How to build your business during slow times

This recent Seth Godin post was another timely suggestion from Seth. (My probable #1 reason for subscribing to his blog is that he seems to really have a finger on the pulse of what is going on, with timely, succinct, no-fluff posts on issues that are popping up for me in the days right before or right after his posts. That’s helpful stuff.) In any case, this post addresses what people should do with their newfound free time at work (whether wanted or not):

1. Learn something.
2. Earn a following and reputation.

We’ve added another option in our own business:

3. Help your clients, even if you have to get things rolling by kicking the ball downhill.

We’ve gone to our best contacts, our closest friends and colleagues, and offered to help them by helping their clients. We’ve created the ability to start some of our top-shelf analytical work easily without running up the usual fees and expenses, and so we have hoped that that would initiate a virtuous circle where we help those companies, they generate new work or transactions for our colleagues, and then maybe some additional work trickles up to us.

I’ve long held that a good part of the present malaise in the economy is primarily one of expectations (both past over-expectations aka delusions and current under-expectations aka fear). After all, houses aren’t actually falling down, unable to serve their primary purpose; factories aren’t closing because machinery is decrepit and no longer working. The economy will move when people decide that they need something enough to go out and buy it, whether it’s a nicer house in a better neighborhood or a new couch. The same holds true for companies, whether it’s buying assets that will create future cash flows or hiring better people to upgrade the talent pool.

Starting projects, adding value with your slack time, is not only a way to join arms with your clients and customers but also a great way to keep your own talent engaged. I saw the downside of slow times during the dotcom bust in Silicon Valley: I was at Brobeck’s Palo Alto office at that time. Returning from my honeymoon in August 2000, it turned out that I billed a grand total of 7 hours in September. Now, I didn’t spend the other 153+ hours at work that month doing nothing: I helped other lawyers on their matters and doing my best to train and develop younger lawyers as they worked on other matters.

I just met a recent law school graduate working at an AmLaw 100 firm in New York City. This grad and other new grads are apparently not very busy, which isn’t hard to imagine given the happenings at so many large law firms. However, the response described to me of both partners and associates was often to hunker down and hide work behind closed doors. My advice: partners should be sending these new associates out to client offices, with a no-fee guarantee if needed, to help their clients out. If these associates aren’t billing, it’s better that they be learning as part of an investment by the law firm in its clients than sitting and waiting for work to come to them. Will every client accept? No, but those that don’t are fools. Will every placement generate billable work? No, but those that don’t will generate good will and training. What firm wouldn’t do this?

What are you doing to turn the crankshaft on the engine of commerce? Please pass on your stories and ideas in the comments.