If You Build It, They Can Thrive (and So Can You): Creating an Associate Business Development Program

Associates often enter law firms with an abundance of energy, drive and enthusiasm for practicing law. The first few years can be stressful with the combination of billable hour requirements, learning how to be a lawyer and keeping the partners happy. Associates will develop their legal skills as their careers progress through on-the-job training and formal legal-focused training programs; however, many will not receive the structured guidance and mentoring to develop the same level of mastery of their business development skills.

Partners at most law firms are expected to grow a book of business and deliver revenue into the firm, and our job as marketing and business development professionals is to help them be successful. Considering the expectations placed on partners for business development, why should we wait until promotion to partnership occurs to provide coaching, education and training to associates?

Let’s explore opportunities for how we can add value and accelerate associate-level business development success, while simultaneously strengthening our position within the firm.

Define Your “Why”

The first step in creating a culture of business development at the associate level is to ask, “What’s the purpose?” Investigating the “why” and understanding the answer will provide direction for how to structure the program and an opportunity to shine in front of firm leaders, senior associates and partners.

Are you looking generate revenue through associate business development training? Increase retention rates for associate classes? Or simply change the culture within the firm so that when some associates do inevitably depart, often for in-house positions, they view the firm and its support of their career fondly and are more likely to send business back to the firm? There are many parties who benefit from an associate business development program; which are most important to you and your firm?

For the Associates

The path to success starts early with basic skills like networking, active listening and developing healthy habits like maintaining and using contacts lists and social media. By creating a safe space for associates to share their concerns and ask uncomfortable questions, coupled with basic and consistent programming, you can set them up for success and avoid an all-too-common situation of a senior associate on the cusp of partnership with limited prospects, leads and connections that could hinder future business generation.

For the Firm

The results of a 2017 study on associate attrition by the National Association of Legal Placement (NALP) highlight a panoply of issues that commonly plague even the best functioning firms, including poor integration and lack of training. With limited resources, law firms must consider not only the cost of providing and investing in training, but, more importantly, the cost of not making that investment. Retention and recruitment are often reasons why firms invest in training and coaching of associates. The cost of losing an associate can average $200,000 to $500,000, inclusive of recruiting and training costs, the opportunity cost of a resource shortage, administrative and human resource man hours and other factors. Even for those associates who do leave, the value of having provided training beyond the law helps create a more positive and lasting relationship between the organization and its alumni.

For the Marketing Department

While there is tremendous benefit for the associates who will receive training and the firm at large, there are others throughout the firm who can benefit from the introduction of an associate business development training program, including those within your marketing department. These programs provide a more comfortable training ground where marketing professionals can gain experience in delivering presentations, leading training programs and honing their coaching skills. In addition, for those we can help shepherd through from a frightened first year to a confident and successful partner, they will become our ally for years to come as they move through the ranks and into decision-making positions at the firm.

Make a Plan

“Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can.” – Arthur Ashe

Once the purpose of the program is established, create your roadmap for success. Associate business development programs are as unique as the associates they impact, and your program must be right for your firm. In your plan, consider addressing the following questions.

Which department owns the program?

Business Development, Marketing and Professional/Talent Development are logical departments to house the program. However, in some firms the Recruiting department may play a vital role in the execution. For the greatest opportunity for success, seek buy-in and support from other departments as well as firm leadership, and assign roles within the program where appropriate.

What will be included?

A cyclical schedule with repeatable modules may help provide continuity and longevity for your program, covering the basics of contact lists, social media tools, networking, profile management, and more. Adding in components like one-on-one coaching or weekly task lists can further elevate your program, but be sure to consider your bandwidth to determine what can be achieved at the quality level that is expected by firm leadership. Adjust your program accordingly so that you can secure a few early wins and build momentum for a more robust program down the road.

How will you deliver the program?

Studies show that blended learning and using a variety of teaching methods work best for associate level attorneys, so think creatively about content delivery, including presentations, book clubs, podcasts, web-based tools, videos and more. Effective programs also integrate the voice of the lawyer into their programs; have new partners share their experiences about what they did to earn partnership and what they wish they’d known as an associate.

Just Do It… and Evaluate

“Take a method and try it. If it fails, admit it frankly, and try another. But by all means, try something.” – Franklin Roosevelt

While failing to plan means planning to fail, developing the perfect program right out of the gate is unrealistic. With each passing day, the opportunity costs of untrained associates increase, and the longer they go without training, the more likely they are to become frustrated and seek opportunities elsewhere. Start small, but do start. Even things that may seem very basic to someone on the marketing team, e.g., programs about the broad offerings of practices throughout the firm, may be a good starting point for associates who aren’t yet comfortable talking about the firm’s offerings outside of their own practice area. By providing a safe space for discussion and basic business development content, you will deliver a level of support that can help associates to develop healthy habits today that can bear significant fruit as they march towards partnership. In addition, you can position yourself as a trusted advisor to those who may become future leaders of the firm.

And finally, while being the receiver of positive feedback is a gift, constructive feedback (even if it is wrapped in barbed wire), is a gift that keeps on giving. Once your program is launched, seek feedback. Article co-author Bobbie Conklin states, “The associate program at Steptoe & Johnson PLLC is beginning its 6th year, and we constantly seek feedback and retool. We use anonymous surveys, as well as have frank discussions with current cohort members and program graduates. We have learned valuable lessons and have retooled several times. The success we have is based on the fact that we are not afraid to ask the painful questions.”

We’ve all heard that today’s youth are tomorrow’s leaders. And yeah, that’s pretty much true…so long as we do our part to help them become successful.

By Bobbie Conklin, Business Development Manager, Steptoe & Johnson PLLC, and Justin Portaz, Director of Global Client and Business Development, Jenner & Block LLP

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