December 13, 2017 Articles

What to Do (and What Not to Do) as You Build Your Practice

A female litigator and rainmaker dishes on the secrets to her success, including how she landed her biggest client, and how to recover from a business development blunder.

By Katherine Reilly

Business development is hard. No one knows this better than the rainmakers of the legal industry. In this YAC Rainmaker Spotlight series, we present tips and lessons from senior lawyers and successful business developers, exploring practical issues and benefiting from the real-life anecdotes of those who have not only survived but thrived.

In this issue, we feature Teresa Dufort, CEO and managing partner of McMillan LLP, a Canadian full-service business law firm that has offices all across Canada and one in Hong Kong. Dufort, who is based in Toronto, Ontario, is a renowned litigator and leads the firm’s Product Liability Defence group. She is also a successful business developer and acts as counsel to numerous leading American, European, Asian, and Canadian manufacturers and distributors of consumer and industrial products.

Katherine Reilly conducted the interview with Dufort.

How long have you been practicing law?
I’ve been practicing for 33 years.

What kind of practice do you currently have?
My practice has evolved over the years. I started out doing traditional product liability defense work. These days, that part of my practice is mostly class action files with the odd large individual file.

What has changed significantly over time is the amount of regulatory work that I now do. My practice is currently about 50 percent regulatory work—in areas where there is very little competition. I have strong relationships with lawyers at different firms who do the same work in the United States, and they all funnel their Canadian work to me.

Is that the practice that you anticipated having when you started out, or have things evolved?
It has definitely evolved. You have to spot the opportunities and go where they are. I was pulled into the regulatory work because no one else was doing it, and my clients needed regulatory advice. In the early stages of doing regulatory work, I wasn’t sure that was what I should be doing. But it has turned into a very successful practice: it is not as rate sensitive as product liability work; and, as noted above, there is little competition in the field.

How did you land your biggest client? What led to that opportunity? How did the relationship originate?
A number of years ago, I worked on a brief for a trade association that was trying to effect regulatory change. I got to know the in-house counsel for a number of the companies who were members of the trade association.

Ten years later, one of those in-house counsel gave my name to a lawyer at a large U.S. law firm who was looking for Canadian counsel for its client on a very significant regulatory matter in the same general space. The law firm lawyer recommended me to the client, and I was retained. Opportunities often come from unexpected directions.

What business development habits and techniques have you personally found to be most effective?

  • Acquiring deep expertise that has value to a particular industry is extremely helpful.
  • I don’t market myself as a litigator or regulatory lawyer. I market myself as an automotive industry lawyer.
  • Being helpful to your contacts in the industry to which you are marketing—contacts who are potential clients.
  • Building strong personal relationships with the people in your potential referral network and regularly going to where they are (conferences, industry meetings, etc.).

What do you find is the hardest thing about business development?

  • Finding the time to do the above!
  • RFPs (requests for proposals). I regularly question whether the return is worth the effort. I have concluded that we do have to continue to participate in RFP processes, but I feel that we need to streamline the amount of lawyer time required.

Tell us about a time that you had a business development “blunder.” Was it fatal to the opportunity? Did you learn something valuable from it?
I tried to pass myself off as an expert in something I wasn’t, and that became clear when I was interviewed by the client. I did not get the work, and, from that experience, I learned not to be overconfident.

What is one thing that you know now about business development that you wish you knew earlier in your career?
I spent too much time at the beginning of my career, mostly in my office, just focused on doing good work. I assumed that the work would always be there and did not think enough about where it came from and what my role was in ensuring that continued flow—i.e., building my own work sources. Knowing what I know now, I would have been out there a lot earlier focused on building profile and building contacts.

Teresa Dufort is CEO and managing partner of McMillan LLP in Toronto, Ontario. Katherine Reilly is with the firm’s office in Vancouver, British Columbia.