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March 03, 2015 Articles

Top 10 Business Development Tips for Young Lawyers

Competition for legal work is intense. Learn how to set yourself apart

By Jim Shelson

Can you get your own clients just by doing good legal work? It’s possible but increasingly more difficult to do so. Competition for legal work is intense. That trend is unlikely to abate. Doing good legal work is, needless to say, important, but this article discusses 10 other business development tips.

1. Think of partners as clients.

Until you develop your own clients, partners are generally the source of your work.  This is where doing high quality legal work is the most critical.  Become a “go-to” associate.  Make partners want to use you on their cases, and to eventually hand clients off to you.  Be involved in your firm and get known.

2. Civility will likely be rewarded.

You can be aggressive and zealous without being a jerk.  Treat your colleagues, co-counsel, opposing counsel, and, of course, judges with respect and dignity. Your reputation is everything, so be likeable. If you are generally respected and liked in the profession, you are much more likely to get business referrals. As the eighteenth-century English writer Mary Wortley Montagu said, “Civility costs nothing, and buys everything.”

3. Be active in the community.

You should join your local and state bar associations, but merely joining is not nearly enough. You must be an active member. Join committees and volunteer. Be a leader. Move up in the leadership positions of the organization. The more your good reputation becomes known to the bar, the better it is for business development.

4. Be active at least one national organization.

The ABA, for example. Again, you will not develop business if you merely join and pay dues. You must be active, seek leadership positions, and move up in the organization.

5. Take advantage of the things you like to do.

If you like to play golf, take potential clients golfing. If you like to write, then write articles for bar and business publications. If you like to run, join and be active in a running club. If you are passionate about a particular charity, then join the local chapter of that charity, participate, and move up in the organization. For long-term business development, your objective should be to make contacts and build relationships. Even better if you can do that while doing something you enjoy.

6. Take advantage of your firm’s business development resources.

Find you what your firm will reimburse you for. Does your firm reimburse for business development lunches, bar association activities, and other business development activities? What other business development resources does your firm have? Does it help with developing a marketing plan? Does your firm track business development hours? Regardless, take full advantage of whatever business development resources your firm offers. Granted, there are only so many hours in a day, so there can be a tension between doing billable legal work and business development activities. But there is no getting around the fact that they are both necessary.

7. Find a business development mentor.

Some partners are better at business development than others. Identify and spend time with lawyers who are good at business development and who are willing to help young lawyers market themselves.

8. Specialize.

You may start out as a generalist, but you eventually must become known in a particular area of the law. Incentivize clients to hire you by being an expert in some aspect of the law. 

9. Develop relationships with existing clients.

The long-term key to business development is client relationships. There are a lot of excellent lawyers, but clients will generally hire lawyers they know and trust and enjoy working with.

10. Maintain and nurture your contacts.

Whether it is former classmates, people you meet in the community, or people you meet through bar association activities, strive to develop a large list of contacts. The larger the pool of potential clients, the better. But a long list of contacts is not enough. You must develop and nurture your contacts. Take people to lunch. Wish people happy birthday. Whatever your method, the goal remains: Get people to remember you.

There are many excellent books and articles regarding business development. Here are a few recommendations:

Some lawyers are natural rainmakers, but the rest of have to work hard at it. It is a process, but you must engage in it if you want to develop your own business.

Jim Shelson is with Phelps in Jackson, Mississippi.

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