Make It Rain: Katie VanderVeen

Katie VanderVeen is a member in Dickinson Wright PLLC’s Banking and Finance Group and practices out of the firm’s Denver and Detroit locations. Katie’s legal practice focuses on debt financing, representing borrowers, lenders, and agents in loan transactions. She specializes in providing debt funding to regulated industries, including cannabis and health care.  Katie is a member of Dickinson Wright’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee and in early 2023 she was elected to the firm’s Governing Board. 

  1. Tell us how you got started in your practice area.

While I am incredibly happy with my career as a debt financing lawyer, I certainly did not picture myself here when I started out.

My undergraduate background is in sociology and public policy. Going into law school, I was interested in doing some kind of social-related law and thought child-protective services would be a good field for me. After some exploration, I realized I was not cut out for such a strenuous emotional environment day in and day out.  I did not see it as a workable long-term career path.

While searching for the right career fit during law school, I was fortunate enough to secure a summer associate spot and then a full-time position at Dickinson Wright. After graduation and based on the firm’s needs, I was placed in the banking and finance group. Truthfully, I did not know that debt transactions were things that lawyers handled but I was eager to learn and give it a shot.

Despite not having much background in business, finance, or corporate law at the time, I absolutely loved (and still love) doing debt work.  It is intellectually challenging and structurally complex, the transactions and clients are all unique, and all parties are working towards the same goal — closing. I enjoy crafting language in detail (my friends and family joke about how excited I get about reading terms and conditions) and putting the deal puzzle pieces together to make each transaction work from a legal and economic perspective.

What I love most about my practice, however, is the people I get to work with. My colleagues, clients, service providers, and even opposing counsels keep me energized and engaged and motivate me to provide the best service possible. I truly enjoy helping people, even if it is not in the field I initially imagined.

  1. How and when did you start developing your book of business?

I started building a book of business my first year at Dickinson Wright.  While the focus for a junior associate was on developing legal skillsets, I was encouraged by my mentors to get my toes wet in business development by attending events and making connections in the industries I served. I started attending networking events, mixers, presentations, and educational conferences. I was invited to attend client dinners and other client entertainment, and I always accepted.

However, when I started engaging in business development activities as a new attorney, I thought targets would give me business just because I was friendly, smart, and worked at a well-respected firm. I was disappointed when I did not have any bites (let alone bring in any clients) despite the time I spent attending the events, meeting with people, and following up.

What I failed to realize was that: (1) the more-established professionals who I was targeting already had tight-knit relationships with attorneys they had worked with for years, so it was extremely unlikely that they would be interested in hiring a recently-barred attorney they just met; and (2) the professionals who were my contemporaries that I was targeting and had a great rapport with did not have decision-making power, so had no authority to choose their counsel.

Once this lightbulb went on, I began measuring my business development success based on the quality of the relationships I developed, which were much easier for me to establish with people at a similar stage in their own career.  Recognizing that these individuals did not currently, but would eventually, have decision-making power allowed me to accept that business development is a marathon, not a sprint, and I felt less pressure to do and get everything all at once, as soon as possible. Since then, I have continued to water the seeds I planted as a young associate and have reaped the benefits of the connections I made years ago.

Even now as a partner, I focus on developing relationships, not bringing in clients, which has led not only to fee-generating work but also lasting friendships.

  1. What are the top three tips that you would give to a lawyer who wants to be a successful rainmaker?

As a more junior partner, I view myself as an early-stage rainmaker. I have clients but still have a lot of runway left in my career to continue to bring in business. So far, the following pillars have worked for me:

Provide excellent work product and client service. As a less-established attorney, you rely more on the quality of your work and the quality of the service you provide than on your name recognition. Delivering an exceptional work product as well as being prompt, communicative, professional, and friendly (all must-haves in the customer service industry) allow you to establish a foundation as a skilled service provider. Providing this on a repeated basis leads to you being recognized as a leader in your field and recommended by clients and other referral sources.

Focus on relationships. People give work to professionals they trust. Trust requires developing a deeper relationship with someone. Developing a deeper relationship requires mutual honesty, reliability, and vulnerability, which all require spending intentional time with someone. Invest the time in getting to know the people you are interested in working with. I find it’s easier to develop a meaningful relationship, and in turn develop trust, with someone when I focus on things we have in common outside of work (family, friends, pets, hobbies, experiences, etc.) – it makes our relationship more personal than transactional. Once trust at a personal level is established and built on, trust at a professional level follows.

