January/February 2019

Practice Management Advice

Advancing Business Development Skills in Law Firms

Linda Klein and John Hinton IV

Without clients, we don’t have law firms, so the competition for clients is always intense. Increasingly, then, lawyers expect law firm leaders to help them generate business. And why not?

Business development has many benefits. It offers increasing utilization, realization and income. Although more (profitable) work has an immediate impact on the bottom line, business development also has long-lasting benefits beyond short-term financials. Competition for new business is fierce, so bringing in new business feels like a win to those involved. Winning more means increasing morale, attracting better talent, giving the associates a better learning experience and having that “winning team” mentality. Growing solves nearly all ills, and it’s a lot more fun than shrinking.

How Does a Law Firm Grow?

So how do you drive firm-wide growth? How can you launch and implement a successful program? How can you measure success? Where do you start?

The ABA Law Practice Division is a great place to share business development tips. The articles, the books and the members are generous sources indeed. A few years ago our friend Mo Bunnell authored a business development feature for this magazine, and we have had several conversations about this topic. In September 2018 he published a book that is far more than a collection of tips—it’s a complete business development system. And we love the imagery conjured up by his title: The Snowball System: How to Win More Business and Turn Clients into Raving Fans.

Bunnell has trained over 12,000 professionals, including many at the Am Law 100. He combined his experience with a review of over 100 behavioral science and psychology studies to write this book. It’s a tome, covering every skill he argues is needed to be successful at business development.

Our Takeaways From the Book

After reading Bunnell’s book, we carried away four major lessons.

First, business development is a craft, just like the skill of law practice, and it can be learned.

Bunnell ties his insight to Dr. K. Anders Ericsson’s research on this point. Ericsson is an expert on expertise. He says, “Consistently and overwhelmingly, the evidence showed that experts are always made, not born.” We also saw this point in the excellent work done by the Institute for the Advancement of the American Legal System. We recommend its publication titled Foundations for Practice: The Whole Lawyer and the Character Quotient.

This is perhaps the most important lesson because it is foundational to the others. One of the greatest barriers to succeeding in business development is the belief that one does not have the gift. However, if business development can be learned, then it is a skill open to all of our colleagues and not only a select few. The ABA Commission on Women has free program materials to teach these skills, called the Grit Project Program Toolkit, which you can download from the ABA’s website and use to train lawyers at your office or bar association. The Commission on Women has also published a book titled Grit: The Secret to Advancement that discusses how to engender a grit and growth mindset.

Second, just like filing a patent or getting ready for trial, we can follow processes for winning more client work.

The book doesn’t break it down exactly this way, but here are the three main processes we learned: (1) managing your opportunities, (2) managing your relationships and (3) managing and disciplining yourself to do the work necessary to lead to new business.

Third, firm leaders can play a role in teaching these skills.

One of the lessons from reading a book such as Bunnell’s is that marketing development practices are so intuitive that we don’t even realize we are doing them.

However, before we can mentor others in business development, we have to understand how we are developing business ourselves. Take the time to read a good book on business development. It may provoke some self-examination and awareness that will improve your ability to teach others.

Also remember that all lawyers will be starting in a different place when it comes to their business development skills. We have to find a way to teach a comprehensive system to our lawyers and drive results across teams.

Fourth, we can drive growth and measure success.

Our favorite chapter of Bunnell’s book was “Creating Momentum in Teams,” which pulled everything together in a team-based structure with clear implementation steps.

We are quick to measure what Bunnell calls “lagging indicators of success (originations),” but he also suggests something most people never measure—the “leading indicators of success.” These are behaviors the team chooses to track that are 100 percent in each lawyer’s control.

We like this approach. You set a clear team growth strategy, select factors to track on a monthly basis, share everyone’s data with the entire group every month and establish ways to celebrate incremental progress. Bunnell convinced us about this approach by citing research on the power of goal-setting by Dr. Edwin Locke and how high-performing people and teams find ways to celebrate small, incremental progress by Dr. Teresa Amabile.

We agree that success in business development is dependent on a consistent series of small actions, many times stretching lawyers outside their comfort zones. This framework focuses on consistency and what’s in each lawyer’s control.

Forging Ahead

Lawyers are smart. They work hard. They joined our profession to solve difficult problems and help clients, but many haven’t been taught how to find the next client.

Let’s change that. Too long people have said “you’ve got it or you don’t” when it comes to business development. This is a myth. Let’s help the lawyers add the skill of business development to the skills they have that make them great lawyers. It might be the most powerful impact that law firm leaders can make.

Linda Klein

Linda Klein is a past president of the American Bar Association and senior managing shareholder at Baker Donelson. She is a frequent speaker on law practice, construction and higher education law. Email her.

John Hinton IV

John Hinton IV is a shareholder in Baker Donelson’s Atlanta office. His practice focuses on commercial litigation and construction law. Email him.