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5 Business Development Mistakes Lawyers Make (and What to Do Instead)

If you want more autonomy, get busy building your book of business.

By Jay Harrington

Why do some lawyers succeed at building practices, while others struggle? Here are five common business mistakes, and what to do instead.

According to a study from the ABA Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs, 28%, 19% and 23% of lawyers experience symptoms of depression, anxiety, and stress, respectively. For anyone who works in the legal profession, that should come as no surprise.

Too Many Lawyers Are Unhappy

But what to do about it? The most obvious answer — throw more money at the problem — hasn’t worked. Lawyer compensation has risen steadily over the last two decades, as has dissatisfaction and other problems, such as addiction.

It’s Not About Money, It’s About Control

In my experience, the factor that leads to discontent for most lawyers is the lack of control they perceive they have over their circumstances. The demands of the job are overwhelming. Clients expect 24/7 responsiveness. Lawyers who don’t have their own books of business are at the beck and call of colleagues who do. An unwelcome phone call from an adversary on a Friday afternoon can turn one’s weekend upside down.

The COVID-19 crisis has, for many lawyers, exacerbated feelings of loss of control. Their routines have been upended and, for the first time in a long time, lack of job security has become a real, industrywide concern.

In short, most lawyers lack autonomy over their time and circumstances, and research shows that “autonomy” — defined as “the feeling that your life and its activities and habits are self-chosen and self-endorsed” — is the No. 1 predictor of job satisfaction.

More important for our purposes is that autonomy also brings lawyers the most well-being. That’s a key finding of a study, “What Makes Lawyers Happy? A Data-Driven Prescription to Redefine Professional Success,” conducted by Florida State University College of Law professor Lawrence Krieger and University of Missouri at Columbia psychology professor Kennon Sheldon. The study found that while factors typically associated with success, such as money and status, “showed nil to small associations with lawyer well-being,” autonomy is integral to career satisfaction.

The Key to a More Autonomous Future? Your Own Book of Business

That’s not to say that having clients is easy. When you own the client relationship, you own the ultimate responsibility to produce great work and provide great client service. When something goes wrong, you own the responsibility to fix it.

But in a choice between having or not having a book of business, having clients gives you far more options. Lawyers who desire more autonomy will likely never get it if they’re dependent on others for billable hours. Without clients, a lawyer’s time and compensation rely on (and are subject to the whims of) colleagues with books of business. With clients, a lawyer will make more money, have more options, and be in a position to exercise more control — in other words, have more autonomy.

Getting Business Development Right

So why do some lawyers succeed at building practices while others struggle? Here are five common business mistakes that lawyers make, and what to do instead.

Business Mistake No. 1: Lack of Positioning

Positioning relates to how you describe your service offering to the marketplace. The purpose of defining your positioning is to differentiate yourself from the competition. The more narrowly you position yourself, the fewer alternatives there will be to the expertise you offer.

Too many lawyers position themselves broadly, suggesting that they can solve problems across many different domains for many different types of clients.

They’re under the mistaken belief that the more options they provide, the more opportunities will come their way. However, the exact opposite is true. Clients want to hire the expert, and it’s not credible (or ethical) for a lawyer to suggest expertise in a wide variety of practice areas and across numerous industries.

You develop expertise through repeated observation and problem-solving for the same types of clients. From a surgeon who does 10 hip replacement surgeries every week, to a lawyer who deals only in UCC disputes for automotive suppliers, high rates and high-stakes work go to the professional who specializes — and makes his or her specialization clear through market positioning.

Business Mistake No. 2: Lack of Planning

Most lawyers set annual business development goals, often relating to the amount of revenue they want to generate in a given year. Far fewer take the critical next step of reducing their goal to an actionable plan. Every ambitious goal is really a series of smaller ones.

If you want to accomplish something significant, you must think big and then act small.

For example, if you want to have a more robust referral network by the end of the year, you must determine the steps that must be taken — every month, every week, every day — required to build one. If you want to publish more thought leadership content, you must plan an editorial calendar for the year that will allow you to create effective content. Most lawyers want the same things — more clients, more revenue, more autonomy — but those who achieve their goals create systems that allow them to make consistent progress. (Related: “Three Steps to Increasing Your Productivity.”)

