Two days ago, Ashby Jones at the WSJ Law Blog approvingly cited these remarks in Legal Week by Alex Novarese:

[W]hat surprised me was that there appeared to be a consistent anxiety regarding the pressures or expectations of winning business. On one hand, associates want early access to clients; indeed, they resent law firms that don’t give them that access. But the idea of bringing in clients doesn’t seem to be one that drives young lawyers, at least those at large commercial law firms. In some cases an ambivalence about partnership appears to be strongly connected with the belief that the role comes with an expectation of rainmaking prowess. A considerable number of aspiring lawyers fear they’ll hit five years’ PQE, bump up to senior associate and then find themselves unequipped for a world in which they must hunt what they eat.

Viewed from outside of the legal industry, this mindset is odd. In many commercial walks of life, especially service industries, aspiring professionals are benchmarked on their ability to bring in new work or relationships. It’s one of the primary factors that marks people out for promotion and those entering such careers tend to seek out opportunities to prove themselves in this respect.

Except in law, apparently. I guess this is part of the institutionalism of young lawyers. At the best firms, they are the top performers in academic institutions, before moving on to well-established providers of vocational education and then into corporate law firms – which are themselves highly structured institutions. Little wonder these young workers are not programmed for a world of risk. Such sentiments are also a reminder that – for all the talk of law firms becoming businesses, the mindset of lawyers remains, to a considerable extent, that of a profession.

First, most associates at BigLaw don’t care much for their work or for making partner. They want money to pay loans and to live well in a major city, and then they want to use the big firm’s name to help them land a job they actually want.

Second, for those who want to be partners, the firm traps them in a Catch-22 by imposing absurdly high minimum billable hour targets at premium rates.

Clients, however, are not saps. They will pay premium rates only for experienced counsel.

Allow the great thespian Bruce Campbell to explain the dilemma:

So how does an associate build a book of business? Like Campbell said: “it.”

Experience.

Experience drives word of mouth, drives referrals, builds ability, builds confidence, and enables your practice to grow.

So how do associates get “it?”

Novarese mentions other industries. Let’s talk about other industries. Like marketing, where Seth Godin recommends “consistent, persistent generosity.” Or music, where Trent Reznor tells upcoming bands they need to make their music cheaply and “GIVE IT AWAY.” Or venture capital, where Fred Wilson’s favorite business model is to “give your service away for free.”

That’s how to get “it.” Get clients in the door. You can’t compete on experience, so compete on price, on selectivity, on service, on anything you can.

Maybe that means cutting rates. Maybe that means billing fewer hours. Maybe that means taking difficult, frustrating, unprofitable cases. Maybe that means jumping into other fields and wasting dozens of unbillable hours just making sure you’ve got the basics right. Maybe that means spending some time, off the clock, figuring out how potential clients in your field find lawyers, and figuring out how to make their name the first that a potential client hears.

That is to say, associates need to use the methods other entrepreneurs use to build business.

Yet, few of those methods are available to associates at BigLaw firms, because the business model — which generates most of its profits by creating unnecessary work for recent law graduates — is designed for the short-term compensation of the partners, not the long-term career of the associates. Experienced rainmakers can squeeze every last penny of profit out of a case by having you spend all weekend reviewing documents. You don’t even have a case at all.

Which is why so many associates give up on rainmaking. After a few failed attempts (which likely got them reprimanded for falling below target billable hours, for interfering with client relations, or for setting rates or taking cases without approval), learned helplessness kicks in and they give up building outside business. Instead, they focus, like the firm encourages them to do, on pleasing partners and existing clients.

I.e., someone else’s rainmaking.