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December 13, 2017 Articles

Where to Start? Tips for Solid Business Development Habits

Follow these simple and effective tips and you’ll be well on your way to building a successful, rewarding career.

By Allison Wolf

A junior attorney’s first years of practice are tough. The workload is heavy and slow to get through because you are doing everything for the first time. The pressure to prove yourself is high. And the gap between where you are now and your future as a successful advocate, with your own clients and files, seems massive.

At this stage of my coaching practice, I have seen lawyers journey through each phase of their careers. From newly minted attorneys to successful senior partners, I have observed firsthand how small investments in marketing and business development contribute to the development of a healthy practice.

The following tips will help you establish solid business development habits early in your practice.

Tip #1: Develop a Strong Practice Foundation
It’s hopeless to row a leaking boat anywhere. Similarly, without a solid practice foundation in place that includes effective bring-forward systems, a to-do-list habit, weekly planning, and a commitment to get ahead of deadlines, you’ll find it very difficult to do much more than put out fires on your files.

Tip #2: Master the Mindset to Carry Yourself Forward
Accept that you won’t know all the answers. But you will know the questions to ask.

Seek out business development mentors—other lawyers, professionals, and businesspeople. Once a quarter, invite someone to lunch and ask what has contributed to his or her success. Most people are happy to help in this way.

Treat these meetings as you would a session with your most important client. You want to make a good impression. Choose the restaurant. Arrive early. Be prepared, and ask if it is okay to take notes. Do your homework before the lunch to learn about your invitee in advance; online profiles and LinkedIn accounts are excellent starting places. When you return to the office, send the person a thank-you note for his time.

Tip #3: Focus on Getting More of the Good Stuff
Pay attention to the kind of work you like most. It seems obvious, but in your first five years of call, it is important to pay attention and direct your practice toward the work that you find most fulfilling. Law firms have their own agendas, and if you neglect to direct your practice in the way that you want it to go, you could find yourself moving into an area that you find less than satisfying.

Tip #4: Understand and Use the Power of 10 Minutes
I call this strategy “run a dash.” Those little bits of time that exist in the crevices between meetings and major tasks are valuable for advancing your business development plans. Get your precise next steps onto your to-do list: schedule lunch with a colleague; brainstorm topic ideas for your next article; phone a former client for a friendly catchup. Then “run a short dash” to get them done.

Tip #5: Build Your Referral Strategy
For advocates, a big portion of your work will come to you through referrals. The CLIO 2017 legal trends report released in October reveals that 62 percent of files originate through referrals from friends or family. Lawyer referrals make up a further 31 percent.

The implications for your business plan are simple: build and maintain important relationships. Develop your strategy to turn clients into referral sources through the quality of your services. Make sure that everyone in your network knows what you do. Develop a short personal introduction that frames your skills and value in a memorable way. Actively form relationships with professionals such as accountants and financial planners who are likely to refer work.

Like you, many of these contacts will be just starting out, but they will rise quickly in seniority to become helpful referral partners. When someone provides a referral, immediately thank that person with a handwritten note or small gift. Document all of your referrals, in and out. This helps you to keep track of your top referral sources so that you can reciprocate whenever possible.

Tip #6: Play Out a Niche Strategy
The beauty of a broad advocacy practice is the variety in the work. However, it’s not an effective strategy to be known for doing anything for anybody. Instead, spotlight your writing and presenting on a specific type of problem or opportunity. This focus allows you to go deep into an area of interest and become knowledgeable about this area in far less time than it takes to develop your overall expertise.

Match your niche area to a problem experienced by the type of clients with whom you aspire to work. For example, you might focus on what to do when a client thinks a business partner is cheating the business or what to do when someone has posted nude pictures on the web without the subject’s consent. If you are in a larger firm, you may choose a topic that supports the partners’ marketing efforts with existing clients and prospects.

Have no fear: developing a niche focus in your writing and presenting does not mean that your practice becomes narrow; it just targets your investments in marketing more effectively. The CLIO report indicates that 37 percent of clients search for a lawyer online. Including articles and messaging in your profile or blog that address key areas of client concern and interest can help to direct new clients your way.

Tip #7: Keep Your Profiles Updated
In your first years of practice, your experience and knowledge develop rapidly. Update your online profiles frequently so that they accurately represent you. Four years into your practice, you won’t want a client viewing your second-year profile with that same photo taken when you first joined the firm. In legal practice, age and experience are an advantage.

Tip #8: Track Your Experience
Keep a running record of the files that you have worked on with a short summary of your role in each. This information can be used later as representative experience on your profile. Have it available when asked if you have a particular type of expertise. In the thick of things, you may believe that you will never forget the experience of working on the Epic file, but I guarantee that six to 12 months later, you won’t remember the details.

Tip #9: Take on Leadership Roles
Seek out opportunities for community involvement. Find a role in a professional, industry, or community organization that offers you some combination of meaning, opportunities to connect, and relevance to your professional goals. When you meet a new and potentially valuable contact through this involvement, develop the relationship beyond the business of the organization. Invite this person out for coffee or lunch and have a conversation.

Tip #10: Initiate
A great way to stand out is to create something new.

One associate whom I know pitched an idea for a new continuing legal education program to his local bar association. The result? He and a friend chaired a high-profile event that brought together senior members of the legal community and members of the judiciary. This significantly raised his profile among his colleagues and gave him access to senior members of the legal industry. It also connected with his own plan to build up his referral network. The event was a huge success and will be repeated.

What is something that you would like to initiate that connects back to your larger business plan? Is it a presentation? A new nonprofit? A committee focused on a specific objective?

Tip #11: Have a Business Plan
A simple one-page business plan can help you stay on track each year. Write your long-term goals at the top of the page. This doesn’t have to be specific. Next, record your objectives; these are the measureable milestones to achieve this year. Follow these milestones with your action list for the quarter, which you’ll update every few months.

Treat your business plan as an active file. When you conduct your weekly planning, look at your business plan and action list. What is one precise next step that you can take during the week?

Consider enlisting the support of a mentor, coach, or colleague on plan development. Working together with a trusted adviser allows you to create a more innovative plan than you might on your own—and will contribute to your own accountability to carry it through.

The transformation from starting out as a young advocate to becoming an experienced attorney with your own clients and files evolves over a period of years. You don’t need to know exactly how you will get there. You simply need to keep your eyes open for opportunities to learn, engage in some simple planning, and take small steps forward every month. These small steps add up to big moves that will carry you toward a successful future.

Allison Wolf is an experienced lawyer coach and founder of the blog