What makes lawyers great at business development?

I have spent more than 20 years advising law firms on marketing and business development (BD) and now spend a lot of my time coaching lawyers to become more effective at BD. Without this key skill, you will never make partner or, once there, move to the top of the equity.

During my time, these behaviours have set great business developers apart from the rest.

Doing lots of structured networking

Undertaking lots of networking among existing clients, potential clients and referrers is crucial to ensuring a flow of new business opportunities. There is no substitute for wearing out shoe leather, getting out-and-about and talking to those who may give you work directly or who may recommend you to others.

Face-to-face contact is the key to building trusting relationships with users/buyers of legal services by understanding their problems and suggesting solutions to these. Therefore, the more people you talk to, the more opportunities you will unearth.

However, your networking needs to be structured in order for it to be most effective. In other words, you need a strategy and this needs to be formulated on the basis of: “What am I selling, to whom and why should they buy from me/my firm?” Randomly bouncing around the marketplace handing out business cards to all and sundry is unlikely to be a fruitful approach to BD. 

Having great interpersonal skills

We all remember those who we meet who create a great first impression with us: a firm handshake, a warm smile, an engaging personality and an interest in us are all factors which help to leave an abiding memory of someone who we enjoyed meeting. The same applies to BD – you only have one chance to make a good first impression and those that are good at BD usually have these great interpersonal skills.

By the way, this doesn't mean you have to be a complete extrovert, just someone who comes across as professional, confident, friendly and easy to work with.

Setting up meetings

The only objective of networking should be to set up meetings with those who you think are in a position to buy your services. It is unlikely that you will be instructed until you have sat down and met with those who are in a position to give you work. All your marketing should be geared towards engineering opportunities to have meetings with decision-makers.

Only by having formal meetings can you really understand an individual’s needs and put forward your proposition for addressing these or, in the case of the “challenger sales model”, challenging the client’s thinking by teaching them about an aspect of their business that they had not previously recognised/understood.

Offering a differentiated proposition

Most organisations already have lawyers that they instruct. If you are to be instructed, you need to displace the incumbent legal advisers. This means that you need to demonstrate benefits which the incumbent cannot match. Usually, this means having better expertise, delivering better service or providing better value for money, or any combination of these. If you cannot articulate a differentiated proposition to potential clients, they are unlikely to instruct you.

Acquiring industry knowledge

Building credibility with a potential client usually means demonstrating an understanding of their business and industry sector. Therefore, building and maintaining comprehensive industry knowledge is a key component of effective BD. This knowledge can be obtained by reading the industry press (often these days through daily online news feeds), attending industry conferences and reading (or even commissioning yourself) research reports into industry trends and developments.

Becoming a thought leader

Through their deep understanding of an industry, great business developers use their insights to become thought leaders. In other words, they look into the future and predict issues, including changes in legislation or the implications of new case law that will impact on their clients. They proactively present solutions to these issues, often before the client is even aware of the issue or the risk/opportunity that it poses to their business. Great business developers also harness the power of social media to air their views and lead the online debate around these crucial client issues.

Being opportunistic

Finally, although all great business developers will have a strategy and plan – often in their head and not written down – a lot of opportunities come along that were not foreseen. Being opportunistic and taking advantage of these is another aspect of excellent BD. These triggers – a change of decision-maker, a change in client ownership, an acquisition or merger, a company crisis like a product recall, etc. – all represent opportunities to approach the potential client with a view to displacing the incumbent lawyers to advise on that issue.

As a lawyer, mastering these skills will set you on course to becoming a great business developer and someone who successfully wins an above-average share of new business relative to your peers.

Kevin Wheeler is a business consultant and coach with more than 20 years’ experience working in law firm marketing and business development. He is a certified business coach with the WABC and can be contacted at kevin.wheeler@wheelerassociates.co.uk

Filed Under: Practice of Law

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