A Missed Opportunity for Law Firms

Article excerpt

Does the proliferation of legal temporary agencies and contract lawyers signal a missed opportunity for law firms? This is the question law firm marketers should ask themselves. It's one I ask myself today, having transitioned from corporate law firm associate to contract lawyer.

Almost 10 years ago, I was a typical mid-level corporate associate at a large New York law firm: I drafted and revised trust agreements, purchase agreements, indentures, private placement memoranda and proxy statements. I had great legal training under my belt, but like most mid-level associates, I had no lasting relationships with the clients I serviced, no business development skills or opportunities. With few exceptions, I drafted and the partner talked.

Dissatisfied, I took a sabbatical. "What will you do?" asked one partner I worked for. "I don't know yet," I replied. "If you leave like this, you will never be able to practice law again," he replied with sincere concern. Looking back, his comment reveals more about how law firms perceive the legal profession than the actual risk to which I was subjecting my career. In fact, the tack I took during my sabbatical proved to be a boon for my career and a missed opportunity for law firms.

Toward the end of my 1999 sabbatical, as I was running low on savings, I emailed a long-lost friend, a former associate at my firm to say hello. At the time, he was the associate counsel at a media company. His reply email was just six words: "Do you have time to work?" It turned out he was swamped and needed some help with overflow contracts. I signed on as a part-time contract lawyer, paid hourly. In the span of four months I completely replaced the law firm that had until then handled many of the company's overflow business contracts.

In my new role, I came to experience everything I had been missing as a corporate associate: strong personal and professional relationships with lawyers and business people and an understanding of how business works. I also had to let go of law firm values and learn some hard lessons: Business is not about how "smart" you are; a contract can't always be perfect; acceptable law firm behavior (impatience, impersonal communications) doesn't fly in the corporate world.

The learning experience at the media company led me to develop my own business-development strategies--something I never would have learned to do had I remained at a law firm. I now keep in touch with people I have worked with over the years and develop relationships with counterparties to negotiations. Recently, an invitation to a barbecue yielded an unsolicited offer for work from the senior counsel at one corporation. …