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Business Development: A Persistent Obligation in Private Practice

Oran F Whiting


  • Business is the life blood of attorneys in private practice. 
  • The pressure to develop and to maintain a client base in this hypercompetitive environment is both great and continuous. 
  • Business provides almost absolute control over one's professional destiny, income, and career.
Business Development: A Persistent Obligation in Private Practice
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Clients—or more generally, business—are the life blood of attorneys in private practice. The pressure to develop and to maintain a client base, or a "book of business" in this hypercompetitive legal environment, is both great and continuous. Though "knowledge is power," business provides almost absolute control over one's professional destiny, income, and career.

Volumes of books and entire curricula provide instruction and advice on how to market and develop and maintain business. Marketing builds awareness and credibility for lawyers and law firms. Business development is the process of procuring and retaining clients by building relationships. This column provides concrete tips and strategies on positioning new lawyers to successfully build a book of business and to trigger the mental process about marketing and business development.

Advice to New Lawyers

It is never too early to think about or undertake a plan to market yourself. Successful business development is a long-term endeavor.

Legal excellence is a strong foundation upon which to market and develop business. Whether a law review editor from a top law school or an average student from a relatively unknown law school, and whether practicing at a prestigious international law firm or a small local law firm, the first priority for a young lawyer is to begin mastery of your craft.

Contacts—make them. Remember, everyone is important! Simply put, every person you meet is a potential client. Whether friends, colleagues, family members, acquaintances, vendors, classmates, peers, subordinates, opposing or cocounsel, contacts are key. The phrase "It's not what you know but who you know" exists for a reason. Reach out to everyone—your current law firm colleagues; your former high school, college, and law school classmates as well as their parents; and anyone you meet, including that person you sit next to on your flight to your next deposition or vacation. You never know where or when contacts can develop. Do not take anyone for granted. Your fellow young lawyers in private practice today may be in positions of authority to distribute business tomorrow.

If you do not have an outgoing personality, which facilitates marketing, simply being professional, courteous, and respectful in your practice will bode well for you. How you treat others, including cocounsel, their clients, and opposing counsel, is important. Set a good example in your daily practice. Though possibly counterintuitive, zealous but professional representation of a client frequently leads to the establishment of a positive reputation among adversaries who may ultimately refer business.

Take any and every opportunity available to speak, write, and publish on any topic of personal interest or experience. Volunteer to write with the intention to publish in print, online, in a blog, on social media, on your firm's website, a bar association or group, trade or political website or publication, or continuing education publication. Send newsletters and other items of interest to individuals on a mailing list providing pro bono services for a non-profit or individual. Additionally, talk about your work with your office colleagues and with your clients. Show interest in their legal issues and problems.

Join bar, business, trade, or other organizations. These provide exposure and access to current and potential contacts. If you have a particular passion, join a legal or related group. Explore a practice area in your passion that may be outside of your actual practice area.

Use social media. Social media provides 24/7 online exposure. Potential clients can research you and your firm and recommend you to others. Make use of networking and personal websites. Research and monitor client industry news and trends, nurture referral sources, and stay on top of legal industry developments, news, and regulations. Give recommendations and connect people you think would benefit from knowing each other. Trumpet your experience and accomplishments, ensuring compliance with law firm, ethical, and Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission guidelines.

Engage in pro bono work. Undertake pro bono assignments in areas in and outside of your area of practice.

And finally, commit the appropriate amount of time to business development efforts. Though opinions differ, 50 to 100 hours per year is the appropriate amount of time for new lawyers to commit to marketing.

Start Now!

The bottom line is that even as a young attorney, you should always be spending some portion of your time marketing yourself and building your network of contacts with the intent to develop business. Implement a strategy. To develop business, you must start somewhere and do something. Some relationships can take years to develop. One client can ultimately change your professional life and your practice.