Building a Thriving Practice

Building a Thriving Practice

Introduction

Kathleen Nilles faced a challenge familiar to many lawyers leaving government — high expectations but no clients. In January 1995, she left her position as tax counsel to the House Ways and Means Committee to join Chicago’s Gardner, Carton & Douglas as a partner in the firm’s Washington office. Eight years later, she is one of only a handful of lawyers specializing in tax issues involving Indian tribal governments and her practice is thriving.

The Interview

Legal Magazine: Tell me about your background.

NILLES: I started out as a religious studies major in college, graduated from Yale Divinity School, and then worked in the campus ministry for six years before going to law school.

Legal Magazine: How did you go from being a minister to attending law school?

NILLES: I took on a special project for the Diocese of Richmond involving the legal risks of working with refugees seeking political asylum. I became more and more interested in those issues and thought, “Maybe I should go to law school,” and that’s how it happened. So, law is really a second career for me.

While I was working on Capitol Hill, I participated in several programs with a partner at Gardner, Carton. She introduced me to the people in the firm’s Washington office.

Legal Magazine: How did you transition from government to building a private practice?

NILLES: The biggest challenge is starting with zero. You’re new to the firm, so you haven’t built relationships with partners who are going to transition clients to you. You don’t inherit anybody’s practice. It can be somewhat daunting.

For the first eight months, I had no clients of my own. I immediately started approaching people I had met in my work for the government. One of the first people who really helped me was a lobbyist for various Indian tribes. I had helped him with a pension tax issue and, in return, he introduced me to the executive director of the National Indian Gaming Association. Nine months later, when a major issue came up for them legislatively, they became my first client.

Legal Magazine: Before they became your client, what did you do to keep up with them?

NILLES: I looked for things that would be of interest and sent them along on a timely basis. I generally start my day by looking at the BNA Daily Tax Report and the Tax Notes Today, scanning for new legislative developments of interest to clients or prospective clients. One morning in September 1995, there was a new proposal that would tax Indian tribal governments on their gaming revenue. It was a huge issue and I sent it to the executive director right away. I was hired that day.

And, when it rains, it pours. Within 10 days, I was hired by three other organizations whose principals I had met on the Hill. I had kept in touch with them by keeping them up to date on developments. It’s one of the primary ways in which I continue to gain new clients. There are really three main areas to my practice: tax-exempt status issues for health care organizations; tax and business issues for Indian tribes; and general tax legislative issues.

One way we have gained new clients is by sending summaries of new developments. We call them “client alerts” and we send them on a regular basis. The alert is designed for a busy person — the CFO, the tax director, the outside general counsel of a tribe. It gives a brief overview of some of the hot issues with which we have familiarity. We’ve gotten very good response from it. They have directly led to tribal governments hiring us as special tax counsel.

Legal Magazine: You do these rather than typical white papers?

NILLES: Yes. Occasionally, for a more specialized audience, I might do something more detailed. I recently spoke to the Native American Finance Officers Association on tax issues. For them, I put together a detailed outline regarding the issues that they are interested in. But even in this kind of scenario, I try not overwhelm them with extraneous detail. That’s been my approach generally to marketing.

Legal Magazine: Why do you think the tribal practice has grown so well?

NILLES: It’s the combination of finding a unique niche where I could really bring value to the client, and the general economic success of gaming tribes. Few people do federal tax work for tribes. And the tribes are increasingly able to hire specialized legal counsel.

Legal Magazine: From where else have your clients come?

NILLES: Initially, everything came through personal meetings and referrals. Now people call out of the blue, having found an article posted on the Internet.

Legal Magazine: Have you been affected by our slow economy?

NILLES: Perhaps to some extent, but I’ve been very fortunate. Tax bills have been front and center for Congress last year and this year. Also, the tribal governments are still an expanding economy. Gaming is growing.

Legal Magazine: Where are the best places to meet your potential clients? Are you in casinos all the time?

NILLES: I meet many potential clients on the Hill, when I’m at committee mark-ups. I also meet potential clients at political fundraisers. It’s an excellent way of making contacts. It costs you a little money, but it’s a very concentrated group of good contacts.

I also meet clients for our Indian tribal practice by attending trade association meetings, such as those sponsored by the National Indian Gaming Association and the National Congress of American Indians. Recently, I have gotten involved in more specialized groups, like the Native American Finance Officers Association and the National Intertribal Tax Administrators. Not all tribes have a tax director, but they usually have someone designated from either their general counsel’s office or the finance office to look out for tax issues.

