to imparting their wisdom and embracing younger attorneys who appreciate their insights.  Be open to using your mentors’ knowledge about how to network and build a practice in your area of law.  They will give you insightful ideas and help you reach your full potential.

When my primary mentor passed away, I lost a phenomenal man in my life whom I loved, and who was rightfully proud of the excellent practice that he had built.  His death opened my eyes to an opportunity to grow as an attorney by building a practice I could similarly be proud of.  I hope that my practice has developed into one that would make him proud.  I wish you much success on your own journey in building a rewarding and fulfilling practice. 

Cory R. McDowell is an attorney for Stubbeman, McRae, Sealy, Laughlin & Browder in Midland.  His practice focuses on estate planning and probate.

Views and opinions expressed in eNews are those of their authors and not necessarily those of the Texas Young Lawyers Association or the State Bar of Texas.

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