Bench & Bar of Minnesota is the official publication of the Minnesota State Bar Association.

Rules of the Game: Business Development for Lawyers

Competition for business is intense, time is short, and there’s no time like the present to hone your business development skills and develop your personal book of business.

Textbooks, web resources, and endless published articles are replete with theoretical constructs of ideal marketing programs and business development methodologies. No doubt some of these are useful; no doubt some are not.  For lawyers and others in the professional services, competition for business is intense and the time too short.

As such, we need to know what to do right now in order to build our personal books of business.

There can never be too many practical suggestions to support client and practice development. Such specifics come naturally to some lawyers. For others, they can be learned and, to that end, checklists like the one provided below may be useful. At the same time, not everything works for everybody. You should feel free to pick and choose the strategies with which you are most comfortable.

The list is potentially endless.  Be sure to add to it with relationship-building and service-enhancing measures tailored to your own personal style and your clients’ needs. With that caveat, here are a few specific things to consider in your own business development activities:

  1. Ask questions and listen to the answers. If you want to present services that are of value to potential clients, you have to ask questions. Ask the right questions and potential clients will tell you what they want from their counsel.  You must listen. A lost art?  Lawyers—and lawyers are certainly not alone in this—spend far too much time talking and not nearly enough time listening.
  2. Think in terms of how your firm can provide a benefit to the client. Too many attorneys launch into a conversation by discussing the services their firm offers. The only thing that a prospective client cares about is what you or your firm will do for them.  Speak to the client in terms of how you can help them achieve a specific goal or set of goals (i.e., help them solve a specific problem), not purely in terms of what services your firm provides.
  3. Start early and stay late! This involves a higher level of commitment because it requires more hard work and more sacrifice.  Understand that decision makers usually do that, and after all, those are the people you need to communicate with.  Decision makers are usually at work early (or late) and they will appreciate that you are also doing that.
  4. Set yourself apart.  Do something unique and personal.  In this age of impersonal emails, text messages, and Blackberry phones you need to set yourself apart from the rest of the herd.  Consider writing formal letters.  They take more time to put together, but they will be recognized as different.  Personally signed cards and well-written letters will draw attention. Also, get to know a few personal facts about your targets because birthday and special-occasion cards will be noticed.
  5. The key to success: follow up and follow through.  If it’s worth your time to make the initial contact, it’s worth your time to follow up after the initial contact.  If you don’t remain in contact, you’ll never break through.  Don’t be a pest, but be persistent.
  6. Occasionally provide useful information at no charge.  The articles you publish should be of interest and value to clients.  Ditto, updates.  Pass on information you find in the news with a business card saying “just thought you might be interested.” If nothing else, you’ve defined yourself as a resource.  The “free” resources you provide represent an investment, a way to make money by spending time and money.  Good business people know that, and at some point they also know you’ll need to make good on the investment.
  7. Be persistent. Client development is a very time-consuming endeavor.  Allocate a specific amount of time each day and keep to the schedule.  It is always easy to put some pressing matter ahead of client-development activity, but make an appointment with yourself and don’t break it.
  8. Set realistic goals. Consider opening a new file for an existing client, perhaps, or originating a new client relationship each month.  Understand that while it all takes time, you must also maintain a sense of urgency.  Remember your future is what’s at stake!
  9. Keep your sense of humor. People remember people who make them smile or laugh. There are a lot of lawyers out there looking for business. You want to be among the few who find a way to be remembered, so when the circumstances are appropriate, lighten up a bit.  Smile and make them smile.
    And finally …
  10. Ask for the business. Here is the last lap, the fabled Red Zone, where many lawyers fail, often because they’re simply too shy to pop the decisive question.  Your prospect is in business to make money too. If you dillydally too long, they’ll wonder if you are serious. And, if you aren’t serious about your own business, how can you be serious about theirs?

David R. Mylrea is the partner in charge of the Minneapolis office of Hinshaw & Culbertson, L.L.P. He represents closely held businesses, banks, investment banks, and specialty financial service companies and is the business development leader for the firm’s business transactions department.

Allan Colman is CEO of The Closers Group, a California-based consulting firm devoted to helping lawyers develop new business through customized business development training, active prospect identification, target pursuit, client meetings, and deal closing.

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