There seems to be a magical belief in certain law firms that emphasizing the importance of rainmaking is the same thing as actually increasing revenues. Nowhere is this conflation of intent and result more obvious than in discussions of how to pay associates for their successful rainmaking efforts. In the past few years increased attention has placed on encouraging associates to bring in business, but in my experience consulting with law firms, the talk generally doesn’t translate into actual business.
Part of the problem is that law firms generally don’t articulate a career development philosophy for associates that puts rainmaking into a proper context. At the beginning of associates’ careers, the primary focus should be on mastering skills. If an associate happens to bring in business during this early phase, it’s a bonus for the firm, but that’s not the primary or even secondary role of a beginning associate.
The duration of this phase depends to some degree on the complexity of the work associates are required to so. Certain practice areas lend themselves to mastering a routine. For example, lawyers who represent plaintiffs in state court litigation may need to master certain kinds of pleadings. It might take the average associate two or three years to be very familiar with this work. By contrast, law school graduates are often less prepared to handle certain kinds of transactional work and the learning curve for M&A, real estate, and related transactions are often longer. As a general rule, the longer the learning curve to achieve mastery, the longer the firm should wait before emphasizing rainmaking for associates.
And when rainmaking is emphasized it should be presented as an additional skill a lawyer needs to master to become a full professional. Too often, firm leaders assume that associates will be primarily motivated by the possibility of additional pay. These are the firms that announce that they will pay associates a portion of what the firm collects from their rainmaking efforts, but do nothing more to foster a culture of rainmaking among associates. It isn’t enough to announce a policy that, for example, associates will receive 10% of what the firm collects on a case brought in by the associate.
A firm that is serious about encouraging associate rainmaking also needs to provide training, mentorship, and resources to associates who try to make rain. The most basic and overlooked training takes the form of teaching associates how to find a relevant target audience and how to talk about their individual capabilities. In other words, most associates (and partners) need help identifying who to talk to about business development and what to say when they are in front of that audience. Networking is a learned skill and trial and error plays a large part in mastering it. That is why mentoring is so important. Associates often underestimate how much effort and persistence it takes to bring in a client. This is something that more experienced lawyers are in a strong position to demonstrate.
Associates who have graduated from law school since 2008 don’t need to be reminded of the importance of bringing in clients. I have taught a few business development classes to law school classes and the students are infinitely more aware of the importance of networking than my generation of lawyers was. Associate rainmaking can be much more effective than it currently is, but as with many aspects of running a successful law firm, it requires a strategic approach and a commitment to implementing that strategy consistently.