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One of a Kind

Legal Business Development Done Right: Plan and Execute

10 steps to your best business game.

By Jay Harrington

While on spring break in a small coastal town in Florida, I awoke early and took a stroll to the local pier, which extended out into the Gulf of Mexico. At the end of the pier was a fisherman who, despite the morning chill, was already working up a sweat.

He had six lines in the water and was in constant motion, bouncing from rod to rod, re-baiting hooks and untangling lines. I asked him what he was fishing for.

“Oh, you can catch almost anything out here,” he said. “There’s speckled trout, Spanish mackerel, kingfish, mangrove, snapper ….” He dashed away mid-sentence as he observed a bend in one of his rods. As far as I could tell, he wasn’t catching much of anything, but he was getting a workout.

Farther down the pier was another fisherman. He had a single line in the water and was sitting on a bucket reading a book about fishing. I asked him if he was having any luck.

“Not yet,” he said. “But that’s OK. I don’t catch much, but every couple of days I land a nice grouper, and that’s enough to eat all week.”

As you may have discerned by now, this parable is an attempt to paint a picture of the different ways lawyers approach business development. In my coaching and training work, I get to observe the many ways lawyers “fish” for clients.

“Fishing” for Clients

When fishing for clients, there are those who frantically cast about in the hope of catching whoever is biting. On the other end of the pier are those who approach their task with clear intention, equip themselves with the right tools for the job, and dial in on a strategy that’s guided by experience. They’re not interested in quantity or variety. Rather, they’re looking for something very particular that will feed them and others in their firms.

The Sporadic, Frantic Approach to Business Development

Lawyers who struggle with business development engage in it sporadically. When work is slow they ramp up their efforts. Then they tamp things down when business picks up. Business development becomes a roller coaster, a cycle of ups and downs that creates stress and uncertainty.

The problem with a sporadic approach is that lawyers often overcorrect when times get slow. They engage in a frantic spate of business development activity that brings in work — often more than they can handle and of a variety that’s inconsistent with their core competencies. So then they stop all business development activity to focus on the work they have. Then, you guessed it: The cycle repeats.

The Methodical, Consistent Approach to Business Development

There’s a better way to approach legal business development, and it involves consistency of effort over the long term. If you’re consistent with business development, you’ll have a steady pipeline of new business opportunities. You can be more discerning about the work you take on. You won’t feel pressure to take on clients that don’t fit your practice. You won’t have to ignore your gut instinct that an engagement could lead to trouble because you need the revenue. You’ll have more success at the work you do pitch because you’ll come across as confident and measured, rather than desperate.

As author and marketing expert Seth Godin once said:

“The thing is, incremental daily progress (negative or positive) is what actually causes transformation. A figurative drip, drip, drip. Showing up, every single day, gaining in strength, organizing for the long haul, building connection, laying track — this subtle but difficult work is how culture changes.”

It’s how legal practices change, too.

Changing Your Approach to Business Development

In my experience, those who succeed at building a sustainable book of business 1) have a plan and 2) summon the discipline to execute the plan on a daily basis.

A bit vague, I know. Let’s get more specific.

Phase One: Plan

You need to begin with a bit of introspection. This exercise will require you to make some difficult choices. You’ll have to close some doors, plant some flags, and get comfortable with a bit of discomfort. You’ll have to come to grips with the fact that your services are not for everyone. If you want to build a profitable book of business, you must craft a service offering that is intensely attractive to a particular set of prospects. In other words, don’t cast a wide net. Get narrowly focused on capitalizing on specific types of opportunities.

Those who succeed set audacious goals …They don’t accept conventional wisdom, don’t listen to doubters … and don’t stunt their potential with limiting beliefs.

Here’s what to consider and document as part of a strategic business development plan:

