Bar Association Leadership with James Wu

On this episode of Lawyer Business Advantage, we focus on the Bar Association as an opportunity for business development. My guest, James Wu of Quarles and Brady, has built his book of business by getting involved and serving his local bar association. Get his tips and best practices…coming up next on Lawyer Business Advantage.

Alay Yajnik: [00:00:18] Welcome to Lawyer Business Advantage, your source for biz dev tips, wisdom and inspiration. I’m your host, Alay Yajnik. We’re unleashing your inner rainmaker in 3…2…1….

Alay Yajnik: [00:00:34] I’d like to welcome to the show James Wu. James is Of Counsel at Quarles and Brady. James, welcome to Lawyer Business Advantage.

James Wu: [00:00:41] Thank you. Thank you for the invitation to be here.

Alay Yajnik: [00:00:44] And I’m really happy you could be here too. You and I have known each other for a while, but our members and our audience listeners may not know you that well yet. So tell us a little bit about the growth and evolution of your career, including your experience as a solo, because you were a solo for a while and now you’re not.

James Wu: [00:01:04] Yeah, it’s been a journey for me, professionally speaking, growing up. I started practice in 1996 in Chicago and I always practiced employment labor law, which I started gravitating towards in Chicago and practiced at large law firms for about four years. And then my wife and I moved to Walnut Creek, California, in the end of 2000 and my firm did not have a California office. So I left on great terms, but I needed to find a new landing spot for me professionally. So when I first landed in California, I also joined other large firms through some mutual connections. And I worked at large firms here in the Bay Area for quite some time. And then, as you mentioned, I did go solo after about, I’d say, another 11 years or so. I did go solo and started my own firm. Again, still practicing labor and employment law.

Alay Yajnik: [00:02:10] And James, if I may ask, why was it that you decided to leave those big firms and go solo?

James Wu: [00:02:17] Yeah, at the time I had a couple of things. One was, I was a bit disenchanted with some of the politics and bureaucracy that the large firms I was at, that I won’t name them. But and secondly, quite frankly, it was for family reasons. I had kids. I mean, I still have kids. But at the time they were in elementary school and not seeing them for dinner, not being able to walk them to school or things like that, just little things of life that I wanted to have the opportunity to do, weren’t there by commuting to San Francisco.

James Wu: [00:02:50] So starting my own firm here in Walnut Creek afforded me that opportunity to not only run the firm the way I wanted it to be run, but also to have more personal satisfaction with my family and being there for Little League games and picking them up from school and carpooling with their friends to practices and those life events.

Alay Yajnik: [00:03:15] Congratulations on making that tough decision to prioritize the things that are really important to you! And there’s no judgment here for those of you that are listening. Some people are driven by money. Other people are driven by other things. For most of us, it’s a combination of factors. So, James, you recognize that things had to be changed so that you could live the life you want and you made those changes and started your own firm. And that’s a scary step to take for a lot of people. And congratulations again on having the courage to do that.

James Wu: [00:03:45] Yeah, thank you. And it was scary at the time, and I think that although I didn’t know you at the time, I had some mentors who really helped me to launch my own firm and to realize that, while it is nerve wracking and somewhat scary, it’s not as daunting as I thought it would be. And so I ran my own firm and had a partner for a while for about eight or nine years.

James Wu: [00:04:15] And then now, as you mentioned, I’m back at Quarles and Brady, which is the firm I started out in Chicago, but I’m their only California attorney. So in a lot of ways, it’s a great blend of being a solo still and having the support of a larger firm if I need to be outstanding.

Alay Yajnik: [00:04:36] And what were some of the reasons why you decided to rejoin Quarles and Brady versus continuing with your solo practice?

James Wu: [00:04:45] Yeah, so it was kind of out of the blue. I wasn’t looking to rejoin, they reached out to me, said that they had interest in developing a California practice because clients had that need. And we had, like I said, we had left on good terms. And so it just made a lot of sense in terms of my practice, because I had clients that needed other resources that I wasn’t able to provide as just a solo in employment law in California. So folks with operations in other states, for example, I would normally refer those out and I still do from time to time. But at least the Quarles team is my first stop to see if there’s someone, for example, in Chicago or Milwaukee who can help clients that have operations there. So it just made business sense as well.

