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To Build Your Legal Practice, Do Things That Don’t Scale

By Jay Harrington

Bigger isn’t always better when bringing in new business for your law firm. Here’s how to engage in unscalable business development.

unscalable business development

Build your network as big as possible. Appeal to the social media algorithms with your content. Leverage the internet. Be a prolific networker. There’s a sense that “bigger is always better” in much of the advice about the best way to build a legal practice. There’s undoubtedly value in reaching far and wide with one’s marketing, but it should be balanced with business development that’s narrow and specific. Without this balance, many lawyers are left wondering why their expanding network doesn’t seem to translate into new business opportunities.

Business Development Requires Personal Investment

Marketing and business development are related concepts, but I see them as distinct in this sense.

To me, “marketing” is what you do to build your practice that scales. It’s work you can do at your desk, such as posting on social media, that has the potential to reach many people. This work typically results in many superficial connections, but few relationships built on a strong foundation of trust — which is an essential building block of new business. Don’t get me wrong: Scalable marketing is great. I’m engaged in it right now by writing this article that is likely to reach thousands of readers. Much of my business is focused on helping lawyers create more and better thought-leadership marketing content. But building a profitable and sustainable book of business requires more. In particular, you need to do things that don’t scale, which is where “business development” comes into play.

Business development doesn’t scale. It’s not about broad reach — it’s about a personal investment in a single relationship.

Unscalable actions often form the secret sauce of successful ventures in all industries — even fast-growing startups.

Unscalable actions are crucial for truly understanding your customers or clients, refining your offering, and creating exceptional, personalized experiences. A testament to this principle is Y Combinator co-founder Paul Graham’s seminal essay, “Do Things That Don’t Scale.”

In the essay, Graham underscores that the meteoric growth of many tech startups is often attributable to their early investment in labor-intensive, unscalable tactics. While demanding, these early-stage activities provide fast-growing companies with a deep understanding of their customers, which in turn refined their products or services, fostering customer loyalty and generating positive referrals.

Consider Airbnb. When starting out, the founders took an extremely hands-on approach, going door-to-door in New York City to recruit hosts and help them enhance their listings with professional photographs. This hands-on, personalized approach, while time-consuming, significantly accelerated Airbnb’s growth and offered invaluable insights about customer needs that shaped the platform’s evolution. Reflecting on the impact of the company’s “do things that don’t scale” approach, Airbnb co-founder Joe Gebbia said, “Customers started using the word love in the same sentence as Airbnb. They started telling their families, friends and co-workers about Airbnb. And eventually the number of reservations starts to go up.”

Be Discerning and Build Strong Relationships

For lawyers aiming to build a practice, investing in unscalable activities is equally applicable and beneficial. These activities might seem inefficient or excessively time-consuming, but they are instrumental in forming robust relationships, deeply understanding client needs, and laying a solid foundation for future growth.

Take, for example, a corporate lawyer who consistently holds face-to-face meetings with clients in their offices and at their worksites. This allows her to not only discuss legal matters but also to understand her clients’ business environment and objectives. While such meetings are time-consuming and don’t always generate billable hours, they help her provide better-tailored legal advice, and hands-on client service, leading to deeper client relationships and more business in the long run.

At its core, doing things that don’t scale is all about investing your most valuable and finite resource — your time — to achieve the highest return on your investment. Lawyers are already stretched thin, so you have to strategically deploy your time, especially when you’re deploying it in an unscalable way that’s directed to a single person or a small group of people.

In general, you have to focus on your most important relationships when it comes to doing things that don’t scale.

The Pareto Principle

To drive this point home, let’s briefly discuss the Pareto Principle, also known as the 80/20 rule. Named after Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto, the principle posits that roughly 80% of effects stem from 20% of causes; 20% of our efforts lead to 80% of our results; and 20% of inputs create 80% of outputs.

In terms of your practice, it’s likely you’ll find, throughout your career, that a small proportion of your clients or referral sources — potentially around 20% — generate about 80% of your work and revenue. Recognizing this distribution can transform your strategy, compelling a shift in focus toward nurturing these high-yielding relationships.

One good way to transform your strategy is to evaluate the amount of time you have available to engage in marketing and business development and allocate your time to strike the right balance between the two. You may have thousands of loose connections in your network when you consider social media followers, so you should devote time to scaling your outreach by creating content that allows you to stay visible and top of mind with your broader network.

But don’t stop there. Allocate time to unscalable business development that is focused on individualized and contextualized engagement with the most important contacts in your network.

How to Engage in Unscalable Business Development

There are a number of ways to go about this.

A starting point is to identify 20 to 30 high-value relationships (clients, prospective clients, colleagues and referral sources) among your network for a key contact list. This number range isn’t random — it’s a manageable figure that reflects the approximate number of business days in a month. If you have a list of 20 key contacts and reach out to one person every business day, you can maintain meaningful connections with all your key contacts on a monthly basis. This approach ensures that each of your most important contacts gets the attention they deserve.

Successful outreach is all about being strategic.

Be the lawyer whose phone calls are answered and emails are opened by focusing on helping your contacts, not just asking for work or referrals. When you’re seen as a trusted, helpful resource, the work will follow. Think, “How can I help my contacts overcome their challenges?”

One way is to share helpful information.

This may include analysis of new legal rulings, industry updates, insightful articles or advice. By sharing relevant insights and information, you not only provide valuable content but also demonstrate your expertise.

Also, look for opportunities to engage more directly with your key contacts in in-person or digital settings.

This could be anything from inviting your contact to a webinar, a lunch meeting, a firm function or a charitable event. Each of these engagements gives you a chance to build a deeper relationship with your contacts and enables them to connect with others in your network.

Another form of value-added outreach involves connecting your key contacts with others in your network.

By making useful introductions, you reinforce your role as a trusted partner. Suppose a contact mentions they’re seeking to expand their business overseas. If you know another client who has successfully navigated this process, connecting them could lead to valuable exchanges and enhance your standing with both parties.

Each of these strategies, and others like them, can keep you top of mind, demonstrate your value, and ultimately generate more work for your practice.

Remember, the key to successful outreach is consistency and a focus on providing value at every touchpoint.

Allocate time for deep-dive meetings, stay updated on your clients’ industries, and maintain a constant line of communication — even when you’re not currently working on a matter for them.

I call this providing value beyond the billable hour. Not every conversation has to revolve around a legal issue; just checking in and catching up will make your clients feel valued and deepen your relationship.

This same sort of one-to-one interaction and investment is essential to generate new business opportunities, whether it’s with new clients, existing ones or from referral sources. Your highest-value contacts, clients and colleagues deserve more of your most valuable resource: you, your time and your attention.

Here’s the bottom line. When it comes to building your legal practice, do things that scale, but also things that don’t.

Prioritize cultivating a solid foundation of valuable relationships and delivering unparalleled client service. These actions, similar to what Airbnb’s founders discovered, create a personal touch and level of service quality that set you apart in a crowded market and cements valuable relationships. As an entrepreneurial lawyer, that’s an essential step toward creating a flourishing practice.

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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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