Ideally, once a business professional joins a firm they would have a few years to get the ground under their feet, learn the profession from the basics up, and be gently introduced into the skills of business development. In reality, that seldom happens.

Professionals are almost immediately expected to build and exhibit marketing skills and some firms even expect their young professionals to try to land new clients and new files. Yet few of these skills are taught in University.  And while mentoring exists, there’s seldom the investment of time needed to make a real difference in the mentee – at least in the short term.  As luck would have it, simultaneously these young professionals may be getting married and starting a family. That’s a lot to deal with at once, and explains why law firms anticipated that on average only one in seven associates will make it to partnership.

But what is the alternative? A professional can ignore marketing and focus the first few years on building the skills of their profession.  If they are protected by a partner – especially one who frequently hands them work – they can probably get away with this.  But does this course of action truly serve them?  I once met a lawyer in his tenth year of practice who advised me that in his estimation, he was just reaching a point where he should begin to worry about marketing.  At first I thought “we should all be so lucky”.  And then I realized that he was so far behind in marketing that he would probably never catch up; never have the career that he had hoped for.

Some professionals bridge the gap by playing at marketing. By that I mean that they have no plan but rather, spend their time doing marketing activities that can easily be seen such as writing a paper or attending a client event.  But as their goals are undefined and their actions are without strategy, such marketing is often weak and often ineffectual. And in time, their lack of real marketing skills will come back to haunt them.

Firms attempt to make up for this skills shortfall and provide some direction of expectations through the provision of internal marketing training programs, implemented strategically according to the years of practice of the practitioner. Some firms go further and provide access to and funding for external training programs, perhaps even some coaching.  These are all helpful to a degree, but unless the practitioner takes charge of the process, success will be limited.

So where is the best starting point and what does it look like? In fact, most professionals start to market themselves while they are still in school, jockeying for the best placements in the best companies within their chosen career. For some reason, we stop directing our actions toward our goals once we land in a firm.  From there, we tend to rely on the firm to look out for our best interests, direct us toward actions that will help us, and keep our careers moving forward.  In reality, while firms have a vested interest in your success they also realize that a portion of their hires won’t make it, so part of the  test becomes who can figure it all out that fastest.  The winners take files and clients, marketplace credibility, and other opportunities away from their competitors – even those in the same firm.

There’s a reason so many associate Christmas skits over the past few years have been about versions of the Hunger Games.

To improve your odds of surviving the challenge, start early and decide that you aren’t going to wait for direction, mentorship or training. Build your own marketing plan and then assemble the resources around you that you will need to work through it.

  1. Create a five year marketing plan for your career.  Identify where you want to be in five years, what you want to be doing, and what the elements of your life look like.
  2. Create stepping stone annual plans for the first three years of that five year plan.  Obviously job one is to ensure that you become educated and experienced in all appropriate areas of your job for someone in their first, second and third year or work. So note what those skills and experiences are, who can help you to get them, and build that access into your plan.  Now consider the marketing skills you’ll need to learn and fit them into your plan.  Start with easier ones – skills that you can practice daily (even within your firm) and that don’t require funding or large investments of time.  These might include networking, the art of conversation and relationship development, advocacy skills, short business case discussion skills, your elevator pitch, etc.  From there, you can branch out into written communications (including strong and clear emails, memos, descriptive letters, and articles).  Eventually you should be exploring more advanced interpersonal skills such as effective delegation, sales exploration discussions, and higher-level networking skills. By year three you may be tackling more complex matters in terms of speaking and writing.  In many professions, a third year professional can begin considering their area of specialization.
  3. Each annual plan should identify precisely which skills you wish to learn/practice, and how you will go about doing that.  Put a deadline by each action item, and check back frequently to ensure you stick to plan.

If you are not at the beginning of your career but still wish to take more control of your direction and marketing capabilities, read what you can about marketing planning and try it on your own. Better yet, engage a coach who can walk you through the process, help you to create a strong plan for your specific practice, and keep you on track as you learn to operate in this new way.

In every firm there are examples of individuals who seem to have led a blessed business life. Despite the odds, despite a lack of business or marketing training, despite challenging economic or political climates, they seem to have built a remarkable career for themselves.  But they are rare, and their magical career paths are not available to the rest of us.  Nor is the gift of time.  The value of a professional in today’s world is what they did ten years ago, but ten months ago; and what they might be capable of in the next ten months.  We don’t have time to wait for our careers to progress – we need to take charge and cause them to progress.

The best time to start marketing is right now – regardless of how long you’ve been practising. The best marketing is strategic, planned, and goal oriented.  If you don’t feel you have the knowledge, skill or motivation to do this for yourself, then I would encourage you to engage someone to help you with it.