Alay Yajnik: [00:05:37] Well, I love that you you obviously left on good terms with them and kept up relationships with them to the point where you were able to seek out, like you said, the best of both worlds. That’s terrific. And it’s actually fairly unique. I don’t know a lot of attorneys that have made that kind of a transition like you did. So, again, congrats on joining the firm. That’s terrific. And during that time, you have done a great job really from launching your own practice to continuing through Quarles and Brady about business development. And that’s obviously one of the subjects of this podcast. What were some of the business development techniques that you found to be fairly successful?

James Wu: [00:06:18] Yeah, great question, and you’re right, absolutely, business development is a key component of really any legal career, whether you’re at a large firm or solo. I think it’s particularly acute because of a solo practice. You’re the sole breadwinner, so to speak, for the firm. For me, a lot of it was just sort of following my interests. So, and what I mean by that is, as I mentioned, I took a different route in my career path, mainly for family reasons. But that also tended to turn out to be a business development opportunity. Things like going to, like I said, my children’s sporting events. I developed great relationships with other parents on the team or through the school PTA meetings, for example, or parent club meetings. And out of that building, those relationships eventually led to some referral business work for those who are business owners or those who had HR interests and needed some employment assistance.

James Wu: [00:07:28] So from that respect, I think unknowingly it turned into business development just by participating in those family events. But I guess more more pointedly, one of the things I did was I joined and became very involved in the employment law section initially of the Contra Costa County Bar Association. And it was again, not so much did I know how that would impact my business development. But after now 10, almost 14 years related to the Bar Association, it certainly has impacted my business development in a positive way.

Alay Yajnik: [00:08:13] Yeah, and just for our listeners, Contra Costa County, it’s a suburb of the San Francisco Bay Area and the Contra Costa County Bar Association is one of the top bar associations in Northern California. And James, you’re being quite modest and I appreciate that about you as always. When you say you got involved in the employment law section, there’s a lot more you did for the bar. And so love to hear from you about how your involvement not only in the Contra Costa County Bar Association and the awesome folks there, but also with the California State Bar Association. How has that shaped your career? I know biz dev is one aspect of that. There are probably others.

James Wu: [00:08:54] Yeah, thanks for for saying that. It shaped my career in many ways. And I’ll start with the biz dev, or the business development, portion. For one, it’s the county bar association. Like you said, it’s one of the most active bar associations in Northern California filled with great people. We have a great relationship with the courts. A lot of attorneys really do look out for each other and it’s very cordial and familial as compared to some other larger bar associations. And once I started becoming more involved and developed those relationships with other attorneys in the county, naturally, cross-referral business development started happening.

James Wu: [00:09:40] And so once you develop that trust factor and can demonstrate your expertise, business referrals should flow. And that’s exactly what happened with me. As I mentioned, I started with the employment law section. I participated probably in almost every committee out of maybe 15 to 20 under the Contra Costa County Bar. I just concluded two years as president of the entire bar association. And this year I’m still on the board. But as the immediate past president for business development purposes, it’s been great to add credibility to my practice. So if someone is searching for an employment law attorney and they see my name and they wonder who I am…knowing that I’ve been a member, so active a member of the Bar Association, has probably helped those decision makers to realize that, “OK, this is a legitimate person with those credentials.” So I appreciate the opportunity to serve the bar both on the county level and at the state level.

Alay Yajnik: [00:10:56] I see this a lot where, you know, someone has seen what you have done and what people like you have done, where they have spent years giving back to the bar and being involved in the bar and taking leadership positions in the bar. And so these people jump in, right? Because they want to generate business. And so they jump in and they’re sort of everywhere in the bar association just doing everything. And they’re there for three months. And then they’re just gone. And when I track a couple of them down and ask, “Hey, you know what? What happened? Are you doing OK? Is your practice all right?” They say, “Oh, yeah, you know, I joined the bar. I gave it a good run for about three months, and then I didn’t get any business from it. So I stopped going because I’ve got to focus on other things that should bring in business.” And I’m sure, James, you’ve probably talked to attorneys like that in other bar associations and other networking organizations. What are your thoughts on that kind of an approach where joining the bar, really milking it for all it’s worth, investing a lot of time into it purely for business development.

James Wu: [00:12:04] Yeah, I think that’s probably a little short sighted and self limiting. It can be a nice source of referrals for sure for work. But ultimately, the Bar Association is a member, non-profit organization, and the mission of most bar associations is to help attorneys with continuing education, with business development, but also to help the community with legal issues that we can serve the community at large with.

