How To Avoid Being a Business Development Casualty

How to avoid being a business development casualty

In this year’s Altman Weil Law Firms in Transition survey, a striking item wasn’t so pronounced in previous surveys: Legal leaders think attorneys are not good at business development, and it’s costing them – “them” being both lawyers and the firms that employ them.

For the survey, which has been conducted annually since 2009, Altman Weil polled leaders at 798 U.S. law firms and got responses from 48 percent of them. Here are a few stats that stood out with regard to business development and its connection to financial health and an attorney’s longevity at a given firm:

  • Eighty-eight percent of law firm leaders said they have “chronically under-performing lawyers” at their firms.
  • When asked why these attorneys were “chronically under-performing,” 82 percent cited “weak business development skills.”
  • Sixty-one percent of respondents said overcapacity is hurting their firm financially, so they have moved to address under-performers by reducing compensation (96 percent), dismissing under-performers (73 percent) and withdrawing equity from under-productive partners (57 percent).

Now, what constitutes “chronically underperforming” varies by location, practice area and firm. That most law firm leaders think it’s a lack of business development skills, rather than “flat or declining demand” (59 percent) jumped out. This corresponds to what we found in the Thomson Reuters 2017 State of U.S. Small Law Firms Report, in which law firm respondents indicated their most significant challenge was acquiring new business.

If you’d like to avoid being one of those attorneys against whom action is taken, improving your business development skills would give you a tremendous advantage. In fact, giving business development skills a polishing-up is something every attorney could do. In a crowded market, where consumers view lawyers as providers of very similar services, fortune favors the bold. You have to be proactive about cultivating and drawing in new work.

  1. Know what motivates your consumer: Your law firm should have a profile of its most-desired client demographic, and part of that profile should be what your ideal customer values and seeks out when hiring an attorney. (We’ve written about estate planning, Spanish-speaking and millennial consumers and will be covering other groups as the year goes on.) If you primarily target businesses, what is it your clients want that only you can provide? Is it insight? Relevant industry expertise? Familiarity? Discretion? This knowledge is essential. Without it, you’re not positioning yourself for success – you’re just flailing around.
  2. Be where your clients are: FindLaw has studied legal consumer behavior for years, and it continues to evolve. Law firms that find success implement integrated marketing campaigns. They understand they must have a clean, professional and contemporary presence wherever their clients are. That means consumer practices should be active on social media, in directories, out in the community, etc. A business-to-business firm, on the other hand, should impart the value of networking to all partners.
  3. Give a little, get a little: A lot of people expect too much from their business development efforts too quickly. Business development is a long game, and it takes a period of investment before you start to see rewards. While thinking of it as a quid pro quo arrangement is too reductive, you should tell yourself with confidence that your effort will be rewarded in the future. Smaller consumer firms definitely should make the investment in free consultations, good follow-up and reputation management. Business partner firms might need to “do lunch” more often or generally develop a more planful approach to networking.

There is no cookie-cutter way to approach business development. What works for one firm may not work for another. If you would like to explore ways to nurture opportunities, our archive of marketing resources is always free and you can arrange to have a free consultation with your local consultant at any time.

Editor’s Note: Originally published June 7, 2017 and updated May 17, 2019
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