Many business development professionals in law firms will be familiar with the following scenario: a diligent senior associate, who has kept their head down and billed the requisite number of hours over several years, finally gets elected to partnership. Cause for celebration, indeed! However, once the champagne corks have popped and the hangover has receded, the baby partner walks into the office of their BD manager looking white as a sheet. Why? Because they’ve suddenly worked out that their world has changed, and now, as well as being a top lawyer, they need to start developing business for themselves and the firm. How? Well, on that day, many of them really have no idea!
What do we do? As compassionate business development professionals, we sit the baby partner down, give them a coffee, and start explaining the A-B-Cs of business development. We’ve all been there, and done that. However, is this when this should start? Wouldn’t it be great if a newly-minted partner already had a clear idea of BD and was on their way to building a book of business? Wouldn’t it be great for everyone if their first few months of partnership could be spent learning other things? Surely there’s a better way?
They say that when you learn to ride a bike at a young age, it’s easy and you know how to for life. You may graduate to bigger and more technical bikes, but the basic skill of riding remains the same. Similarly, lawyers who engage in BD from a junior level find that although their book of business will grow and develop over time, the BD skills and techniques they learnt at the start will always be applicable.
So what are some of these skills, and how can firms support their lawyers in developing and implementing them?
At the most junior level, associates often benefit from some group training on business development. This should make them aware of the basics of BD, such as knowing key facts about their firm and practice area (their “elevator speech”), keeping in touch with their networks from law school, university and elsewhere, and carrying their business cards. It’s never too early either to get them involved in researching and writing drafts of articles, client pitches, directory submissions, and client presentations. It is important however, with the help of a BD professional and firm leaders, to put it all into context so they understand how what they are doing fits in with the overall strategy of the firm.
The intermediate level is a good time to start getting associates to think about industries or sectors that they are interested in and might want to specialise in in the long term. They should start reading into these areas, and asking for opportunities to be involved in articles, client seminar and conference presentations in their chosen areas, and attend relevant events wherever possible. This is also the time for them to start prioritising their network, and working out how to keep in touch with key clients, particularly those at their own level. Most firms now recognise the benefits of and encourage “peer-to-peer” relationship building.
For senior associates and Counsel, this is the time to start putting in place a tailored, individual BD action plan. Hopefully one that can take them through to partnership, if that’s what they want. At this time, often as a complement to the firm’s own BD resources, the assistance of an external BD coach can be invaluable. This person can help the senior associate clearly define their client contacts, their networks, and, importantly, their BD style. Are they someone more comfortable with writing, or networking? Are they great in client BD meetings, or are they a whizz at social media? An external BD coach can work with them to prepare a specific BD action plan with concrete, achievable objectives and actions, and act as a neutral, external sounding board for ideas and issues. They can give the lawyer the one-on-one attention needed to make the most of their career, and, most importantly perhaps, work with them over time to ensure they implement the elements in their plan.
Lawyers who have benefited from this type of coaching report that they feel more comfortable with BD, appreciate having a clear written plan so that they instantly know what to get on with when they have a moment, and the fact that someone follows-up with them regularly spurs them on to action.
Law firms that invest in involving their associates in BD activities from a junior level reap the rewards of an embedded BD culture within the firm. They also give a newly-made up partner one less thing to have to worry about in their first few months of partnership.
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