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November 14, 2019 Articles

The One Habit of Highly Effective Rainmakers: Develop a “Big Rocks” Strategy

The only way to craft an effective and sustainable practice strategy is to organize your time and energy around a few core goals.

By Jeff Dennis

If you’re not familiar with the consultant parable about the “big rocks,” popularized in Stephen Covey’s “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People,” let me summarize for you. Covey stresses the need to “Put First Things First” as Habit No. 3. One famous story that he recounts to illustrate this point is that of a professor who shares an empty, gallon-sized mason jar with his class and “fills” it to the top with a few large rocks. He asks his students if the jar is full, and they confirm. He then asks them to reconsider that assumption by adding gravel to the jar and repeating the question. “How about now?” Catching on, the students watch as he then adds sand to the seemingly full jar to fill in the gaps, and then does the same with water on top of the sand. Each element represents a different aspect of life that requires our attention, but there’s only one way to be completely fulfilled. Covey goes on to share that many initially think that the point of the exercise is that if you try hard enough, you can always fit more into the jar. But the truth that is demonstrated by the jar lesson is that “if you don’t put the big rocks in first, you’ll never get them in at all.”

I’ve been working with lawyers on their business-development priorities for 13 years, so I get it. You’re busy and have a thousand things competing for your attention, especially as you approach the year’s end. From bonus targets and collections to initiation politics and, you know, actually helping clients, there’s a lot going on in your lives. And that’s just the work stuff.

But if there’s one thing that I’ve learned in the past decade-plus, it’s that the only way to craft an effective and sustainable practice strategy is to organize your time and energy around a few core goals, largely to the deprioritization of everything else.

It works exactly the same way for lawyers in their business-development efforts. So, with apologies to Stephen Covey, let’s think about how to develop and pursue those core goals of yours, which will then serve as the “big rocks” in your 2020 business-development strategy.

Finding Your Big Rocks: The Endgame

To figure out what you need to focus on, I’d like to recommend that we start with another of Covey’s key habits: “Begin with the End in Mind.” Too often, lawyers get entangled in the day-to-day firefighting and ad hoc marketing efforts that come their way, all while losing the forest for the trees. Instead, you should fast-forward to December 2020. What will you want to look back and say you accomplished? What will success in your business-development efforts look like?

I’ve found that many lawyers simply don’t know where they “should be” at a given stage in their practice life cycle, which cripples their ability to get wherever they’re supposed to be going. With that in mind, I’ll provide a few basic guideposts to help create a framework for identifying your big rocks.*

Years in Practice

Business-Development Goal

Business-Development Focus


Learn to be a good lawyer.

Build relationships internally.


Establish a relationship network.

Begin marketing externally.


Generate new clients.

Develop a niche practice.


Build your book.

Deepen your relationships.


Create a client support system.

Integrate others into your practice.

* There is obviously no one-size-fits-all approach to measuring your business-development activities, and every lawyer will encounter different circumstances at different times across different practices. If you want a more authoritative take on this dynamic, buy Ross Fishman’s excellent book
The Ultimate Law Firm Associate’s Marketing Checklist.

Big Rock Goals

Once you have a sense of where you should be, it’s time to think seriously about what you can do to get there. For the attorneys at Kegler Brown, I’ve recommended developing three “big rock” goals, one in each of three critical areas of business development:

  • Client Service
  • Firm Service
  • Personal Development

No matter where you fit in this overly simplified matrix, start by creating a goal in each of these three categories. And any senior partners that argue that personal development doesn’t increase your business-development skills can come talk to me directly.

Develop an Action Plan to Accomplish Your Goals

The hardest part is always moving from theory into action. Fortunately for you, my job is thinking about these things for a living, and my 13 years have taught me that lawyers appreciate examples more than abstract ideas. To that end, here are some recommendations for each phase of practice. These are certainly not the only big rocks that you should pursue; rather, they should serve only as examples to get you thinking.

Years in Practice

Client Service

Firm Service


Personal Development


Become intimately familiar with my area's top clients and their operations.

Develop a better personal relationship with each partner in my area.


Focus CLE and research time on learning about upcoming industry trends.


Take a more visible lead on multiple client projects.

Build a closer relationship with the marketing team.


Join a community or trade association board and network with my colleagues.


Create a consistent content-marketing program for clients and referrers.

Lead multiple seminars, CLEs, or briefings on-site with clients.


Focus CLE efforts on developing a niche practice area where I can build uncommon knowledge.


Become actively involved in my clients’ industry associations.

Lead an internal practice or industry group and its marketing strategy.


Pursue leadership-training opportunities.


Expand my existing clients into new practice offerings.

Effectively integrate more associates and young lawyers into my client relationships.


Mentor associates in my area, both formally and informally.

And if you don’t like those, here are plenty more examples to help get you thinking.

Client Service

  • Spend more time working on-site at a key client’s headquarters.
  • Joint-market a series of seminars with lawyers from a client’s in-house team.
  • Create a system to deliver relationship analytics for a client’s in-house team.
  • Become better acquainted with my peers up and down my clients’ decision-making teams.
  • Make connections between clients who want to network within an industry.

Firm Service

  • Build connections between my five largest clients and the potential successor to my work.
  • Spend more direct, personal time with my largest clients.
  • Develop and market a practice focused on new opportunity zone legislation.
  • Work with marketing to launch a monthly podcast.
  • Stay current on my accounts receivable and revisit every bill every month.

Personal Development

  • Develop a better relationship with the paralegals in litigation.
  • Get involved in a charity focusing on children’s welfare.
  • Increase my commitment to pro bono work in the community.
  • Secure a role in a committee or practice leadership position at the firm.
  • Increase my involvement in the firm’s charitable campaigns.

Of course, for each of these overarching goals you’ll identify, there should be a corresponding action plan that outlines (1) how you’re going to achieve those goals, (2) a realistic timeline for doing so, and (3) the resources on which you’ll need to rely to help you get there. But that’s another article for another time.


My goal today was simply to get you thinking about how to rise above the noise and better prioritize your business-development goals, determining what’s important and what’s not. So, go through the process, brainstorm with people you trust, print out your big rocks, and stick them somewhere conspicuous so that when you’re battling with which task to complete, they will serve as a “north star” for your decision-making.

And if you ever find yourself in an endless firefight or lost among those trees, always reset and ask yourself one question: “Does doing this align with my big rocks?” If it does, then you’ve already determined that it’s a priority integral to your success, so keep pushing. If not, then think of it as gravel, sand, or water, and get back to doing the things that will have more impact on your practice (and your sanity).

Jeff Dennis is the director of Strategic Initiatives at Kegler Brown Hill + Ritter in Columbus, Ohio.

Copyright © 2019, American Bar Association. All rights reserved. This information or any portion thereof may not be copied or disseminated in any form or by any means or downloaded or stored in an electronic database or retrieval system without the express written consent of the American Bar Association. The views expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the positions or policies of the American Bar Association, the Section of Litigation, this committee, or the employer(s) of the author(s).