Interviewed by Mavis Gragg
Name: Milan Pham
Firm Name: Nicholson Pham Attorneys at Law
Address: 113 Broadway Street, Durham, NC 27701
Nominated by: Mavis Gragg
Practice area: Business Law
Most successful/Favorite Rainmaking tip:
I believe you should network where your values are. You should network in places you do not anticipate finding clients, or where most attorneys would not necessarily anticipate meeting new clients. I attend economic development and government relations meetings. I am also involved with business alliances and regional organizations, as well as the lesbian, gay, bisexual & transgender (LGBT) community because this is a significant part of our client base. My practice area is primarily business law, and the LGBT community relies on contract law for family planning since there are no marriage rights here. Essentially, my potential clients may not know what kind of attorney they need. So, it is important for me to be where they are.
We also primarily serve clients in the county where we are based (Durham County, North Carolina), which has worked because having a broad geographic area usurps your time. People tend to be local these days. So clients like that we are local too. Clients can literally walk to our office in the Old North Durham neighborhood.
Biggest influence on career/best career advice:
My mother has been the biggest influence on my career, and she gave me the best career advice – which she probably did not realize was career advice. My mother told me that I should endeavor to learn the Tax Code. As strange as that is, the Tax Code is the entire spectrum of my practice. A large part of what I do is leverage the Tax Code for the benefit of small business. The biggest gift my parents have given me is the legacy of entrepreneurship. They taught me how to look at balance sheets and how to be comfortable with the way money flows through business. This is different from the way people work. Money flow is something that is very uncomfortable for people. As a business owner, you have to have a way of flowing and evening.
Percentage of time devoted to marketing:
We devote quite a lot of time to marketing. Probably a quarter or third of our time is spent on marketing and we have different strategies for each area.
This is hard to say. At the time I started my firm, I had two great job offers on the table and it was the height of the recession. So, an ongoing accomplishment is my willingness to step in to things that I fear like starting my business.
Knowing what you know now, if you were starting out as a lawyer today, what would you do differently?
I started out as director of the Orange County (North Carolina) Human Rights and Relations Department and went on to be director of North Carolina Lawyers for Entrepreneurs Assistance Program (NC LEAP) of the North Carolina Bar Association Foundation. If I did anything differently, I would try out as many practice areas as I could. I would start with litigation of some form and go from there.
Tell me about one rainmaking strategy or tactic that you initially thought would work, but it failed. Why did it fail?
Print advertising. Glossy advertisements did not work for us. I think this tactic failed because people don’t really look at print advertisements. They don’t tend to want to hire an attorney based on an ad in a paper. I have heard that attorneys who do disability or personal injury can do advertisements on television and that works for them. In criminal law, direct mail seems to work well. Trust is important in my practice area. It is important to understand what motivates the clients we serve. In business law, relationships motivate potential clients…and the Internet. The Internet has been useful in identifying our firm as one that serves the LBGT community, a niche client base.
Tell me about one rainmaking strategy or tactic that you initially thought would fail, but it was a great success. Why was it successful?
I tried to start a relationship with a much older attorney that worked in a practice area I was interested in, but it took two years. She saw me do work in the district court and she said, “I’ve been meaning to give you a call.” So we started a relationship then. She began to refer clients to us and we retained her to consult on those cases. She is now “of counsel” to our firm. I didn’t think this was a rainmaking strategy when I initially approached this attorney, but this relationship has turned in to new business for our firm.
What has been your greatest frustration about trying to get new business or new clients?
The greatest frustration has been the ability to pick the right kind of client. When you are trying to generate business, you will be tempted to take any business that comes your way. A lot of attorneys have the mentality of “feast or famine”. This is where my entrepreneurial background helps. You understand the business cycle. You understand that business will grow, peak, and then slump. When business slumps, many attorneys try to take in as many new clients as possible in order to recover. The most important thing is to prepare for famine by managing your cash flow, rather than accepting everyone who comes through your door because you are desperate and not prepared. Have an emergency fund. There may be tax consequences, but it is very important to have reserves for the times business slumps. You continue to market your business throughout the cycle, and over time you will build a solid book of business. Over time, the peaks should be higher and the slumps will not be as low. You will be prepared.
If you were mentoring a young woman lawyer, what advice would you give her regarding rainmaking?
The answer depends on her practice area, but a good foundation for rainmaking is quality legal work. In the beginning she will have to avoid the temptation of taking as many clients as possible to ensure she produces quality work. Also, people really care about the ability to contact their attorney. The fact that a client can call NicholsonPham and an attorney is available to speak to them is a huge rainmaking tool for us. Sometimes clients just need to hear my voice even if there is no update.
Also, people coming out of law school should be, at a minimum, able to speak one other language. We are a multilingual firm, which has proved to be an advantage. It is an anathema to me that people only speak one language. We are also culturally competent, which is important. There is a lot of emphasis in our firm on cultural competency.
Would you say you ever had a mentor that made a genuine difference in how your career turned out? If yes, please describe.
Probably the late John Calmore, who was my professor at the University of North Carolina School of Law. He reminded me of the reason I went to law school to begin with, and why I set myself on a little bit of a different track. I was planning to go work for a law firm and Professor Calmore gave me a good shake. He told me, in unequivocal terms, that they would eat me up and spit me out. He told me that they wouldn’t use my talents in the way they need to be used. He said, “Corporations don’t need people like you. People need people like you.” And so, my first job out of law school was doing justice work.
Think about when you started out as a lawyer. Now think about the new female lawyers just starting out. What is different now compared to when you started?
I think the legal field is very different now from when I started. When I started practicing people were talking about firms where first-years were starting with salaries of $180,000. That has changed now. It’s liberating, because now we have to innovate and be different kinds of lawyers. We have to use different business models. It’s especially positive for women because owning your own business is a key way to get the kind of flexibility you want and need to have, that you wouldn’t get in having the kind of jobs that were big when I started.
List words that best describe you:
LAW PRACTICE TODAY
Micah U Buchdahl, HTMLawyers, Inc
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BOARD OF EDITORS
John D. Bowers, Fox Rothschild LLP
Margaret M. DiBianca, Young Conaway Stargatt & Taylor, LLP
Nicholas Gaffney, Infinite Public Relations, LLC
Nancy L Gimbol, Eastburn & Gray
Richard W Goldstein, Goldstein Patent Law
Katy M. Goshtasbi, Puris Image
William D Henslee, Florida A&M Univ College of Law
Allison C. Shields, Legal Ease Consulting, Inc.
Gregory H. Siskind, Siskind Susser, P.C.
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