Keys To A Thriving Biz Development Culture At Your Law Firm

By Elise Holtzman
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Law360 (June 11, 2020, 6:09 PM EDT) --
Elise Holtzman
Elise Holtzman
Clients are the lifeblood of every law firm, yet most firms don't have a plan in place to encourage their lawyers to develop business and collaborate with one another to attract ideal clients. Even worse, many firms' policies and behaviors actively discourage business development.

In many law firms, only the founders of the firm, some of the most senior partners, and perhaps a few select up-and-comers are the firm's rainmakers, while everyone else works hard to serve clients that someone else is bringing in. There are entire firms that have grown up around one or two rainmakers. That model may be sustainable for a while but breaks down as soon as a key rainmaker leaves or a significant client goes elsewhere.

As law firms continue to experience the economic impact of the COVID-19 crisis, it is more important than ever that they adopt a different approach.

Be Proactive About Business Development

Law firm leaders are often frustrated that more of their lawyers are not engaged in business development and blame those that don't generate much business for their failure to do so. But is it solely the lawyers' fault? Law school didn't teach their students anything about business development and most law firms tell their lawyers to focus exclusively on legal work.

If you want most of your firm's lawyers to generate business instead of just a few, stop leaving it to chance. Instead, create a law firm culture that makes business development a way of life for everyone at the firm.

Like It or Not, Your Firm Already Has a Business Development Culture

If you think your firm does not already have a business development culture firmly in place, think again. Like any aspect of organizational culture, if you aren't proactive about creating it, one will naturally develop. And a culture that arises by default rather than by design is not likely to help you achieve the firm's goals, whether you want to consistently attract a steady stream of ideal clients, retain your top talent, identify and prepare future leaders, or secure the firm's financial future. After all, who becomes successful by accident?

Some of the attitudes and behaviors that contribute to an unsupportive, lackadaisical or toxic business development culture include:

  • Assuming that "you've either got it or you don't," and that business developers are born, not made.

  • Using bonuses and promotions to overemphasize billable hours while not valuing or rewarding business development activities.

  • Failing to teach business development skills and minimizing their importance only to demand later that lawyers suddenly produce a book of business.

  • Refusing to pay associates for bringing clients into the firm while partners receive significant economic rewards.

  • Expecting lawyers to handle all of their own marketing activities, such as social media posting, webinar invitations and newsletter dissemination.

  • Taking a one-size-fits-all approach to business development regardless of a lawyer's personality, practice area or career stage.

How to Create a Thriving Business Development Culture

The best business development cultures are based on strategy, structure and support and at the same time remain flexible enough to allow for differences in approach due to a lawyer's age and stage, personality type, natural talents, practice area, and likes and dislikes.

To shift your law firm's existing business development culture to one that is inspiring, encouraging and effective, get started with the following fundamental elements.

Adopt a Growth Mindset

If the common wisdom among your colleagues is that lawyers are naturally bad at business development and that most of them will never be able to do it effectively, you're creating a formidable obstacle that may permanently derail many of your attorneys before they even get started.

That sort of attitude reflects what Carol Dweck, the author of "Mindset: The New Psychology of Success," refers to as a "fixed mindset." Those with a fixed mindset believe that abilities are fixed — someone is and always will be smart or dumb, a motivated manager or ineffective paper pusher, or a rainmaker or service partner.

Those with a growth mindset, however, believe that abilities can be developed and that one's skills can grow with experience. Mindset is not just for individuals, Dweck points out; rather, mindset can permeate an entire organization and have a powerful impact on whether or not a group strives for and reaches its goals.

Don't jump to conclusions about others' potential or saddle them with labels they may never be able to shake. Instead, make a conscious effort to imbue your law firm with a growth mindset that will support all of your business development efforts.

Make Relationship and Business Development Part of the Fabric of the Firm

Communicate to everyone in the firm that because clients do business with lawyers they know, like and trust, the foundation of client attraction is relationship development. Accordingly, make relationship and business development part of everything the firm does and make it clear that it's everyone's responsibility.

Raise the issue with lawyers from the very first interview. Champion the cause vocally and frequently. Emphasize building relationships with those in the community, including through involvement in local organizations and engagement in corporate social responsibility initiatives. Stress the importance of raising the firm's profile with speaking engagements, published articles and appropriate social media activity.

When participating in those activities is normal, valued, expected and celebrated, you will see increased engagement from your colleagues. Even better, you will attract a team of lawyers and other professionals who understand and voluntarily sign onto the mission and discourage anyone who does not buy into your vision.

Promote Different Goals at Different Stages

One objection senior attorneys express about teaching junior lawyers business development skills is that inexperienced lawyers should be focusing their efforts on becoming good legal practitioners and not on drumming up business. Another is that young associates are unlikely to bring in clients anyway, partly because those in their network may not yet be in decision-making positions.

