Business Development: 5 Things That I Have Seen Work

Business Development: 5 Things That I Have Seen Work

All these guys who never generated a stitch of business now hawk their services as business development gurus.

Does anyone actually pay for that advice?

Here’s a free alternative: I’m going to reflect back on 30 years of practicing law and think about what I saw actually generate new business: What brought in business for my colleagues and me at a VeryBigLaw firm, and what has caused my current employer to retain counsel?

Here you are, courtesy of your friends at Above the Law:

Number one, and light-years ahead of everything else: Impress your existing clients.

Those clients will then give you more business.

I can’t give you percentages, but that formula — existing clients giving you more business — surely accounts for the vast majority of business I have either generated personally or seen generated by others over the course of three decades. It’s the magic elixir.

Needless to say, I saw that elixir in action when I worked at a firm, and I see it in action today. When my current employer needs counsel in a new case, we almost invariably think first of our roster of existing firms. Clients richly reward competent incumbent counsel.

What else have I seen actually result in new business?

Number two, but in distant second place: Impress people with whom you work. Stay in touch. And wait.

Personally, I worked at a small firm for five years early in my career. I then changed firms (and moved 2000 miles). Eventually, former colleagues from my old firm retained me when they needed help in my new jurisdiction.

But that’s just business that I personally generated. I saw this work for others, too. Many lawyers spend their lives impressing others, staying in touch, and waiting. I saw litigators work with corporate colleagues at my VeryBigLaw firm. The corporate lawyers occasionally went in-house and, when they needed litigators, they called the ones who had impressed them years earlier.

I’m not talking just of partners impressing other partners. It’s partners impressing associates, and an associate later goes in-house. It’s associates impressing partners, and a partner goes in-house. It’s associates impressing associates, and one of the two moves in-house. Leave a string of people lying impressed in your wake, stay gently in touch with those people, and let Father Time do his work. Eventually, those impressed people will hire you.

Number three, and really a tangent to number two: Impress your existing clients, and benefit when the in-house lawyers at that client change jobs.

My VeryBigLaw firm did a ton of work for one client in the late 1980s. Over time, assorted associate general counsel at that client moved on to become the general counsel of other companies. Those newly-minted general counsel retained the lawyers who had previously impressed them — us. My firm picked up tens of millions of dollars of business from the alumni who had left the original client.

I’ve seen the same thing happen in-house. When an in-house lawyer changes employers, that in-house lawyer knows the impressive folks she’s seen in her past. When she’s looking to retain new counsel, she’ll hire the folks she knows to be good. As new lawyers have joined the in-house department where I work, the new lawyers have occasionally prompted us to experiment with new firms.

Number four, which is painful, but true: Just be lucky. I saw, for example, remarkably inept lawyers inherit institutional clients. That inheritance turned the inept into heavy-hitters, who could then get themselves appointed to run offices or practices. Once anointed as the head of a practice, the inept heavy-hitter could arrogate institutional opportunities to himself and cause himself to be invited to beauty contests. A single stroke of luck — inheriting a large institutional client — could turn the inept into rich, powerful, and well-respected lawyers.

It’s hard to intentionally replicate that route, but it’ll probably work for a couple of readers of this column. More power to you, I suppose.

Finally, number five: Get famous; make contact; repeat. (I’ve written about this strategy before, but that was long ago.)

You get famous by getting your name out into the world in whatever way comes most naturally to you. Are you great at cocktail parties? Go to cocktail parties, and pass out your card.

Are you great at organizing small groups and getting things done? Join a bar association committee or a non-profit board, volunteer to lead some projects, and get results.

Are you great at speaking? Learn a subject, and deliver CLE courses in the field.

Are you the quiet, studious type? Publish several articles (with interesting theses) in a particular field of law, so that folks in that field start to recognize your name. Create a blog in a narrow field, and publish relentlessly (and substantively) until the world recognizes you as an authority in your niche.

As you get famous, meet people. Work with the members of your bar committee; attend non-profit board meetings; write with co-authors; speak on panels; never dine alone.

And, once you’ve met people, stay gently in touch.

Don’t be a pest; be a friend. If you see an article that might interest an acquaintance, send an email with a link to the article and a short cover note. If you see that an acquaintance changes jobs, send a congratulatory note. If you’re visiting the city in which the acquaintance lives, meet for a cup of coffee or a beer.

Stay gently in touch, so people remember who you are.

And then repeat. Repeat over and over and over, because the route to developing business is long, and success goes to those who persevere.

This isn’t the easiest approach to generating business. But I’ve seen it work for people (including me) over the course of the decades, so it belongs on the list.

This column is based on my personal experience, so you’re hearing from a guy who worked for firms that primarily represented corporate clients in large matters and then worked in-house at a Fortune 500 company. My advice may not apply to people who live other lives, such as those doing criminal defense work, handling personal bankruptcies, or representing plaintiffs in personal injury cases. (Advertising on a billboard surely would not have generated business for my VeryBigLaw firm; it apparently works wonders for personal injury lawyers.)

So take my advice for what it’s worth, and deploy it as you will. But the advice is grounded in reality and experience; even though the advice is free, it may be more valuable than the advice being sold by others.
Source: Above The Law

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