James Wu: [00:12:38] So business development probably isn’t the number one goal of a bar association to provide its members. It is a good factor, an important factor. But if someone’s goal is to join for three months and believe that their book of business will grow exponentially in those three months…that’s probably not going to happen, but that’s similar for all organizations. I mean, if they joined a Chamber of Commerce or a business networking group, there’s several of them out there. It would take more than three months to develop and cultivate those relationships, to be able to earn those referrals. So I think that would be short sighted just to join the bar association, a committee or a section or leadership just for the sake of business development.

Alay Yajnik: [00:13:32] Thank you, I appreciate you pointing that out so so diplomatically. I tend to not be as diplomatic. So I would say that, you know, if you are joining a bar association purely for business development, you’re probably joining for the wrong reasons, as you said.

James Wu: [00:13:47] I would agree.

Alay Yajnik: [00:13:47] Yeah. There’s so many other benefits, as you’ve outlined, in joining a bar. And one thing that I’ve seen is that the people that do well in bar associations and do get a lot of business, that’s not why they’re there. They’re there to be a part of a community of attorneys and they’re there to serve and they’re there to lead. And oftentimes you’ll hear a lot about leadership, but oftentimes leadership is just doing what has to be done. It’s about getting involved and doing the work that other people may not enjoy doing. You may not enjoy it either, but you feel a calling to that association and that authenticity that really shines through and people get it. And people also get it if you show up just for business development. They can see through that, you know, just like that. So thank you for for sharing that advice. And we’ve talked a lot about the Contra Costa County Bar Association. We haven’t talked as much about the state bar. Tell us a little bit about your involvement in the state bar and how that’s helped your career.

James Wu: [00:14:49] Yeah, so to be honest, I haven’t been quite as active with the state bar, but before I was certainly active, mostly with the employment law section of the state bar. The state bar has reorganized in recent years. So now aside from the state bar, there’s also the California Lawyers Association. And I’m looking for ways to get more involved there for the purposes of service and giving back, especially now that I have more time. Since my time with Contra Costa is running out, it’s been an opportunity to again add credibility, to provide webinars, to write articles. Both bar associations have those avenues for folks who are interested in getting involved and to help, really help, lawyers become better lawyers. So, yeah, again, I think my state bar participation has been a little bit sort of stunted as a result of my Contra Costa Bar Association participation. But I’m looking to change that.

Alay Yajnik: [00:15:52] You’re looking to change that. And what opportunities do you see for professional development by getting more involved in the state bar?

James Wu: [00:15:59] Well, certainly the state bar is a larger platform. Obviously, it’s for lawyers from all over the state, not just those who might have a connection to Contra Costa. So in terms of business development, again, it’s a wider sort of net that may provide other opportunities for business development, meeting different attorneys that I have yet to get to know and perhaps develop those referral relationships with them. And not just for me. I mean a part of business development for me, a lot of my business development is being able to refer to them, referring a lot of work out. Like I said, I only practice employment law.

James Wu: [00:16:41] So there are several, perhaps dozens of practice areas that I refer people out to all the time, including many people that I think, you know, and being part of a bar association, particularly being a president, I get a lot of random emails or calls asking for referrals.

James Wu: [00:17:01] And I feel good to be in a position where I can refer out someone to a real estate attorney or someone to a probate estate planning attorney or a divorce / family law attorney. All practice areas I don’t practice. So that’s another way of building that trust in that relationship, of just simply giving those referrals out as well.

Alay Yajnik: [00:17:25] You know, you said something really interesting as a part of that, which is that a strong part of your business development is giving referrals and that, you know, to you and I we know exactly what that means. But to some of our listeners, they might not be able to process that because they might think that, “Wait, wait, wait a minute! For business development, aren’t you supposed to get referrals? What’s going on here? How is how is giving referrals part of your business development strategy?” And James, would you mind elaborating on that just a little bit?

