Dear Mr. Winokur:
I read in todays WSJ Law Blog, and elsewhere, that due to the slowing real estate market, Dechert initially decided to lay off 13 associates in your real estate practice group. According to stories in the press, you then announced that instead, they would be reassigned to other practice groups instead. I think this is a very bad idea, and I think I have a better one.
First, rest assured that I know personally what it is to be laid off. It's traumatic for everyone involved. I understand that, and the attorneys involved and their families have my empathy. This is hard.
I make my living teaching attorneys how to market. The biggest single obstacle, and critical factor, in this is the attorney's mindset. Many lawyers (and remember, I am a lawyer -- in fact, I practiced in Philadelphia, where Dechert is based) are trained to believe that marketing is beneath them, that good attorneys do not need to market themselves, and consequently, are often extremely reluctant to engage in business development. Sadly, this point of view is typically the exception rather than the rule.
This, of course, is a mistaken belief. Marketing is an essential part of every lawyer's toolkit. A lawyer is an entrepreneur, and is basically his or her own small business. Every business must have customers. And the lawyer must do whatever needs doing to keep business coming in.
Your firm now has thirteen associates who have learned this lesson the (very) hard way. This presents an extraordinary opportunity for your firm and the lawyers involved.
These lawyers have been exposed firsthand to the market. They are personally experiencing the consequences that arise when a firm (or for that matter, an individual lawyer) fails to develop business. Although in one way or another every lawyer is affected by market conditions, these people are seeing it firsthand.
Consequently, they have an enormous incentive to become business developers. My suggestion is this: rather than simply assigning them to new practice groups, work with your business development department to train him and then get them out there developing business for Dechert. Some will not make it. But those that do will be incredible sources of new business for the firm far into the future. Your firm can certainly afford to do this. Your business development and marketing professionals are first-rate.
The alternative you seem to have chosen - reassignment to other practice groups - sends exactly the wrong message. The firm is telling its associates then they are not responsible for developing their own client base. Someone else will take care of it. All a good lawyer needs to do is practice law.
This is not true, and a management team that sends this message is doing a disservice to both the firm and the attorneys involved. Rather than simply reshuffling your org chart, consider this situation an opportunity to train and motivate a unique, focused group of business developers that will be an asset to Dechert for years to come. They can still practice, and can still be attached to other practice groups. But having seen what the market can do, with some support and help from the firm, they can and will become great sources of new clients. Use this to your advantage -- and theirs.
Very truly yours,