Creating a Business Development Culture in Your Firm

Recently, I have encountered a number of lawyers who have found themselves unemployed due to cuts or downsizing at their firms. Some of these lawyers were baffled that they had been let go; they had experience and were good lawyers who did their work well, kept their noses to the grindstone, made sure the work they were given by their practice groups or supervising partners got done, and met their billable hour requirements. They didn’t waste time socializing and kept out of the way, focusing on their billable work. But the very things that these lawyers thought should have kept them employed may have put them first in line when the firm needed to downsize. 

These lawyers made the classic mistake of focusing completely on doing their legal work and not cultivating relationships or business development skills which may have made them more valuable to their firms. Ironically, as these lawyers enter the job market or seek to open their own practices, it is these very skills and relationships that may determine their success or failure.

But the blame for lack of business development skills cannot be placed entirely on the shoulders of the lawyers themselves. Some of the blame must be shared by the firms who failed to help their lawyers cultivate business generation skills. These firms have been so focused on leveraging associate time and maximizing billable hours that they have failed to build a culture of business development within their firms. 

What can firms do to foster a culture of business development?

Law firms that want their attorneys to generate business must develop a business development culture. Marketing and business development must be a way of life for the entire firm; they must be part of the day to day fabric of the firm. Unfortunately, too many firms leave business development to a rarified few, the “rainmakers” who seem to have been born with magical powers. The message to young lawyers is, “you either have it or you don’t,” as if business development isn’t a skill that can be learned and nurtured, but instead is bestowed from above upon a lucky few. If that is the case, why try to develop business if you don’t already have it?

Advance a new mindset. The first step to fostering a culture of business development is to change the approach to rainmaking and business development in general. Dispel the notion that rainmakers are a secret society whose practices are a closely guarded secret. Make business development a part of everything the firm does, and something that is the responsibility – and part of the job description – of everyone in the firm (including staff).

Set clear expectations. Each individual within your firm must understand what the firm expects from them with respect to business development, just as they must understand what is expected of them when it comes to their substantive legal work. Merely saying that all lawyers are expected to make efforts to develop and cultivate business is not enough. 

Create expectations for each individual lawyer based upon their strengths and weaknesses. Develop a plan for them to follow with benchmarks to be reached and consistent monitoring to keep them on track and accountable. Make this a part of everyone’s job description and periodic reviews. 

Reward effort, not just outcome. Business development is a process that takes time, particularly when you are starting out, whether you are a new lawyer or an experienced one marketing to a new industry or target audience. Results do not come overnight, which makes it even more important to reward those who contribute to the firm’s marketing and business development efforts, not just outcome. The lack of immediate results will be less discouraging if the lawyer understands that it is expected and understood that results will take time – and if there is an incentive to continue with the behaviors that will ultimately bring results. 

It isn’t enough for the lawyer to look ahead to some unknown time in the future and continue working for some vague notion that business will come and bring compensation with it – there must be rewards in the shorter term in order to foster additional business development efforts. Rewarding those efforts will also encourage innovation and testing of new methods or ideas to generate or retain business.

Provide support. Business development skills can be learned and cultivated, but lawyers need training, feedback and support in order to develop those skills – particularly since they are not skills that are taught in law school. Conduct regular meetings both individually and in groups to provide guidance and feedback, identify obstacles and brainstorm ideas, monitor progress and provide accountability.

Tie compensation to business development – and not just in the traditional way of giving a percentage of business to one who generates or originates the business. As noted above, since generating new business takes a long time and is difficult to see or predict, rewarding the development of skills and the reaching of certain goals and benchmarks will help keep lawyers on track and motivated to continue their business development efforts. Measurement, accountability and rewards must all be in place in order to reinforce the message and encourage desired behaviors.

Telling lawyers that business development is part of their job but compensating them only on billable hours sends a conflicting message. What gets measured gets done; if your firm values business development activities and relationship-building, measure it and compensate it.

Walk your talk – show your commitment to business development in all things the firm does. Paying lip service to business development efforts in an offhand way, commenting on business development infrequently or only as an aside, reminding lawyers that they are ‘expected’ to develop business, but failing to follow through will negate your message. Show your commitment – if you tell associates and staff that they are expected to participate in specific activities or behaviors, make sure partners are doing it too. Hold partners, managers and supervisors accountable, not only for their own business development efforts, but also for cultivating business development skills and relationship behaviors and guiding the business development efforts of those whom they supervise.

Stop tolerating hoarding behavior. Don’t allow originating partners hoard work or keep their clients behind an iron curtain, protected from others in the firm. This behavior does not foster relationship building. In addition to potentially hurting the clients’ interests by not allowing clients access to all of those in the firm working on a client’s matter, the firm may be hurting itself by failing to create deep relationships within the firm with particular clients. Instead, let lawyers shadow the rainmakers to see how they work and how they build relationships with clients and referral sources. Require partners to allow others to accompany them to client meetings and business generation activities, and require them to share their efforts and results with others. 

Seek client feedback, share it with the team and act on it. Retaining great clients is just as important as developing new client relationships and generating new business. Studies have shown that while lawyers think they are delivering excellent service, clients don’t always agree – and they won’t necessarily speak up unless they are asked. Just because clients aren’t leaving your firm does not mean that they are loyal to the firm or that they would recommend you to others or send you additional business. 

Any great business development strategy should include obtaining regular client feedback to ensure that you are meeting clients’ needs and to identify potential new areas of businesses. But simply obtaining that feedback is not enough. It needs to be shared with the team. Sharing the outcome with those who were involved with the matter or work with that client signals that their contribution is important and that they are an integral part of the firm’s success. And you can’t effectively walk your talk if you don’t act on client feedback. Get your employees and attorneys involved during this process as well. Let them help brainstorm ideas for improvement, identify new services that can be provided and put client suggestions into place. Reward lawyers and staff who are actively involved in client retention just as you would reward those who actively seek new business.

 Communicate the firm’s marketing and business development goals and objectives, and regularly report to the firm about the progress being made toward those goals and objectives. Give recognition to all of those who have contributed to the effort. Celebrate success and discuss how improvements or changes can be made in the areas in which the firm has fallen short. Make sure everyone knows the firm’s business development plan and their role within that plan.

A firm that develops a culture of business development won’t have to rely on a few ‘rainmakers’ to feed the entire firm. Instead, each member of the firm, from the receptionist to the equity partners, can contribute their unique skills and insights to constantly improve relationships with existing clients and cultivate new business. When marketing and business development are an integral part of the firm’s day to day activities, the firm is potentially insulated from the need to downsize in the future. The firm will also be more likely to retain talented lawyers and staff by providing them the guidance and support they need to develop their skills and build strong client relationships.

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