James Wu: [00:17:58] Yeah, no problem, I mean, I guess I’ve always had the attitude that the more you give, the more you possibly can give back. And I don’t necessarily give just to give back, but it’s a great way to develop relationships because, again, if I’m referring something to an estate planner, they then feel like, “OK, next time I get an employment law matter….” They’re going to remember me and perhaps they’ll reciprocate. And even if they don’t, that’s OK, because I’ve helped the ultimate client which needed that estate planner. So not only do I make it a point to give referrals when I can, but even simple things like particularly when I was President of the Contra Costa County Bar Association, I would hand write thank you notes to really anyone in the bar association who sort of went above and beyond the call of duty. But that could be planning an event or doing a speaking engagement or something behind the scenes and not so much that perhaps didn’t give them any business. But I just feel that the more you give, the more you say thanks. The more you acknowledge other people, the better. And if it results in business development, which it probably does at some level, that’s just a side bonus. Most of my LinkedIn posts, for example, if I have an achievement or an honor that I’m proud of, most of the time it’s not a result simply of my work, but it’s a committee or a group of people or someone who’s really supported me. And I will always try to remember to thank those people, to thank those committees, those groups, and really my style, if you will, is to sort of deflect attention away from me and really thank those people. And again, that may be counterintuitive, but that’s just my personal style. And it’s certainly, I think, worked pretty well.

Alay Yajnik: [00:19:52] I appreciate you mentioning that, James, because a lot of people think that in order in order to bring in business and to be a rainmaker, they need to really “claim the spotlight,” for want of a better word. And your proof that demonstrating gratitude, being authentic and doing doing what’s right and serving others is a proven strategy for rainmakers that can be very successful, although not necessarily as flashy.

Alay Yajnik: [00:20:18] And that’s not to say that it results in someone being in the shadow because you’re clearly not. I mean, you’re the two time president of the Contra Costa County Bar Association. You’re still on the board. I believe you held a role formally in the California state bar as well. You’re prolific on social media and you have built a fabulous network through networking. So that’s made you very visible. And the opinion of you in the community is stellar as well. So you’ve done a lot, right? And yeah, it has served you well as it should.

Alay Yajnik: [00:20:54] For attorneys who are looking to either get started with business development or take it to the next level, imagine that they were asking you, “Hey, James, what advice do you have for me? Because I want to really build my practice and build my book.”

James Wu: [00:21:09] Yeah, I think to expand on what I briefly mentioned when I went solo to start my own business, I think there’s a natural fear or apprehension. And somehow you’ve got to be comfortable with that at the beginning and to take the leap of faith that you have all this training, you’ve passed the bar exam or whatever requirement is now in place because of COVID-19. And you’re ready to take this on and don’t let fear stop you. I think that’s really the first thing is really to just understand that, yes, it’s a big deal. Yes, it can be daunting. But there are so many resources, again, with the state bar or with the Contra Costa Bar or just other attorneys that I know, me included, who would be happy to be sort of a mentor to someone who’s starting their own business and to just really do some number crunching and figure out, “OK, if I’m billing out a billable hour, is it realistic that I’m going to have one hundred billable hours this first month? Is that realistic? And what do I need to cover my budget? Am I going to be OK with running at a loss for the first six months?” And really just sort of getting a grasp of how comfortable you are with that and where where you are with your family and budget and mortgage and all those things.

James Wu: [00:22:30] So I think doing a little bit of pre-launch research will help calm those fears. But in terms of other business development, again, I think it’s important to stick with one or two practice areas, not trying to be a lawyer for everybody, because that’s right, in my opinion. And maybe your expertise can can disagree or agree with me. But in my opinion, it’s very hard to market, “I’m just a lawyer for every single type of law out there,” because that’s almost impossible for any lawyer to do. And I know that, again, some people are thinking, “Well, I can’t turn anybody away when I’m just a new lawyer.” But, you know, it’s even worse if you’re practicing some area of the law that you have no background or no experience in or worse, no interest in doing only but for the money, because it’s not satisfying and long term. So I think it’s important to start out with focusing on one or two practice areas that you can really articulate and market appropriately.

Alay Yajnik: [00:23:37] Yeah, I completely agree, James. I do know of some attorneys that work across practice areas. Three practice areas is about as many as I’ve seen. And attorneys at larger firms can position themselves as, “Look, I’m you know, your attorney for all your needs,” but they have specialists behind them so they can bring in the work and then hand those off to people who are really experts in those areas. So that’s where it works really well. But for someone who is looking to build a book of business and build a reputation, the more you can focus, especially nowadays even a subspecialty of one practice area. I know that may sound nuts to some of you, but I’ll pick a crazy example. If you could be the employment law attorney who is known for representing accounting firms, right? And all the issues that go on with the accounting firms. And you that’s all that you do. And you publish articles on that and you speak on that and you market with that message. That is actually the fastest way to build a reputation because you’re so focused.

