Building and Sustaining a Business Development Culture

Volume 39 Number 6

By

About the Author

Tea Hoffmann is the chief strategy officer at Parker Poe Adams & Bernstein LLP as well as a professional coach. She is the author of The Proactive Practice. Hoffmann is a major in the Tennessee Army National Guard and serves as senior trial defense counsel.

Law Practice Magazine | November/December 2013 | The Marketing Issue

In the fall of 2012, the American Lawyer’s New Partner Survey found that newly promoted partners, while generally happy with compensation and workload, were not satisfied with the amount of business development training they were receiving or had received before partnership. Many stated that this lack of training would hinder them in becoming profitable in the future.

In an age when profitability reigns supreme, these concerns are real for many, yet a number of firms still hesitate to build the kind of culture that emphasizes business development. Instead, they resort to productivity plans, compensation cuts, changes in partnership expectations and even de-equitation of lawyers who were before never expected to build a book of business on their own.

In a January 6 article in the Wall Street Journal, Nashville law firm Waller Lansden Dortch & Davis reported that it overhauled its partnership structure, recalibrated pay and assigned specific hours and revenue goals to partners. The result, as reported by the firm’s managing partner John Tishler, was that the firm “went from 85 equity partners to about 55. … Those who stayed became much more engaged in developing new lines of business.”

In the same article, Edward Newberry, the managing partner at Patton Boggs, stated that for firms to increase profits, “partner productivity is one of the remaining key tools.” This statement was made just six months before Patton Boggs saw 17 of its partners leave the firm, and it announced the layoff of 110 support staff and 60 associates.

But how do law firms, in the “new normal,” increase productivity to improve overall profitability? The answer is easy: They must maintain and grow existing business while continually adding new profitable business to their portfolios. However, understanding how to build the kind of culture that emphasizes business development is not easy.

BUILDING A BUSINESS DEVELOPMENT CULTURE

For years, law firms have stressed the importance of “professional development,” understanding that law schools do very little to prepare lawyers for the actual practice of law. Firms have provided training on legal writing, trial preparation and how to take depositions. These fundamental skills are still critically important, but many firms have come to realize that preparing their lawyers to drum up business and retain existing clients is equally important. As a result, many firms have combined the substantive “legal skills” training with “business development” training under the umbrella of “professional development.”  

Mandatory versus voluntary. I had the opportunity to gather opinions of many noted law firm leaders in trying to discover how firms are building a business development culture. Amy Hancock, the director of professional development at Andrews Kurth, stated that while most firms offer and “strongly encourage” participation in business development training, many are still hesitant to mandate it and have an even harder time holding lawyers accountable for not participating. Andrews Kurth does not mandate business development training but begins talking about the basic concepts involved in obtaining and retaining clients as early as the summer associate level.

I found this early discussion encouraging, as I strongly believe that discussing a lawyer’s obligation to develop and retain clients early in his or her career will give these young lawyers a more realistic idea of what will be required to obtain success. However, lawyers must be given the tools to become successful.

Learning the business. At Andrews Kurth, those tools include topics outside of traditional business development, designed to give lawyers the skills needed to better understand the firm’s clients. Called a “mini-MBA,” these business skills programs offer guidance that ranges from mastering financial statements to training that will enable lawyers to better understand the industry trends impacting their key clients. The firm even uses their training programs as a recruiting tool.

Addressing professional development, Andrew Kurth’s website notes, “Our new lawyers receive meaningful client contact, backed up by practical training and mentoring from the moment they join our ranks. It’s just one way we demonstrate our belief in careers, and yours in particular.” Hancock explained that one of the firm’s strategic goals is to recruit, hire and retain the best talent at all levels, and this type of training helps achieve that goal. According to her, the result is lawyers who are “retained, appreciated, thought of as excellent firm citizens and promoted to partnership.”

Like Andrews Kurth, many firms proclaim that training is important and a core strategic initiative, but very few firms treat business development training as mandatory. Even fewer allow lawyers billable “credit” for spending time developing the “soft” skills that are actually critical for lawyers and firms to succeed.

Sustaining business in the real world. Mary Kaczmarek, founder of Skillful Means Marketing and a former practicing lawyer, believes business development training should be mandatory for all lawyers, and that soft skills programs such as developing rapport, understanding client expectations and the like—all of which focus more on sustaining business—should be balanced with programs that discuss getting new business. Both types of programs are important and should be mandatory for every lawyer in a firm.

To build productivity, Kaczmarek stated, the sales funnel must be continually filled while the existing clients are sustained and work with those clients is expanded. “Using senior attorneys that have achieved success in business development is a great way to help further build a business development culture,” Kaczmarek noted. Successful lawyers have, in most cases, real stories of how they developed new business and have kept that business. The stories are seen, in many cases, as more relevant and perhaps more reliable by the attorneys in their own firms. These real-life stories from within the firm, combined with bringing in outside experts who can infuse new ideas and practical steps to get and retain business, when done repeatedly, can help to build the kind of culture that keeps lawyers thinking about business development on a more regular basis. Kaczmarek recommends that firms use individual coaches for their “stars,” believing that these lawyers who have a passion for developing and retaining business can be the catalyst for younger lawyers looking for mentors.

