Different backgrounds, different methods can lead to career success

By Douglas Levy
The Daily Record Newswire
DETROIT — The difference between plaintiffs’ lawyers and defense-side attorneys is obvious. And transaction specialists don’t work within the same parameters as litigators.

Yet, several common aspects — from marketing and business development to communication and delegation — meet in the overlap within the law practice Venn diagram.

And there’s no one best way to handle them, said participants in the “Private Practice: One Size Does Not Fit All” panel, featured at the recent Women Lawyers Association of Michigan annual meeting in Ann Arbor.

But in recalling how they each got into law, the panelists said having a different professional background can bring unique business practices.

K.J. Miller of Dickinson Wright PLLC said she was a social worker before pursuing a career law. By primarily working with adolescents, she said she was able to develop skills in persuasion and being directive.

But “being older and being scared” helped her when entering law later in her professional life.

“I was confident every day I was going to lose my job,” Miller said. “So I kept saying, ‘Yes.’ They’d say, ‘Can you do this for us?’ And I’d say, ‘Yes.’ It didn’t matter what it was.”

During her second year as an associate, she said a third-year associate was leaving the firm. That associate asked Miller to finish her mortgage-related cases.

Miller said she liked the work, and the mortgage company’s in-house counsel liked her back, telling her, “‘During every conversation, I take notes. I write down what you say you’re going to do, and you actually do it. And I can’t tell you how rare that is.’”

She added that because this was in the early 2000s before the mortgage crisis, more work was available, and Miller said her book of business built up rapidly.

The five-year plan

Building a book of business isn’t an easy thing when crossing over to another practice sector — and another side of practice entirely, said Jennifer B. Salvatore of Salvatore Prescott PLLC in Northville.

She explained that working at a large Chicago firm doing business and commercial litigation meant not thinking much about business development.

But upon joining a small Michigan practice to do plaintiffs’ sexual and gender discrimination and civil rights work, business development was first and foremost.

That firm’s partner told her it takes about five years to develop a practice.

“Looking back, there was a lot of proof there,” Salvatore said.

In order to lay the groundwork, she became involved heavily with local and state bar groups. Although she was a Michigan native, she was “new” to Michigan law.

In addition, Salvatore said she served on the boards of organizations that had a connection to her practice  — including the Women’s Center of Southeast Michigan and SafeHouse Center — as a means of meeting people.

“Anybody is a potential client in the work that I do,” she said. “So for me, I’ve found that relationships have been the most important thing.

“I’ve never strategically joined an organization with a goal of business development,” she added, “and that may be different for different people. But for the kind of work I do, what I’ve really focused on is being around people who energize me and organizations I feel are committed to their mission.”

So, what do you do?

One thing Salvatore said she didn’t do initially was say much more than “Oh, I’m a lawyer” when asked what she does for a living

“But I’ve learned over the last year, in starting a new firm … I’ve realized how much those relationships, and telling people what you’re doing, leads to business.”

She said her firm, which opened in March, has been getting a lot of work because she’s been describing her career with concrete examples — saying she represents people who have lost their job and are experiencing discrimination or encountering sexual harassment — instead of “lawyer speak.”

Another panelist, Ann Arbor-based legal career coach Elizabeth C. Jolliffe, said that attorneys should consider what “The Tipping Point” author Malcolm Gladwell says about being “sticky.” In other words, say something that’s memorable and sticks with the business prospect.

Jolliffe, of Your Benchmark Coach, said she knows a male lawyer who does real estate and construction matters and describes his practice as handling things “Below ground, on ground and above ground.”

Julie I. Fershtman, who moderated the panel, said that written communications are marketing tools in and of themselves — whether in a follow-up email for someone who could be a potential client, or for existing clients.

“Be direct, be succinct and make it readable,” said Fershtman, of Foster, Swift, Collins, & Smith PC. “I hate it when I have to oversee a file and I’m reading rambling status reports.

I’ve been told by claim managers that they like my status reports because I’ll give them a bullet-point summary at the beginning and say, ‘Here’s what I’m going to cover for you today.’ They know what’s coming.”

Balancing, delegating the littles

Practitioners should know what’s coming, or what usually comes, in their day-to-day practice.

Jolliffe said that starting the day by doing the most important task works for some lawyers.

But a better approach could be to think about how much time it will take to get it done and mark a point during the day when it will be accomplished.

“If something is really important and it will take five hours, you can get a lot of little things done first thing in the office,” Jolliffe said. “You know you’ll probably be interrupted during
that, and you can still get those little things done, but you’ll never get that five-hour project done if you get interrupted.”

For a day that’s nearly all filled with little things, Jolliffe said detail-oriented work might not be the best thing to focus on post-lunch, as sometimes people can get sleepy in the early

Many of the little things can be delegated to the support staff and associates, the panelists said, but delegation can be a hard thing to master if someone is used to being in control.

Salvatore said she learned at the big firm that if she delegated parts of the work to other people, she would be able to focus on her core competencies.

“It can be hard when you’re a control freak to let go of aspects of your job,” she said. “But the more you can trust the people who work for you and empower them to do parts of your work to make you more efficient and more effective, it becomes crucial at that stage of your career when you have so much to juggle.”
Miller agreed.

“I’ve made that work within the billable hour system, and my clients like me because I don’t overcharge them,” she said. “That’s another reason why I’ve been able to maintain those relationships.”