Alay Yajnik: [00:24:42] It’s very hard to just build a reputation as one “I’m one of the best employment attorneys.” But by making that pond smaller and smaller by niching down, it’s easier for people to look at you as a big fish.

Alay Yajnik: [00:24:54] Wow. I should really quote that. That’s pretty awesome.

James Wu: [00:24:56] Yeah, that’s great. That’s great analysis.

Alay Yajnik: [00:24:59] Thank you, James. That’s great. So, yeah, I’m a big believer in that. That being said, I do know attorneys that have that reputation of, “Look, I’m your lawyer” and they’re very well-connected in their community. They know a lot of people and they usually have a full service firm behind them. So they generate the work and a lot of other people provide the subject matter expertise that needs to be provided.

James Wu: [00:25:23] Absolutely, yeah. And like I said, it’s similar to the way I try to develop my business as well. I don’t have expertise in all sorts of things, but I do have a network of people, both internally and outwardly, that can service most practice areas. One other sort of business development approach, especially for more junior attorneys who are just starting out, is and since we’re talking about bar associations, most bar associations, including Contra Costa, has what’s called a lawyer referral service. And attorneys can sign up for that, meaning that whenever a member of the public calls the bar association in need of lawyer assistance, for example, they might say, “I’m calling because I have a child custody issue. I don’t know any attorneys. Can you, Contra Costa County Bar Association, refer me to a lawyer?” The Bar Association has this lawyer referral service, and they have a list of family law attorneys, and other subject matter expertise attorneys that they just go down the list. And OK, if you’re the next one on top, you get this referral. It’s a pretty minor charge to the bar association, but you’re getting this sort of constant feed of referral business. So that’s another good way of getting some cases early on, getting some experience and building up some reputational capital as well.

Alay Yajnik: [00:26:52] Yeah. And, James, you hit the high points on that. The reason to do that is not to make a lot of money because the rates are probably not what you want. But to James’s point, it gives you experience both managing clients as well as managing the cases they bring in and builds your reputation in the bar. And that is how you can really catapult your practice.

James Wu: [00:27:11] Absolutely.

Alay Yajnik: [00:27:13] So, James, as you look out over the next year, year and a half, I know there’s a lot of uncertainty right now, but there always is, even if it’s not quite at this level. We can still get excited. So what excites you about the future of your practice at Quarles and Brady?

James Wu: [00:27:30] Well, that’s a great question, I guess, specifically for me. One of the things I love about employment law is that it’s about relationships ultimately. Right? It’s about the employer / employee relationships or supervisor / subordinate relationship. And that’s what I really love about employment law. It’s in some ways, it’s not as dry or in my opinion. Again, I’m sorry to anyone I might offend, but it’s not as dry as, for example, as a tax issue or a real estate transaction. We’re actually dealing with people’s lives in a lot of ways. But it’s not so severe or serious, for example, as a criminal defense attorney, for example. So I love my practice area. And the reason I say that is, and what excites me about the future is, that it always changes with current events.

James Wu: [00:28:25] So I’ll just go back a few years. When the #MeToo movement started, my practice shifted pretty heavily to me to issues. And fast forwarding a little bit, we had AB5, which was the independent contractor law, which is still making headlines today. But that shifted my practice a bit into advising companies about independent contractors and and employees in the state of California. And then fast forward a little bit more in our in the time of the pandemic, and that certainly has shifted my practice in terms of subject matter, with respect to all things COVID-19-related and furloughs and layoffs and leaves of absence and and taking employee temperatures and PPE and all those things, teleworking and so all those COVID-19 issues. And then on top of that, we had now the attention to racial injustice. And a lot of my clients and my practices also now focused more back onto diversity and inclusion issues. So what I guess I’m saying is that I’m excited because my practice always is relevant to the current events.

Alay Yajnik: [00:30:43] Awesome. I might take you up on that! Everyone, that is James Wu, Of Counsel at Quarles and Brady. Thank you, James.

James Wu: [00:30:51] Thank you.

Alay Yajnik: [00:30:52] That’s a wrap. To get more episodes, webinars and free stuff, visit My name is Alay Yajnik. Thank you for listening. And remember, there’s a rainmaker inside everyone, including you.

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