Think of each goal as a series of dominoes. Each domino represents an action you must take in furtherance of your goal. You must methodically and systematically line up and then knock down each domino over the course of the year.

As best-selling author James Clear wrote in “Atomic Habits,” “You do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems.”

Business Mistake No. 3: Lack of Consistency

Most lawyers favor a sporadic approach to business development, revving up when times are slow or when evaluation time is near, and letting it slide during the busy season. As I’ve said before in this column, the problem is lawyers often overreact and overcorrect when times get too slow. They engage in a bluster of business development activity that brings in work — often more work than they can handle from clients who are a poor fit. Then they stop all business development activities to focus on the work they have. Then the cycle repeats.

Lawyers who ride this up-and-down cycle typically lack an understanding of the sustained level of business development activity that is required to keep them, and, ideally, others in the firm, busy on a consistent basis.

The key to business development success is to do the right thing, the right way, at the right time by forming a business development habit and investing in yourself every day.

By forming a business development habit, you ward off procrastination that tends to creep in when client work gets busy. You’ll avoid the temptation to put off business development, and business mistakes until it becomes imperative when things slow down.

Prioritize the time necessary to make consistent progress. Don’t spend all your time trying to bill hours. Sell yourself an hour of your time every day to build a practice. It’s the best investment you can make.

Business Mistake No. 4: Lack of Visibility

New business opportunities are unpredictable. It’s hard to know when a client will need a lawyer for litigation or to assist with a transaction. Moreover, research shows that buyers of sophisticated services, such as legal services, get more than halfway through a buying decision before inviting a service provider into the conversation. As a result, lawyers are often unaware they are under consideration because more of the vetting of their services is happening online.

Lawyers miss out on business development opportunities because they don’t remain visible enough to those they hope to serve.

You can’t expect that someone you met at a conference six months ago will think of you for a referral opportunity.

To remain visible, you must continually engage in activities, such as thought leadership marketing and LinkedIn-relationship building, to remain top-of-mind. Having strong and memorable positioning also helps. By increasing your visibility, clients will be more likely to think of you when critical moments requiring the assistance of legal counsel arise.

Business Mistake No. 5: Lack of Confidence

As you begin the transformation from a lawyer who wants to develop business to one who actually does, it’s critical that you begin to see yourself as the type of lawyer who is capable of building a practice. Your actions will then follow your beliefs. Every time you take action in accordance with your beliefs, you embody the identity you seek. Even if you’re just getting started, you must act “as if” you are what you want to become.

If you don’t have clients of your own — but want to build a practice — you need to act as if you do.

That doesn’t mean you should mislead anyone about your past experience. It means that you must project confidence and engender trust that you’re the right expert for the job when you have opportunities to interact with prospective clients. If you approach such conversations from a defensive posture, a prospect will sense your unease and be repelled by it. Your measured confidence will have the opposite effect. You must be willing to say no to poor-fit clients, to stand your ground, to discuss fees upfront, and not make unwise or unmerited concessions.

When you believe in yourself, you create the conditions for others to believe in you, too.

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More on Attorney at Work

You’ll find multiple articles on issues related to the pandemic on Attorney at Work’s COVID-19 page, including Jay Harrington’s 30-Day Business Development Plan for Lawyers During the COVID-19 Crisis,” as well as:

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Jay Harrington Jay Harrington

Jay Harrington is the owner of Harrington Communications, a leading thought-leadership PR and marketing agency that specializes in helping law firms and lawyers build awareness, influence and new business. Jay is the author of three books for lawyers on issues related to business and professional development, including “The Productivity Pivot,” “The Essential Associate” and “One of a Kind: A Proven Path to a Profitable Practice.” He podcasts at The Thought Leadership Project and writes a weekly email newsletter. Previously, he practiced law at Skadden Arps and Foley & Lardner. Follow him @JayHarrington75.

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