Lifelines for Partners with Dying Practices

Print PDF

By Mike White | May 31, 2015

3 iStock_000019490857_SmallMost all attorneys at one point or another in their careers come to view their particular practice area to be out of favor. Industry sectors to which their practices are attached are in recession, corporate law departments lose their zeal for pursuing litigation, capital markets – both debt and equity – lose their interest in underwriting the growth of whole sectors.

Attorneys usually take comfort in the assumption and hope that this is only a temporary state – their practice can’t remain in the penalty box forever! In other instances, however, attorneys can feel very exposed: “What if the textile industry never comes back in the US?” (which it didn’t), or “What if the cyclical trough I’m experiencing lasts much longer than I can?” Despite the working assumption of most attorneys that demand will find them in light of their specialized skills, in these situations partners do feel, and in fact are, vulnerable.

Adapting Knowledge to New Contexts

A partner in one of my bankruptcy group clients recently lamented that it would do no good for him to spend more high quality business development time with his ideal targets – the “special assets groups” of banks and non-bank lenders – as there is no existing demand for his services. I suggested that he “unpack” the capabilities and literacies he’d developed in the bankruptcy area. He’d spent a lot of time studying the capital structures of businesses. He’d also gotten very comfortable with disputes that required a deep working knowledge of financial statements, accounting, and numbers in general. Unlike many litigators, he was not a “numerophobe.” Moreover, as a complex litigator in a firm with relatively low leverage and a tightly managed cost structure, for corporate law departments he represented an opportunity to experiment with a different law firm structure. As we developed our thinking further he began to think of himself as an “all weather resource” – a litigator who could handle (non-bankruptcy) commercial disputes involving complex financial projections, or earn-out disputes between private equity firms and acquirers of their portfolio companies, or any litigation requiring a deep understanding of corporate finance, income statements, and balance sheets. In other words, these were “sub-literacies” from his bankruptcy work that translated into other kinds of litigation.

Another recent example involved an energy lawyer in the utility sector who’d spent his career advising on regulatory issues. Over the years he’d helped some constituents in the energy supply chain qualify as “disadvantaged businesses” and compete for set aside contracts. Without diverting his attention from the energy sector, he found it pretty easy to position himself inside his law firm as the “disadvantaged business guy.” Soon, his partners began to pull him into situations with their non-energy, general corporate clients that wanted to also compete for set aside contracts. Still another example involved a healthcare regulatory partner who took a more “vertical” approach to her industry by competing for non-regulatory legal work (generic real estate litigation, non-regulatory vendor disputes, etc.) in the healthcare industry.

The above are good but by no means all examples of how you can broaden your relevance and how you describe where you fit beyond your cyclical area of focus. So get out of your (cyclical) lane. Use your “unpacked” expertise to compete for more business. Go vertical! Go horizontal!