Amy Bess | Crain's San Francisco

In this ongoing series, we ask executives, entrepreneurs and business leaders about mistakes that have shaped their business philosophy.

Amy Bess

Background:  

Vedder Price is an international business-focused law firm serving clients of all sizes and industries from offices in Washington, D.C., Chicago, Los Angeles, New York and San Francisco, as well as London and Singapore. Vedder Price has been recognized by BTI Consulting Group as one of the top firms most recommended by legal decision makers for the fifth year in a row. Amy Bess joined the firm in 2010.

The Mistake:

I failed to realize early on in my career how important it is to work hard to develop and nurture your contacts, and really build a professional network that enables you to grow your own practice.

Like every other young lawyer out of law school who joined a large law firm, I focused almost exclusively on working really, really hard and doing excellent work. That’s what everyone says you have to do, and I was right there doing it.

I developed very strong internal relationships within my law firm, but I spent almost no time at all developing external relationships, or keeping in contact with my college and law school colleagues, or even spending time on professional networking opportunities. I just kind of kept my head down. One hundred percent of the client work I did at the time came from either a partner in my firm who had the client relationship, or from a large institutional client of the firm. Often I was on a team of five to 10 lawyers on a big litigation matter, so I wasn’t focusing on developing my own clients.

You work so hard as a young associate, just billing hours and getting the work done, and trying to develop an expertise, and developing internal relationships at the firm. I woke up one day, and I was a non-equity partner at the time, and it was then that I thought to myself, “Where am I going to find my own clients? Where are those clients going to come from?” It was a rude awakening for me, and I was playing catch up at that point.

It wasn’t until I became an income partner that I started to think aggressively about business development and how to start building a practice of my own. I did so without having planted all the seeds that you really should be planting in those first years of practice.

Fortunately I’ve made up for lost time and I’ve developed clients of my own. When I changed law firms and came over to Vedder Price, I had clients who came with me and that was extremely rewarding. But the lesson I learned was I didn’t start early enough, I didn’t plant the seeds early enough in my career when I was focusing on working hard and developing that expertise.

The key to professional success and personal happiness in a law firm is to have your own clients.

The Lesson:

The lesson that this experience has taught me, and this is what I tell the associates that I’ve mentored, is that the key to professional success and personal happiness in a law firm is to have your own clients.

Having your own practice and having your own clients provides you with independence and autonomy. It allows you to pick clients you want to work with, and certainly leads to better economic rewards as well. The best way that you can make sure that you will have your own clients and develop your own practice is to start thinking about it the minute you graduate from law school.

I tell associates that focusing on building your network and nurturing your contacts is the best way to start thinking about your long-term practice development right out of the box, as soon as you start practicing at a law firm.

Focus on building client relationships the way you would build any relationship. Look at the way you can add value to those relationships, then you’ll end up with client relationships that are as important and rewarding as the personal relationships in your life, which is incredibly professionally satisfying.

Everybody has time to develop relationships — there’s always relationships in your life. It’s not just external client relationships, obviously internal relationships are also very important. Focus on developing internal relationships with your colleagues and partners, because they have client relationships that will also become your own client relationships.

Especially in the era of email and social networking, there are so many different opportunities to stay in front of people and to keep your network strong, and to continually grow it.

Vedder Price is on Twitter at @VedderLaw.

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