There's no doubt that, in the early years, attorneys must devote the vast majority of their time to honing their legal skills and that most will not generate much new business. Even so, junior lawyers have the ability to nurture and grow their contacts and develop business and personal relationships that will yield fruit later. At each stage of development, lawyers can learn and experiment with concepts and skills that will prepare them to confidently attract and serve clients later on.

Set lawyers up for success by establishing a curriculum and benchmarks for business development at every stage of their career. Encourage junior associates to maintain their existing networks by keeping in regular touch with their classmates and former colleagues. Invite mid-level and senior associates to help partners write articles and craft seminars and then include them on the dais and in the byline.

Teach everyone how to responsibly and effectively use social media, particularly LinkedIn. Put associates in front of clients early and often, including taking them on client pitches, even if it means not billing some of their hours.

Create Clear and Effective Incentives

Lawyers want to know how they will be remunerated if they bring business into the firm. It's a reasonable question, particularly considering that most lawyers are under constant pressure to generate revenue by logging significant billable hours. If you are going to get paid the same thing whether you develop business or not, you're less likely to spend your nonbillable time beating the bushes for clients.

Establish clear policies for the firm's employees that specify how much they will be compensated for bringing new clients into the firm, for example, a certain percentage of revenue collected. Work with senior rainmakers to establish guidelines for sharing credit with other lawyers who have key relationships with particular clients. If you are one of those senior rainmakers who has in the past refused to give an inch on credit for long-term clients no matter how little contact you have with them, take the lead on sharing credit.

Celebrate Business Development Activity, Not Just Results

Attracting the right clients to your firm requires a long-term, consistent effort. It's critical for lawyers to maintain their enthusiasm, energy and commitment even when they are not yet seeing results in the form of paying clients.

Praise and reward milestone activities such as lunches with networking contacts, social media engagement, conference attendance, speaking engagements, articles published and social events. Establish "billing" categories for business development activities so that attorneys' efforts can be recognized.

Without any acknowledgment of their hard work and commitment, many lawyers will understandably give up too soon. To the contrary, send a powerful message that the firm recognizes and values those efforts.

Invest in Ongoing Programming, Training and Coaching

You wouldn't expect a new lawyer to know how to manage a litigation or negotiate and close a transaction without hands-on training and feedback over a period of years, yet many of those in law firm leadership expect senior associates and junior partners to be fully formed rainmakers almost overnight.

While some attorneys are naturally more comfortable with networking and relationship development than others, most lawyers who consistently attract ideal clients are made, not born. Whether you use internal staff or hire outside coaches and consultants, give your lawyers and your firm the best chance for success by providing appropriate education, feedback and accountability at every stage.

Use the COVID-19 Pandemic as an Opportunity to Refresh Your Approach

The global coronavirus crisis has caused tremendous personal pain, grief and loss in addition to wreaking havoc on the economy. It may seem strange, then, to look at the pandemic as an opportunity. And yet, it's often in the midst of difficulty that leaders have the chance to revisit their organization's vision and values. Now is the time to start making behavioral and policy changes that will benefit the firm and those it serves, including partners, employees, clients and the community.

Start now to engage in conversations with partners, associates, administrators and staff members to get their views on what your new business development culture could look like.

What do you want to do more of? Less of? What types of clients do you want and which ones won't be a good fit for you any longer? How can you inspire, train and support your people? What will be celebrated, tolerated and rejected? What can you manage on your own and what does the firm need help with?

After assessing the information you gather, start to put your goals and principles into practice. Communicate the firm's business development vision and values throughout the firm. Develop a strategic plan to take action, and make sure everyone in the firm has the opportunity to ask questions and get clarification. Begin to teach, motivate and support your lawyers and staff as your new culture takes root. Ensure that partners are on board and are modeling the new behaviors and attitudes the firm wants to promote.

Stop Hoping, Start Planning

Most law firm leaders hope their lawyers will become rainmakers or at least consistent business developers, but hope is not a strategy.

Consciously creating and promoting a constructive, encouraging, and rewarding business development culture will allow your law firm to:

  • Reduce reliance on just a few rainmakers;
  • Identify and attract more of your ideal clients;
  • Increase collaboration and cross-selling;
  • Reduce attrition and retain your top talent;
  • Attract the best attorneys and other professionals to your team;
  • Clarify, communicate and operate according to the firm's values;
  • Raise your profile in the legal and business communities;
  • Make your firm a more fun place to work; and
  • Increase revenue and build a secure future for the firm.

It's not enough to hire talented lawyers to work for your firm. Growing and sustaining a profitable, thriving law firm requires continued investment in personal and professional growth. Foster a business development culture that focuses on developing your people. When you do that, they will help your law firm flourish.

Elise R. Holtzman is president at The Lawyer's Edge.

The opinions expressed are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the firm, its clients, or Portfolio Media Inc., or any of its or their respective affiliates. This article is for general information purposes and is not intended to be and should not be taken as legal advice.

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