Creating Authentic Relationships is the Key to Being a Rainmaker

Audra Dial is the managing partner at Kilpatrick Townsend & Stockton LLP in Atlanta, Georgia, and is a co-author of Business Development for Women Lawyers. She is known as one of Atlanta’s premier BigLaw innovators and visionaries.  

She is an experienced trial lawyer, specializing in intellectual property and business litigation. She focuses her practice on complex matters involving trade secrets, patent disputes, restrictive employment covenants, and sophisticated business disputes involving technology. She is also a regular speaker at legal conferences across the country on trade secrets, business development, and leadership.  She is an active member of the Atlanta community and serves on the board of directors for Leadership Atlanta and on the Fernbank Museum Corporate Leadership Council.

We all knew the people who went gunning for success in law school. Ruthless, tenacious, and focused on separating themselves from the pack, little of their philosophy would fit comfortably in a sermon or a self-help book.

But what they don’t tell you in law school is that success can stem from simple sincerity. Being a great lawyer often means being a good person. Some of the best and most enduring client relationships are rooted in trust and genuine friendship.

Audra sat down with me to share some of the important lessons she has learned about what it takes to find and keep great clients as a woman in BigLaw.

How can lawyers develop a personal brand at their firm and with clients?

Lawyers should look for opportunities to stand out by learning to do things others at the firm can’t.

When Audra was a new associate, a big case came in involving trade secrets. It required immediate attention. Where others may have balked, Audra volunteered and quickly discovered three important things that would accelerate her career at the firm.

First, only a few much more senior people at her firm had established a trade secret expertise. Second, she was genuinely fascinated by this IP niche. In particular, she loved the nefarious actors and cloak-and-dagger elements of trade secrets. Third, this area of law spoke to her clients’ core assets, which meant that clients would immediately recognize the value of her expertise. From going out on one limb, a thousand opportunities bloomed.

Of course, as Audra notes, it doesn’t pay to be too one-note:

“Once you start branding yourself with such specificity, then clients know that you are the go-to person on that issue. You have to be careful to not take it too far so that you are not excluded from other more general matters, in my case, general commercial litigation. It is really a balancing act because you want to avoid your specialization from becoming an obstacle.”

These days, finding that balance is even more important, because clients are more focused than ever on having someone with specific expertise in a similar industry. Finding the right niche can mean a fruitful career in an area where no one else has quite the same expertise. For lawyers trying to find that niche, Audra’s example is instructive.

What can new lawyers and partners be doing now to invest in a strong book of business in the future?

Play the long game. Audra is an expert at spotting opportunities to help people who might become clients months or even years down the road.

“People have long memories, and when you are able to help them succeed early on, they do not forget it and they will remember to think of you when new work comes along that they could send your way.”

Newer lawyers at big law firms often work with in-house counsel too junior to be an immediate source of client work. But taking the time to help these lawyers early in their career can be a valuable investment in a future book of business, as they grow into roles that allow them more decision-making authority.

The same is true when it comes to helping firm colleagues find in-house positions. This provides a double benefit, both meeting your client’s need for a great candidate and ensuring that “your colleagues will be grateful for your help and support and will try to reward you with their business when they can.”

Is there anything that you do differently from your colleagues that helps you stand out in the legal community and with clients?

One of the best ways to stand out from the crowd is to go where you are rare. There is still a general disdain for business development on social media in BigLaw, even though most clients spend a great deal of time there. Unlike many of her colleagues, Audra leans into this medium and has found that LinkedIn, Twitter, blogs, and podcasts are all important resources for clients looking for lawyers.

A little bit can go a long way when it comes to maintaining an online presence. For example, Audra noticed that she gets much more traffic on her LinkedIn account now that she made her bio more client-friendly—using plain language and avoiding generic descriptors like “business litigator.”

But it is not enough to simply update your profile. Engaging on social media is just as important. Posting online raises your profile, which leads to speaking invitations and new connections. Good branding can swiftly become a virtuous cycle.

Following your clients on social media can also help you provide better legal services and advice because it provides a new lens to understand their global problems and goals. Understanding your clients puts you in a better position to help them succeed.

In our tech-enabled society, lawyers have to be flexible and open to meeting clients where they are.

What are the best ways to connect with clients outside the office?

Audra encourages lawyers to focus on finding their own way to connect with clients.

As a new associate at the firm nearly two decades ago, she carefully studied how the successful rainmakers at her firm maintained client relationships. She found that client engagement primarily involved a ritualistic affinity for lunch meetings, steak dinners and a lot of golf.

The problem was that Audra did not enjoy these activities nearly as much as the men at her firm did. This left her with two options – either stick it out and find a golf pro to improve her game, or, beat her own path to find a more authentic way for her to connect with clients.

She chose authenticity. Soon, Audra realized that clients were delighted by many of the same things that brought her joy: a visit to the High Museum of Art, a traditional afternoon tea at the Ritz with female in-house attorneys, or even an invitation to her home for a family dinner.

Audra’s keen intuition for what her clients like—and more importantly, who they are—has done much to help her forge personal and business relationships.

At one of her famous teas, she had each of the attendees volunteer their favorite spot in Atlanta to welcome a female GC who had just moved to town. Thoughtful moments like these can turn a group of business associates into real friends, and it’s these authentic connections that keep Audra top-of-mind when new work comes around.

Other partners have not always embraced Audra’s innovative style of networking. A few years ago, a small, but supportive, group of her colleagues attended a client-networking event that Audra planned at the Atlanta Botanical Gardens, expecting a dull affair that would do little for their book of business. But clients responded in record numbers, and it quickly became the firm’s signature annual client event. It has become such a fixture that some clients now call 11 months in advance to make sure they have it on their calendar.

It’s not hard to see why partner attendance has dramatically improved.

When it comes to networking with clients, Audra’s tip is that you shouldn’t worry about learning to play golf if you don’t enjoy it. What matters is the personal connection you make with the real people who need your services. Even if you don’t have the budget to throw expensive parties or afternoon teas, the key to client development lies in finding ways to make a human connection. Good lawyers are replaceable. Good friends aren’t.

About the Author

Erin H. Gerstenzang runs a boutique criminal defense firm in Atlanta, Georgia, and is on the board of the Georgia Association for Women Lawyers, where she helps mentor and train future leaders through the association’s  Leadership Academy.  Contact her on Twitter @EHGLawFirm.

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