Legal Magazine: Are you the only attorney there?

NILLES: Definitely not, but they’re not overwhelmed by private practice attorneys. A very large percentage of in-house professional people attend these conferences.

Legal Magazine: Can you tell me about a business development strategy that didn’t work?

NILLES: Early on, I wrote articles with hundreds of footnotes. For example, I did my Masters of Tax Law thesis at Georgetown on the issue of captive insurance companies. My plan was to turn my thesis into a hot article. The problem is that people who make hiring decisions are not reading law review articles. But it wasn’t a total waste. It established my expertise internally. Several partners already represented tax-exempt hospitals that were looking for advice in the area. When I circulated the article among my partners, business did develop over time.

Legal Magazine: It helped your partners to know what it was you did.

NILLES: Before you generate clients on your own, you have to keep yourself busy doing billable work for other people, so it’s very important that your fellow partners know what you can do and where you can add value.

Legal Magazine: Have you experienced discomfort with business development? How did you overcome it?

NILLES: One uncomfortable area is moving from “Here’s what we can do for you,” to “Here’s my billing rate, the retainer that my firm would like, and the engagement letter we would like you to sign.” I’ve gotten over it by just saying, “We have a process for signing up new clients. These are some of the things our firm likes us to do. How about I send you a proposed engagement letter for you to take a look at it?” The only way to go from prospective client to real client is by having them sign on the dotted line.

Legal Magazine: Have you found it difficult to go from meeting a prospective client and staying in touch to actually asking for their business?

NILLES: I definitely hold back more than I probably should. I would not ask on a first meeting, but I recognize that it is important.

Legal Magazine: Do you look to your existing clients to grow your practice?

NILLES: My number one goal is to serve the client and to make sure that whatever I am doing, I’m doing well. Beyond that, it’s looking for opportunities where we have somebody else in the firm who can address other needs that the client has. Recently, one of my clients — a hospital system in this area — called looking for an antitrust expert. I was immediately able to refer one of my fellow partners, who had formerly chaired the ABA’s Antitrust Section and specializes in health care antitrust.

Legal Magazine: How do you keep up with the capabilities of the other partners in your firm? It’s a great challenge for most law firms to cross-sell. One of the biggest obstacles is a lack of knowledge about what their partners do.

NILLES: I review our firm’s Web site often. And whenever I can, I attend partner meetings in Chicago. When you’re referring clients to another lawyer in your firm, it’s important to have actually met that lawyer, talked with them, and developed a comfort level. It’s just as important as knowing their credentials.

Legal Magazine: Where do you find the time to market?

NILLES: The challenge now is finding the time to do adequate follow-up. It’s been over two weeks since I did the NAFOA speech. I have a stack of cards and a to-do list that I haven’t gotten to yet. Every day I feel that.

Legal Magazine: What will you do to follow-up?

NILLES: I will e-mail this presentation to about 10 people. Then I might do a follow-up call to say, “There seems to be quite a bit of interest in this. If you would like me to give a special presentation to your tribal council on this issue, I’d be glad to do that.”

Legal Magazine: How do you keep in contact with all the people in your network?

NILLES: The Indian tribal practice group has a collective list that we all share. So, I will also send this presentation to appropriate contacts on our list. It will go not only to my client contacts, but also to my partners’ clients. Things that we might do individually, we do instead as a team. I think that’s very important.

Legal Magazine: What advice would you give to a young lawyer starting out?

NILLES: Find an area of the law that you’re passionately interested in. Then develop it.

Legal Magazine: What do you know now that you wish you knew then?

NILLES: It’s really important to be responsive and creative. Those two key principles are actually part of our firm’s statement of values and have been guiding principles for me. It has helped me as a tax lawyer to distinguish myself. Many tax lawyers take the “no, no, no” approach. Sometimes, you have to say no. But I strive wherever I can, within the law, to be more creative.

If the law is unclear, I’ll suggest that we go to the IRS to ask for a ruling. As a result, I’ve been able to influence rulings that have changed the landscape for our clients. I try that in the legislative area as well. Clients have an objective. As a lawyer, you need to be a facilitator, not an obstacle. [1]

Resources

Notes

  1. F. Wagner

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