Concentrating on the client’s business. Kaczmarek also says that getting clients involved in helping lawyers understand key business issues is an element of building a culture that puts “business” into better focus, in contrast to the “development” aspect. Having clients talk to lawyers about how their business operates, having lawyers tour client facilities, and having lawyers spend time with key client operations personnel—as opposed to just the in-house counsel—is a great way to teach lawyers about the business aspect of business development. According to Kaczmarek, this type of training leads to loyalty. As the lawyers who are the beneficiaries of the training see the firm grow and prosper, they realize that their efforts are contributing to the firm’s success.

Providing education. Other firms, like Kelley Drye, offer their associates “just-in-time” learning on a wide variety of topics, including Making Sure Your Bio Gets Read and Remembered and Five Things You Need to Know Before Contacting a Prospective Client. These programs, offered in 10-minute webinars and podcasts, are only one way that Kelley Drye is working to sustain a business development culture.

David Woods, Kelley Drye’s director of client services, said that, in addition to in-person training and coaching, the firm also offers checklists and other business development tools that its lawyers can access on the firm’s intranet. Firms must be committed to training their lawyers in the skills that the firm will actually help them use, Woods said. As an example, he said that the training offered to associates in presentation and networking skills is reinforced by holding associate CLEs and other events, and by encouraging partners to involve associates in client and/or prospect calls and other business development initiatives. This type of interaction between associates and partners does much to solidify the training that the lawyers receive, Woods explained.

A PLAN TO PROMOTE DEVELOPMENT

Peter Johnson of Law Practice Consultants LLC worked as both a practicing lawyer and as his firm’s managing partner before he became a law firm consultant. He created a set plan for establishing a culture that promotes business development. His outline sets out a defined path and includes the following steps.

1. Plan a one- to two-hour meeting with all personnel to kick off a new cultural revolution.

  • Include discussions about the strategic direction of the firm.
  • Delineate the role of associates and staff in client service, client development and the overall client experience.
  • Discuss the importance of teamwork.
  • Include “the voice of the client” in the meeting.

2. Conduct monthly marketing breakfasts with set agendas and strongly encourage attendance by attorneys and staff.

3. Provide individual coaching and training for designated attorneys.

4. Improve internal marketing communications.

  • Circulate descriptions of business development efforts—successful and unsuccessful—made each month (along with or in lieu of the hours billed reports that are typically circulated).
  • Offer internal informational sessions on the firm’s niche litigation practice areas.

5. Invite clients to address the firm over lunch on a monthly, or at least quarterly, basis to describe their ideas of effective lawyering, marketing and client service.

6. Create something like an “outstanding team marketing effort of the month” award.

  • Ask people to nominate others for this award based on their assistance in procuring business.
  • Make the award a modest cash outlay (e.g., $100 bill) and/or a restaurant gift certificate for each team member.

7. Create a suggestion box for marketing ideas for all lawyers and staff.

  • Encourage and capture staff input for improving client service and value.
  • Award a monthly prize (or perhaps several) for the best ideas, and offer an additional (lottery-like) opportunity so everyone who submits an idea has a chance to win something.

These steps are meant to be done over the course of a year and then repeated, enhanced and redefined to reflect the firm’s growth and the changes that have resulted from the efforts. I love the emphasis on including staff in this outline and see these steps as realistic for most firms.

ONE SIZE DOESN’T FIT ALL

Because variety is the spice of life, firms should be willing to engage in nontraditional training to keep a business development culture flourishing. Consultant and lawyer David Freeman has developed the Culture X-Ray, a tool that allows firms to analyze their existing culture in different areas of the firm, so a firm can do an analysis of one location, one practice group or by tenure. This diagnostic tool, in the form of an online survey, is easy to use and yet another vehicle that firms can use to drive firm culture.

Other inventive tools include Mike O’Horo’s RainmakerVT, which provides interactive Web-based training for lawyers at their desks or anywhere they have an Internet connection. The content is smart, focused and allows your attorneys to learn when they want to learn, such as at night, while they are traveling or on the weekend. It’s an excellent tool for lawyers who may not have bought into traditional techniques or who want to keep their skills honed.

Finally, Julie Savarino of Business Development Inc., provides a Rainmaker Coach app for iPads and iPhones. Launched in March, the app provides checklists for what to do when attending a conference, how to prepare for a client pitch, and how to have a productive business development lunch or dinner and more. This tool is definitely targeted for tech-savvy lawyers who want last-minute confidence-building tips, but I found it very useful and a great way to reinforce more-traditional training. 

Don’t forget the power of circulating short articles, blog posts or videos about business development. While you don’t want to overload inboxes with “junk,” if you find an article that you believe is particularly applicable to the firm as a whole, a particular group within the firm or to staff, send it out. If you find and send consistently good materials, firm citizens will read the content. And I have found that even if they don’t read the article, just seeing the topic in the subject line will remind them that business development is an important ingredient to a successful firm.

SHARING THE MESSAGE

Firms that desire to build or sustain a business development culture must clearly communicate to everyone in the organization why a cultural change is important and necessary, and be willing to tell the members what’s in it for them. They must also create a variety of tools (training by both inside experts as well as outsiders, coaching, mentoring, in-time training, webinars, checklists, etc.) to be successful. Again, one size does not fit all.

The message that business development is important must be reinforced throughout the organization often, and individuals within the organization must be held accountable for doing their part in creating the cultural shift desired.

Finally, leadership at all levels must support and emulate the cultural shift. As Frances Hesselbein of the Frances Hesselbein Leadership Institute said, “Culture does not change because we desire to change it. Culture changes when the organization is transformed; the culture reflects the realities of people working together every day.” 

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