Newly minted lawyers are starting their careers at law firms across the country. Granted, they need to figure out where Conference Room F is before much else. Yet it’s never too early to start thinking about a book of business.
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Laying the Foundation for Success
Starting early is critical because business development takes a long time. As with any complicated discipline, such as athletics, chess or artistic endeavors, you need to build multiple foundational layers of knowledge and skills before you can become accomplished at it.
While I believe everyone is capable of building a profitable roster of clients, many lawyers who are beginning their careers at law firms will, down the road, decide on a different path. Even for those lawyers, it’s good to begin laying the foundation for business development. The skills required to position oneself for business development success are valuable and transferable to almost any domain in life.
Business development brings many benefits. If you have your own clients, you’ll make more money and advance more quickly. Most importantly, you’ll gain a sense of autonomy. Research shows that autonomy — the feeling of control and independence — is the biggest predictor of workplace happiness.
Practicing in a law firm environment is tough. It’s difficult enough when you feel beholden to clients, but it’s doubly so if you’re dependent on colleagues in your firm for work to fulfill billable hour requirements.
If you’re an associate, even a relatively junior one, you can take steps to improve your circumstances.
A while back, I participated in an Expert Webcast panel with Scott Becker, a successful healthcare lawyer at McGuireWoods and the founder of Becker’s Healthcare. During a discussion about thought leadership marketing, he recounted that as a midlevel associate, he determined he wanted more autonomy and that the way to greater independence was in building a book of business. In my book “The Essential Associate,” Becker shared his insights with me on what it takes to create autonomy:
“If I was going to be in it for the long haul, I knew I needed to create a marketing and business development platform that was going to be sustainable and reach more broadly than my inner circle,” Becker said. “Building a practice is a serious job, a full-time job, and you need to treat it as such.”
Ready to Get Serious About Business Development?
There’s no time like the present. According to an old Chinese proverb, “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.” Here are four principles to keep in mind as you get started.
1. Get narrow.
You’re not for everyone. You don’t know everything. Accordingly, you shouldn’t try to market yourself broadly. Instead, define a narrow niche market and focus your efforts on gaining traction within it. Why not reach everyone you can? Because if you try that, you’ll reach no one. Your message will be watered down and, consequently, easy to ignore.
When you narrow your focus, you can wrap your mind around the market you hope to serve. You can identify with specificity businesses you hope to serve and the decision-makers within those businesses. You can then pinpoint the organizations those individuals belong to, the events they attend, the publications they read, and, most importantly, the issues they care about. As a result, you can inject yourself into the conversation happening within your niche and position yourself as a thought leader capable of solving the problems your prospects face.
Focus on reaching a minimum viable market, not a big, broad one.
Dial in on a small group of people. Serve them. Delight them. Then they’ll tell a friend.
Yes, think big. But act small. And remember, having a niche doesn’t mean you can’t ever do work outside of it. It’s simply a means to make marketing more simple and effective.
Are you afraid of failure? If so, you’ll have a hard time building a book of business. When you engage with prospective clients, especially if you’re just getting started, failure will be a common occurrence. Don’t let that stop you. The path to success lies in creativity and consistency.
To become successful, it’s necessary to experiment with different approaches to marketing and business development. Engage in a high level of activity, even if imperfect. Try your hand at different means of marketing, such as writing, public speaking and active networking. You won’t know what works unless and until you try it.
The reason experimentation is important is that it gives you something to measure, and you can’t improve what you don’t measure. Once you define a niche and start experimenting with different methods to reach members of your target market, you’ll get a sense of what’s resonating with them and you can do more of it. The odds are that what’s working — for example, creating thought leadership content — is an activity that you have aptitude for and interest in. Are you getting more inbound inquiries? More connection requests on LinkedIn? More requests for proposals? These are all signs you’re on the right track.
There’s a ton of noise online about all the things lawyers can and should be doing to market themselves and develop business. Social media. Email marketing. SEO tactics. Networking. Content marketing. The list goes on. Who has time for all of that?
Ignore the conventional wisdom and go all-in on what works for you, even if that’s a single, discrete activity. You’re far more likely to engage in a higher volume of marketing and business development if your activities align with your aptitude and interests. You’ll do more of something that is generating positive results.
Think Big But Act Small to Build Your Book of Business
Developing a profitable book of business is not easy, but it’s not as complex as it may seem. After all, how many clients do you really need anyway? Many lawyers who take a big, broad approach to marketing behave as if they’re trying to secure hundreds of new clients. As a result, they don’t appeal to any particular market segment. Take the opposite approach. Think big but act small. You won’t — indeed, can’t — appeal to everyone. But if you define a narrow market and immerse yourself in it, you can build a big book of business.
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