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How to Get ‘Lucky’ When Building Your Legal Practice

By Jay Harrington

Not happy with your current business development results? Try something different.

business development results

Throughout my career, as both a practicing lawyer and consultant, the best new business opportunities have almost always arisen at unexpected times and from unexpected places.

Shortly after starting a small law firm, I reluctantly said yes to an invitation to attend a fundraiser in my community. I wanted to say no because I was stressed about a lack of work and felt like I needed to keep grinding instead of “wasting my time” at the event. I went and met an estate planning lawyer who introduced me to my biggest client of the year.

A few years back, I was at a conference, standing in line at Starbucks in the hotel lobby. On a whim, after paying for my drink, I decided to hang out and pay for the drinks of the next 10 people in line. This was a fun, no-expectation experience. It happened to lead to a significant coaching and training engagement.

Call it luck. Call it serendipity. Call it whatever you want. Just recognize that there’s an element of randomness to business development that strategic planning can’t account for.

New business opportunities are unpredictable. They arise when you’re in the right place, at the right time, and in front of the right people. The challenge is knowing when, where and who is “right.” In fact, I would argue that it’s nearly impossible because legal problems arise unexpectedly. Can you predict when a business you’re targeting for business development is going to get sued? Will you know in advance when the company at which your sorority sister is the CFO will get approached by a potential acquirer? If you knew, then, of course, you’d position yourself for the potential opportunity. But since you can’t know, you’re often too late. The opportunity is gone by the time it hits your radar screen.

Demand becomes a bit more predictable when you’re an estate planning lawyer serving individuals with annual needs or a securities lawyer serving businesses that have annual filing requirements. But even then, there’s no way of knowing, for example, the moment a prospective client will become dissatisfied with incumbent counsel and be open-minded to switching.

The good news is that there are ways to combat the unpredictability of legal demand.

Nurture Relationships With Key Contacts

One is making sure that you’re consistently staying visible to and nurturing relationships with your key contacts. Maintaining connections through business development — one-to-one outreach — can often intersect serendipitously with a client’s needs. For instance, a simple phone call to a client you haven’t contacted in a while might reveal a legal issue that’s been buried under their workload. Because you reached out at the right time, the client rewards your initiative and you find yourself handling a new matter. In this context, your outreach isn’t seen as an imposition from the perspective of your contact, but as a valuable touchpoint with a trusted advisor. After all, you’re helping them cross an item off their to-do list.

However, while this sort of business development is critical, it doesn’t scale. You can’t be everywhere, in touch with everyone, in your network — let alone outside of it. And the opportunities that exist within your pre-existing network barely scratch the surface of what’s available to you more broadly.

Accordingly, it’s important to be open to new opportunities, put yourself out there, and say yes to new experiences.

‘Weak Ties’: It’s Not Just Strong Ties With Close Contacts That Matter

Here, the sociological concept of “weak ties,” introduced by Mark Granovetter, becomes relevant and fascinating. Granovetter’s research suggests that our acquaintances, rather than our close friends, are more likely to introduce us to new and different opportunities.

These “weak ties” act as bridges to worlds we don’t walk in our daily lives. They connect us to networks and information that are otherwise inaccessible.

For example, a coaching client shared a relevant experience he had standing in line for concessions at a rap concert a few years ago. His friend turned to him and said, “I bet you’re the only lawyer here.” They laughed, and the guy in front of them turned around and said, “I’m a lawyer, too.” They struck up a conversation, became acquaintances who stayed in touch and started referring significant new business to each other despite practicing in different areas of the law.

If you’re spending all your time where and how you’re “supposed” to, with people who fit the prototypical decision-maker mold, and head-down checking boxes on your conventional marketing plan, you’ll miss out on opportunities to develop relationships and find work in unexpected places. And doesn’t experience tell us that a great deal of the most beneficial opportunities and relationships come our way unexpectedly?

Four Strategies for Creating Serendipity

Skeptical that you can create serendipity? That you can put yourself in a position to harness the potential of the unconventional and unexpected? Here are four strategies for getting “lucky.”

1. Allocate 20% Time

Google famously allows its engineers 20% time — approximately one day’s worth of time every week — to follow their curiosity and work on pet projects. This investment has led to many important advancements for the company, including the creation of Gmail by developer Paul Buchheit. Try doing something similar with your business development. Spend 20% of the time you allocate each week to “off-script” activities. Instead of attending the state bar event, go to a gallery opening, attend a meeting of a local nonprofit, or simply go for a walk outside and give yourself time to think creatively, free of distractions.

2. Plant “Serendipity Bombs”

A “serendipity bomb,” a term coined by Mattan Griffel, an entrepreneur and adjunct assistant professor at Columbia University, is a deliberate action or decision you make to create unexpected opportunities and encounters. One powerful way to plant serendipity bombs is through your daily conversations, whether with colleagues, acquaintances or even strangers. Approach each interaction with genuine curiosity and a willingness to help. Start by asking open-ended questions about the other person’s interests, challenges or recent experiences. This not only shows your genuine interest in them but also opens up avenues to share insights from your legal expertise without it feeling forced or salesy.

3. Embrace Digital Serendipity

Creating serendipity isn’t limited to physical interactions or events. Utilize digital platforms to foster unexpected connections and opportunities. Start by regularly sharing insightful content on platforms like LinkedIn. The key is to provide value and engage your audience, not just broadcast your services. Engage with others’ content, too. Comment on posts, participate in discussions and share others’ content with your perspective added.

This creates a two-way interaction that can lead to meaningful connections.

4. Become Outstanding at What You Do

This is the most predictable way to get “lucky,” but it requires a tremendous amount of dedication and hard work. As entrepreneur and investor Naval Ravikant puts it, when you become among the best at what you do, “Opportunity will seek you out. Luck becomes your destiny.” It’s like the old adage that “luck is when preparation meets opportunity.”

When a lawyer builds a hard-earned reputation for being outstanding in a domain, word spreads. Their reputation precedes them. When a client faces a high-stakes challenge, they’ll take the time to seek out the lawyer best qualified to tackle it. Opportunities start coming inbound, which other people may characterize as lucky, but it’s simply what happens when someone becomes the go-to expert.

Embrace the Unexpected

Not happy with your current business development results? Try something different. Go in a different, unexpected direction.

The most important thing is taking action. If you want to build a practice in the real world, you have to get outside of your head and your comfort zone. This takes practice. The more you do it, the more comfortable and natural it will feel. Heed the wisdom of Arnold Palmer: “The more I practice the luckier I get.”

My prediction if you start opening yourself up to serendipity:

You’ll develop new relationships, get exposed to fresh ideas and broaden your perspective. Be interested in other people you meet in a new environment, which makes you a more interesting person. Don’t focus merely — or better yet, at all — on pitching, marketing, and developing business in the traditional sense when trying something different.

When we loosen our grip on what we want, it tends to come our way.

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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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