I am a recruiter who believes that every candidate (partners and associates alike) should have a game plan. It's like my favorite football team — the USC Trojans. Every week, Pete Carroll and his staff develop a game plan that is tailored to the opponent of the week. It's all about undertaking the proper level of preparation that will eventually lead to success.
In my recruiting practice, this means that even before I start running potential firms by my partner-level candidates, certain key issues must be addressed. One of the most important is ensuring that the materials we will provide to the prospective employers are in perfect shape. No one ever second-guesses me when I say their resume needs to be perfect, and they are always ready and willing when I ask them to make updates, give more detailed descriptions, etc. Yet, for some reason, when I tell partner-level candidates that we need to put together a business plan, I am instinctively ready for the objections.
In a way, it takes me back to college when the professor would remind the class of an upcoming deadline on a 20-page paper. The moans, the grumbles, and the excuses would follow, but once you actually sat down to write the paper, the words and the ideas would just flow. The thought of preparing a business plan seems to evoke that same response — do I really have to do this? And yet, like the 20-page paper we all wrote in college, most attorneys find that once they sit down to work on it, the ideas just flow, and it turns out to be an excellent tool for defining the goals and priorities of the candidate's own job search.
With that in mind, the following are some of the most common objections I have received over the years and the reasons I believe all objections should be considered overruled:
Objection #1: ''I don't want to share confidential information about my potential clients that the firm can then use to its advantage.''
This is the single most common objection partners give to preparing a business plan. There is a sense that if a partner has a precious contact in his/her pocket, putting it down in writing guarantees that someone else will steal the brilliant idea. It's a valid concern.
However, it is important to keep in mind that law firms are not in the business of using the recruitment process to steal ideas. If such a practice were to become common, word of it would get out and the law firm's lateral recruitment efforts would be severely damaged. The value of discretion and confidentiality greatly outweighs the value of ''stealing'' clients.
Still, some might say I am giving people too much credit. In that case, I offer the following piece of advice to my partner-level candidates: A business plan does not have to give away all of your secrets. With careful drafting and a well-reasoned approach as to what will be included in the business plan, you can definitely convey the necessary facts without spilling your secrets. For example, clients can be described in a generic manner. Instead of identifying the client by name, you can use a descriptor like ''Fortune 500 company that manufactures widgets.'' Or, if the key piece of information is the identity of the contact you have at the widget company, you can include the actual name of the client but leave out the identity of your contact. The point here is that there are reasonable ways to protect sensitive information.
Objection #2: ''I am very busy maintaining my practice. I do not have time.''
Time is very precious and one of the advantages to working with a recruiter is that you have someone to do all the legwork that you do not have time for. When it comes to preparing a business plan, however, I encourage partners to consider the process a relatively small investment of time in the early stages of a >job search that will save time in the later stages. This is because preparing a business plan is an opportunity to outline a lot of the information that firms will be asking about throughout the interview process. Thus, time is actually saved by preparing the information at the outset.
Objection #3: ''I don't want to prepare a business plan because I'm not sure I can produce the business I envision and I don't want to make promises I can't keep.''
For an up-and-coming partner and/or senior associate, it can be quite daunting to put plans and ideas for the future down in writing. On paper. In stone. In a document that people can refer back to for the rest of time…
But, wait. Remember, we are talking about a business plan. Having a plan simply means that you have a vision; that you have given thought to how you will create business for the firm and that you understand the ''business'' of practicing law. It is meant to be a roadmap of where you envision taking your practice once you join your new firm. Yes, the information in the plan should be solid and credible. Realistic — yes. Set in stone — no.
Finally, for partners at all levels it is important to remember that no partner who leaves his/her firm knows with 100% certainty which clients will follow and which ones will choose to remain with the institution rather than follow the individual. There is always a degree of uncertainty as a partner searches for a new platform. And so, again, it is imperative to keep in mind that a business plan is a professional manner in which to outline one's goals — not a contract that is forever binding.
Objection #4: ''I'd rather wait until I am meeting with the partners face-to-face to discuss my plans — I think I can sell myself best in person.''
Attorneys, especially litigators, are very confident of their ability to ''sell'' themselves. This is most often justified because, as attorneys, we are trained advocates. However, even qualified partners have to take every opportunity to ''sell'' themselves during the job search process. Sure, when you get the face-to-face meeting, you must be at your best. But the materials that you present to a prospective firm at the outset can (1) make a difference in whether that face-to-face meeting becomes a reality and (2) convey intangible qualities that are valued by law firms. More specifically, consider what a business plan says about you. It tells the prospective firm a number of essential facts: (1) that you understand the economical/business aspects of practicing law; (2) that if the firm hires you, you are going to strive to be a productive, contributing member of the firm; (3) that you have given thought to your practice and how it fits in with the firm's existing practices; (4) that you are confident enough in your skills and abilities to give them a snapshot of what you have to offer; and (5) that you care about where you end up. Communicating such qualities before you have even walked through the door is absolutely invaluable.
Objection #5: ''I haven't been practicing long enough to have a business plan, or the practitioners in my area of expertise are all familiar with my work and excellent reputation. I don't need to tell them about my business development abilities.''
For an established partner with significant portable business, a business plan lends immediate credibility to the size and nature of the portable business. Thus, even if every attorney in town knows who you are, they certainly do not know the finer, more intimate details that are necessary in order to evaluate whether they can integrate you into their practice. Having the opportunity to view at least an outline of those details will enable the prospective firm to make an immediate, initial call on issues such as potential conflicts, whether your practice fits into the firm's existing structure, whether your practice provides a realistic opportunity for the firm to expand its own platform, etc. I can actually recall one example in which a partner's book of business was too large for a particular firm (unbelievable, I know). Thus, even if the prospective firm is generally aware of a partner's status and reputation, the details outlined in a business plan go a long way toward making sure everyone is on the same page from the outset.
For an up-and-coming partner with little to no business, a business plan is the single best way to sell a prospective employer on your potential. The reality of law firm management is that while providing top-notch service to clients is paramount, a law firm is a business, and as its attorneys reach the senior ranks they must demonstrate the ability to help develop business. An up-and-coming partner or senior associate may have very little business, but if the business plan shows true potential firms will be interested in that candidate. In fact, I would go as far as to say that having a well-written business plan is most important for this group of attorneys.
In conclusion, though there are a few instances in which a business plan may not be necessary, those instances are a rare exception, and the general rule is that a business plan is always a good tool for a candidate to have in his/her arsenal. Making the decision to search for a new platform is serious. The commitment to this process, in turn, should be serious as well. Having a solid business plan tells a prospective employer at the outset that you are serious about your career and your interest in their firm. In addition, a business plan is also a useful self-evaluation tool that often helps candidates solidify the goals and objectives of their job search. Accordingly, the benefits to preparing a business plan far outweigh any perceived drawbacks and, in the end, partners find the process to be helpful and the ensuing success well worth the effort.
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