Be a problem solver. My mindset is always “What can I do to help this person (with their issue)?” not “What can this person do to help me (build my book of business)?” It’s easy to offer to help someone when my experience is directly on point with a problem they are facing, but I want to be able to help solve problems even if I’m not the best person to provide the solution. This includes cross-selling within my firm, providing referrals to different firms or service providers, and providing other (including non-work-related) suggestions or recommendations. Being a resource to others showcases your value even outside of your practice. If you can add value in those situations, you will be top of mind when an issue comes up that is in your wheelhouse.

  1. What are some of your typical, favorite, and/or unusual marketing activities?

I engage in a variety of marketing activities to help build my book of business.  A couple times a year I speak at an event or a conference and publish a related article. A couple times a month I attend networking events (presentations, happy hours, mixers) and meet up with connections (lunch, drinks, dinner, coffee). A couple times a week I reach out to connections to touch base, set up a meeting, or send an article or other information I think would be useful to them. Daily, I share, comment, and post on LinkedIn. My general goal in each of these activities is to make and deepen connections, illustrate how I am an expert in my field, and remain top of mind.

I enjoy, and find more fruitful, targeted activities that include a shared, unique experience. For example, I recently teamed up with a few other awesome service providers to host an intimate CEO dinner for mutual prospects at a local restaurant known for its creative tasting menu. With only 6 people in attendance, we were able to get to know each other and we had great conversation, particularly surrounding the interesting cuisine we tried, which led to sharing stories about meals, travel, and other non-business-related topics. I am a big foodie, so this was an activity I genuinely enjoyed and experiencing it in an intimate setting with targets allowed me to develop a better, deeper relationship with them and get to know them on a personal level (see note above re: building trust!).

Trying new things is one of my hobbies, so I am always up for joining a networking activity that I may not have tried on my own. Participating with others makes the activity less intimidating and provides a great forum to connect with others who are also trying the activity for the first time or to get tips from those who are more experienced. For example, I have been skeet and clay shooting with clients, I completed a ropes course with an alumni group, and I explored a new trail with a professional group. This summer, I look forward to trying white water rafting and hiking a 14er (mountain with an elevation of at least 14,000 feet). I also plan to host a cooking class for local targets and a bocce ball event for other industry professionals.

  1. As a young partner, what rainmaking “war stories” can you share to help newer lawyers?

My first client was a referral from an attorney friend, who I met through another attorney friend, who I met through another attorney friend, who I met at an industry networking event. The engagement was for a small corporate matter, and I was recommended to the client based on my relationships with the line of friends and based on Dickinson Wright’s corporate capabilities, an area that my friends’ firms did not specialize in. This combination put me first in mind when an attorney for this matter was needed. The unexpected referral showed me the importance of maintaining connections not only with people I consider my friends, but especially with other attorneys – other attorneys are not your competition, they are resources. You truly never know where work is going to come from.

My best client, a cannabis lender, was also an unexpected client. I was representing one of Dickinson Wright’s corporate clients as a borrower in their financing from this cannabis lender. After the transaction closed, the lender reached out to engage me to represent them in future loan transactions based on my knowledge and expertise in the debt and cannabis realms and my work ethic in getting the transaction closed for our corporate client. Since then, we have expanded to representing this lender in debt and equity transactions, enforcement proceedings, licensing matters, and other litigation. Representing this lender has led to other cannabis lenders and operators engaging me to represent them as well.

Despite my success stories, I went through a rain-making learning curve. When I began building a book of business, I was desperate to bring in any client I could. I figured some money in the door was better than none, even if I didn’t connect with the person, wasn’t interested in the work, and/or worked at a significantly discounted rate. I learned the hard way (through clients not respecting me/my team, having to prioritize projects I had little interest in over ones I was passionate about, and getting stiffed on bills) that not every potential client or target should be a client I agree to work with. I now focus on potential clients/targets that I enjoy being around, whose mission and values I appreciate, and who recognize the value my team and I add to the representation. While I may not be bringing in every possible dollar, I am happier with my practice and truly enjoy the clients I work with, even when difficulties arise (which they inevitably do, even with the best clients)!

About the Author

Elizabeth Jolliffe has been a career management and business development coach for lawyers for 15 years.  Before that she was a commercial litigator for 18 years at Clark Hill PLC. 

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