From Biglaw to Boutique: Stay Hungry, Not Desperate

I’ve heard that a hungry dog hunts best. I don’t know if that’s actually true because my pugs were always hungry, and yet they could not have caught a three-legged turtle. But the saying makes sense, and I do know that staying hungry — but not desperate — is an important concept for law firms.

One way a young firm should stay hungry is to always search for new business. There are good reasons that I constantly harp on the importance of business development. Even if you are fortunate enough to be busy, you never know when your current workload may dry up. This is particularly true in litigation because any case can always settle or otherwise resolve unexpectedly. No matter how busy you are, you should constantly seek out new work and new clients.

But seeking out new work comes at a potential cost to your current cases and clients. You can’t be so desperate to grow that you spend so much time on business development that you ignore your current clients or let your current caseload suffer. Some lawyers take a churn and burn approach, trying to maximize their short-term return from every engagement, with no concern for the longer-term client relationship. To form a practice that’s built to last, you need to work hard to maintain those relationships, and that means you can’t neglect your current clients while constantly fishing for newer ones….

You might be tempted to ease off business development if your firm is already working at full capacity. Even then, I tend to think this is a mistake. If you have a new firm, and you have the luxury of having more work than bandwidth, the right response is to increase your capacity, not moderate the demand for your services. As I mentioned, you never know when demand will lessen on its own accord. And regardless, if you’re not doing all the work that’s available then you’re leaving money on the table.

The flip side here is that, precisely because litigation demand is so fickle, increasing your payroll is dangerous. If business slows and your payroll expenses are too high, the results can be devastating to the economic health of your firm. You need to carefully moderate your appetite for growth and take care not to bite off more than you can chew.

Being hungry doesn’t refer only to striving for new clients and matters and the means to service them. Being hungry can also manifest itself in the manner you service your current clients. Joke all you like, but I have always believed in virtually 24/7 “check you email” accessibility. Obviously, that depends on a number of factors, including the types of services you’re providing and the rates your client is paying. But when you’re charging hundreds of dollars per hour, I think clients reasonably expect you will make yourself generally available to them and treat their matters with the seriousness they deserve. Sometimes, unfortunately, that means late nights or weekends or even working during dead weeks.

Of course, you have to set your boundaries, and that includes personal and family time, vacations with your cell phone turned off, etc. Different people and practices have different boundaries, and it’s certainly true that not one size fits all. If being hungry becomes a desperate obsession instead of an aspiration, then you’re doing it wrong.

To some extent, being hungry is in the eye of the beholder. And the most important eyes are those of prospective clients. Their perception of you determines whether they will hire you and, consequently, whether your firm will succeed. Your hunger, or lack thereof, will play a critical role in how you are viewed in the eyes of the world.

For example, one of the more difficult things to do is to ask someone for work. This is true whether you’re talking to a potential referral source or directly to a potential client. Many attorneys understand the value of “networking,” but actually crossing the line and explicitly asking for work strikes them as somewhat demeaning or crass. I have learned that, provided you’re doing other things right, the more you ask means the more likely you are to get the answer you want. Conversely, if you don’t ask, you almost certainly won’t.

What most surprised me is that neither clients nor referral sources ever expressed the least bit of criticism from my soliciting work. Business people expect you to ask for work and respect you when you do. Provided you do it tastefully and respectfully, asking for work is not demeaning or crass in the least.

On the other hand, if you are too aggressive and appear desperate when seeking work, clients might worry that you are not busy enough. This could have harmful effects. First, a client doesn’t want to be the first to hire you. Remember how, as soon as you had a significant other, you found that other guys or gals were suddenly more interested in dating you? Well, that wasn’t just your imagination, and the phenomenon occurs in business, too.

Second, clients would be right to worry that their bills will become inflated if you have little other work to do. Both of these perceptions are especially invidious because your prospects are unlikely to share these concerns with you. You’ll never know that you aren’t landing clients because you are pursuing them too aggressively. Just as in dating, playing somewhat hard to get has a place in business development. A business which perceives you to be in great demand is more likely to want you for itself.

Of course, keeping your desire in disguise and acting too nonchalant can also be dangerous. If clients think you are too busy with other cases or otherwise not passionate about their causes, they may worry that you won’t treat their matters seriously or with the attention they feel they deserve.

Staying hungry in all its forms is essential for law firms, and particularly so for new solo or small firms. As with all things, however, this lesson comes with caveats and carve-outs, exceptions and qualifications. Staying hungry is important, but desperation can be dangerous and you have to try to walk the line.

Written by Tom Wallersteing for Above the Law