The legal world is abuzz with talk of disruption from various “legaltech” software companies, but disruption actually happens all the time in law firms (both big and small).
New problems crop up, requiring new expertise. New attorneys start doing deals or litigating cases, bringing different experience and different problems to solve. The practice of law is always being disrupted because it is a service industry that relies on solving new problems all the time. Disruption is a feature of legal practice, not a bug.
In that way, every lawyer who starts generating their own work at a law firm (i.e., a “rainmaker”) is really their own startup business. If you look at a legal career like a startup lifecycle, it looks remarkably similar.
The “research & development” startup stage is a cost for the legal employer for training a young lawyer in the belief that this money will create a return on investment. Lots of law firms engage in this type of investment. The “product launch” is when that attorney looks to externally generate revenue. It is hard to generate revenue both as a startup and as a “rainmaker”.
For lawyers, it requires an increasingly difficult mix of skill, business development, and plain old luck. This is similar to a startup who faces the “Valley of Death” when investment runs dry as the startup hits the market and seeks paying customers or clients based on commercialization of their new product(s). The practice of law is not a widget, everyone does it differently, so those who survive offering the most compelling offering.
Just as a startup that lasts beyond 5 years has a reasonable chance of success, there is a correlation in an attorney’s career where the longer they last the higher their chance of success, which is typically past the 10-15 year mark of their career.
With this backdrop in mind, it is interesting to note how a rainmaker is really like a startup.
- First, not only do most rainmakers specialize in one area, they love their practice area. Just like investors are drawn to passionate founders, clients are drawn to passionate legal advocates and problem-solvers.
- Second, rainmakers have a willingness to “pivot” to adjust to the marketplace. While they may have started out as a subject matter specialist in one area, the world changes so fast that today’s specialty may be gone by tomorrow. Rainmakers develop a broad enough specialty that such changes are natural to their practice and they go where the clients go.
- Third, they play the long game. To develop as a rainmaker, both the lawyer (and any law firm that they work for) provide time for the lawyer to establish themselves, and do not establish arbitrary metrics to evaluate rainmakers during the so-called “Valley of Death” where many startups and careers wane. It takes time to develop that “product-market fit”, finding the balance between the services the firm wants to provide and those that are needed by the marketplace.
- Lastly, while it is valuable to be part of a team and have mentors and advisors, at the end of the day, the successful rainmaker focuses on their own brand. They are the CEO of their own startup practice, selling their name, specialty and services, not relying on a firm name or how it was done in the past. They are blazing a new trail, their own trail.
If an attorney thinks of their own practice like a startup business disrupting the old way of doing things by doing it their own way, they will be better able to survive that “Valley of Death.”
Author Bio –
Jeremy Elman is a trial lawyer focusing upon patent and IP litigation with Dorsey & Whiteney