James Goodnow (Fennemore Craig, Phoenix), Why ‘A’ Students Struggle In Biglaw:
The skills that made you a great student are not enough to make you a great lawyer.
I’ve been thinking for a long time about a piece of advice I received back in my associate days. I was a freshly minted JD. Since I was a kid, I was always motivated to get that “A” in school, and doing so eventually helped me land my first law firm job. When I started practicing, I was confident those grades would translate into the success I could expect as a lawyer.
Then I heard an older partner musing aloud: “Ya know, if I was in charge of hiring, I’d only hire B students. ... Your students who get Cs, you don’t want to hire them. They’re not gonna hack it. But we go out and hire all these law school kids with straight As, and all they know how to do is research, write, and watch Star Wars. They’re going to work a million hours, give you all this great written product, but they’re not going to be out there hitting the bars every night drumming up business. It’s your B students who are in the sweet spot. Smart enough to do the work, but social enough to bring the work in.”
I’ve been mulling this partner’s concept since he uttered it over a decade ago, and I’m still not quite sure where on the spectrum between total nonsense to profound this theory lies. Early in my career, I convinced myself it was nonsense. The more I’ve practiced, however, the more I’ve come to believe that the partner may have been on to something. ...
I ... think this attorney was circling a more basic tension that law firms place on their associates and many young partners: the tension between being a great attorney and a great business developer. ...
Time is the fundamental currency of a law firm, and like all currencies, it can be invested, and it can be spent. The short-term economics of a legal practice strongly incentivize spending our time in a way that maximizes the revenue earned. If you want a big check, you need to send out some big bills.
But if a firm’s immediate prospects are determined by how much revenue it can generate from its existing client pool, its long-term prospects are determined by how much it can expand the pool altogether. If you want to be rich today, bill. If you want to be rich tomorrow, you need to hustle, network, and generally get your face in front of all those clients who just don’t know they’ve hired you yet.
It takes practice and repetition to learn how to connect with strangers, make the ask for new business, and treat the process with discipline and purpose. My personal goal has always been to spend at least 20 percent of my working hours actively trying to bring in new clients. That’s one workday a week that I’m committing to bringing in zero actual dollars, in the hope of bringing in far more down the road. ...
Law firms need to decide what they want their associates to be and communicate that expectation to everyone in the firm. It’s acceptable to expect your associates to bill 2,400 hours a year if you’re clear with them that billing is an associate’s only job, and business development is something they can pursue on their own time if they choose. It’s equally acceptable to expect a firm’s associates to be actively developing themselves and bringing in new business early, but doing that means understanding that the amount of hours those associates bill will (and should) go down in the process. Either way, the key is being transparent with associates so they can make informed decisions and not be surprised down the road.