  1. Your unfair advantage. What comes naturally to you? Most lawyers do a variety of work over the course of their careers. Some of it keeps you up at night because you’re not confident that you know exactly what you’re doing. Other work feels like second nature. Determine what you’re best at and have the confidence to say no to almost everything else.
  2. Your niche. If you try to serve everyone you’ll languish in obscurity. “Jacks-of-all-trades” may stay busy, but rarely are they profitable, because upper margin work goes to experts, not generalists. Having a niche allows you to communicate your value proposition to a distinct, highly targeted market. Your message can be contextualized and more relevant to your audience and penetrate the conversation in the industry you’re focused on. You can become an insider who’s trusted, not an outsider who’s viewed with a skeptical eye.
  3. Your story. If you’re having trouble persuading prospective clients that you’re the right lawyer for the job, it’s probably not your credentials that are turning them off. The odds are it’s your story, or lack thereof. Lawyers who succeed at business development put the time in to craft a clear and cohesive message — a story — that’s focused on their clients’ needs and not their own. Clients want to hire a lawyer who understands them. They don’t want a “super” lawyer. They want a super result. They’re not impressed by jargon and complexity. They’re seeking clarity. If you want to cut through the noise and generate more business, tell a better story that makes your clients feel understood and validated, so they trust you to solve their problems.
  4. Your pond. Legal business development is pretty simple when you break it down to first principles. It requires that you answer two questions: 1)  Who are your clients? and 2) Where are your clients? One reason it’s important to pick a niche is that it forces you to get clear on both. Once you know who your clients are, the process of determining where they are comes into clear focus. You’ll be able to determine the key players, the influencers, and the important publications and conferences that members of your target market rely on. You can inject yourself into the conversation. Instead of thrashing about in a vast ocean, you can make waves of your own in a small pond brimming with opportunity.
  5. Your marketing aptitude. There are countless ways to market your expertise to prospective clients, including networking, speaking, direct mail, LinkedIn, advertising, content marketing … the list goes on and on. You can try to do all of these things but you shouldn’t. A better approach is to do some experimentation and then focus in on your approach based on what you like and what you’re good at. If being in a room full of people lights you up, then play to your strengths and network. If you’re better behind a keyboard, then write.
  6. Your audacious goal. In my experience coaching lawyers, those who succeed set audacious goals for themselves. They don’t accept conventional wisdom, don’t listen to doubters who suggest they’re being “unrealistic,” and don’t stunt their potential with limiting beliefs. They believe in their greatness and set goals to match. It requires a healthy ego to believe you can be the best. But those who are the best set a goal to match their audacity, then release the ego, roll up their sleeves and get to work. It’s action, not words on paper, that gets results.

Phase Two: Execute

All it takes to plan is a cup of coffee, pen and pad. Taking action is hard. It’s uncomfortable to put yourself out there and subject yourself to judgment and failure. Oh yes, business development is mostly about failure. You will lose far more often than you win. But you’ll never win if you’re not in the game. So, you can keep doing things the way you’ve always done them. That feels comfortable. But when it comes to business development, discomfort is the way. Here are ways to get yourself moving every day:

  1. The list. The best way to establish business development priorities for your day, week, month or year is to write them down. Making and using lists is the cornerstone of any effective business development productivity system. Don’t give yourself an easy out. Don’t allow the urgent to keep you from the important. If business development is a priority for you, get your daily plan and commitment down on paper. Are you going to make some calls? Write an article? Network through LinkedIn? Make a promise to yourself and let it stare you in the face on a notepad on your desk.
  2. The time blocks. Having a daily list is a great start but not nearly enough. The demands on your time are great. Your client work to-do list keeps growing. So how the heck are you supposed to find time to consistently engage in business development? You probably can’t “find” more time. Instead, you need to block out time on your calendar and guard it vigorously. If you don’t schedule time blocks for business development, then it will always play second fiddle to other people’s priorities. Here’s a tip: Block out time for business development first thing in the morning, before the rest of the day gets out of control. Don’t spend the day battling to “fit it in” among your daily responsibilities.
  3. The execution. Many lawyers tell themselves a story that prevents them from engaging in the level of business development activity required to build a sustainable book of business. They worry that if they’re too aggressive, too present, too direct, they’ll turn people off. However, the problem that most lawyers face is not overexposure — it’s obscurity. You can’t merely dabble in business development, you must make it a daily practice. You must be as omnipresent as possible so that you’re constantly top of mind with current and prospective clients. Business development — at least if you’re planning to really succeed at it — requires significant effort directed toward a specific audience. Opportunities for new business are impossible to anticipate. You’ll never know when a client or prospect is in need of an urgent solution. So you need to be there, at the top of their inbox, on their calendar, featured on their LinkedIn status feed, when the moment arises.
  4. The mentor. Great performers across domains have coaches and mentors looking over their shoulder, assessing their performance, providing helpful feedback and serving as a sounding board. If you’re serious about business development, you should find a mentor. If you’re just getting started with concerted business development activity, a mentor is particularly important, especially one who has achieved the type of success you aspire to. Over time, you’ll develop your own style and approach to the art and science of business development, but early on it’s a good idea to adopt some of the best practices of a mentor who has been in the trenches. As Picasso once said, “Learn the rules like a pro so you can break them as an artist.”

There’s no way to succeed at legal business development without having a strategic plan in place and the discipline to execute it on a daily basis. And there’s no stopping a lawyer who is fully committed to building a practice. It’s action, not intention, that separates the best from the rest.

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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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