chevron-down Created with Sketch Beta.


Business Development Success for Lawyers

Conna Weiner


  • A litigator turned mediator offers insight from her lengthy career about the traits that separate highly successful litigators with consistent client bases.
  • The relevant qualities and skills fall into two general areas: (1) being good at building and persistently sustaining relationships and (2) general technical competence.
  • Other tips include to be likable, be humble, and don't forget to take breaks from law.
Business Development Success for Lawyers
E+ via Getty Images

I have served as a law firm litigator; as inside counsel in global companies, often charged with selecting outside counsel, negotiating significant transactions, and navigating significant, multi-firm litigations; and now as a full-time mediator and arbitrator seeing lawyers in action advocating for their clients. Over the years, I’ve developed a sense of which lawyers will be successful in developing a client base—and more generally successful in their careers. What do they have in common?

The relevant qualities and skills fall into two general areas: (1) being good at building and persistently sustaining relationships and (2) general technical competence. I’ll frame this discussion with a question a young law firm partner once asked me: How did I chose which lawyer to hire given there were so many good ones out there. What were my criteria?

None of this is easy over a long period of time, but we can all aspire to improve.

Building and Sustaining Relationships in a Focused Way

Be likable.

The law firm partner who asked me the question about choosing a lawyer was getting off to a good start because she was following one important precept of being likable (see subsection (c) below). What does being likable mean? Much depends on context. But at a minimum, it involves the following:

Know how to have a real, socially polite, two-way conversation—be focused and curious.

If we are honest with ourselves, we can acknowledge that lawyer training does not always emphasize the skill—and it is a skill that can be learned with practice—of having a socially polite conversation. In fact, it rarely does. Some of the skills we learn as lawyers direct us away from being capable of having a socially polite conversation.

I once participated as a “client” in a global law firm’s internal training/role play in a series of exercises involving meeting potential “clients” at an industry dinner, sending follow-up communications to the potential client, setting up a follow-up meeting in the potential client’s office, etc. It was striking how many of the obviously brilliant, pleasant young associates had trouble striking up and maintaining an enjoyable, polite conversation, even though they knew that was the point of the exercise!

Some thoughts:

  • Don’t talk about yourself too much, and in fact don’t do most of the talking. Monitor your share of the conversation—what percentage of the time did you talk versus the other person or people? Have you rambled on too long? Stop. During a party, a nonlawyer friend of mine came up to me and said, “That person over there has been talking nonstop for five minutes. Are they a lawyer?” It was not a compliment.
  • Instead, actively listen and concentrate on what the person is saying (could you repeat the three topics that person discussed with you after the fact?). Focus on the person’s eyes (do not look around the room when you are talking to that person for someone more interesting or more important). Be curious: Be engaged with what the person is saying and ask questions about what the person is saying.
  • Don’t interrupt unless you want to tell the person that his or her hair is on fire (or call the person’s attention to some other imminent emergency).
  • Ultimately, make the person with whom you are speaking feel that he or she is important and valued and has something interesting to say. It is said of highly skilled politicians that they can make the person to whom they are speaking feel as though that person is the only, most important person in the room, despite the crowd around them.

Be (reasonably) positive.

Lawyers are trained to think critically and make judgments. When you are first meeting someone, it is much better to err on the side of projecting a positive attitude than a negative and critical one. Negative and critical can come across as not nice (not nice is bad) or, worse, unfriendly and affirmatively mean. And in a corporate setting, it is an absolute faux pas. If your clients are nonlawyer corporate employees, you need to be particularly careful.

Be (reasonably) humble.

This is a very tricky one. The lawyer who asked me how I chose outside counsel began by acknowledging that there were “so many good lawyers out there.” That was terrific! (And it is right, by the way.) Nobody likes someone who boasts about his or her accomplishments or who appears to claim to be the best. Being perceived as “overly promotional” can be very off-putting to people. On the other hand, one needs to promote oneself. Mmm.

One way to manage this conundrum is to put off the direct promotion of your skills until you develop some sort of social or personal connection with someone. Another is simply to talk very matter of factly about cases you have worked on, or legal issues that are interesting, and be impressive while doing that. Practice. Another is to say, hey, could I take two minutes to be promotional with you? Just acknowledge what you are doing. Another is to frame promotion as being helpful to the person (see subsection (d) below).

Being aware of the conundrum and being cautious about it make for a great start.

Be helpful—but be careful about the “giving advice” trap.

I had a boss who made it a regular habit to be helpful to her reports and clients not only with their work but also personal things—the name of a vendor, a good doctor, restaurants, and trips. Because she was a good conversationalist and genuinely interested in people, she knew how to be helpful. And somehow she managed to avoid the “advice trap.”

As lawyers, we are paid to give advice all the time and can fall into the trap of launching into giving advice and suggestions in a social situation when no advice has been requested. It can be perceived as presumptuous unless it is carefully framed.

In fact, it is better in the beginning to ask prospective clients for their advice on how they select lawyers, what are they looking for, how you can be helpful to them, etc.

Of course, if you are asked, go ahead, give advice. But be articulate and succinct (see subsection (a) above).

Be reliable.

Follow through on commitments, whether they are professional, extracurricular, or social. If you can’t, apologize with a very good excuse.

Know yourself—brand and pitch “your competitive advantage.”

You cannot project your best self to potential clients unless you know what it is. Weaknesses can be ameliorated, but only so much. Not everyone is a natural rainmaker. Not everyone likes managing other people, a major aspect of which is seeing your success through the success of your reports, not yourself. None of that is a failing; it is just who you are.

Look at your experience and your strengths, and be able to say who you are and what you do in three (pithy) sentences or less. There are many resources available about personal branding and elevator speeches. We all know the importance of this, and we all need to practice.

Concepts borrowed from strategy consulting can help. In advising clients how to grow their businesses, strategy consultants use the concept of “competitive advantage.” In a nutshell, it means to think about how to differentiate yourself. What do you or your firm have that other people don’t? It is a simple question but hard to answer, and the answer will change over time.

Build and maintain relationships all the time—be systematic.

I was at a conference recently where one panelist noted that business development was a “marathon, not a sprint.” Sounds a bit unenjoyable. But . . . it does take a systematic and persistent approach. Network in your firm, in bar organizations, in your industry, in your neighborhood, in your social circles. Let people know what you do and how you can help. Make a list and a plan for follow-up over time, and do it.

The More Technical Side

Be a well-rounded lawyer.

As difficult as it may be in this age of specialization, make sure that somewhere along the way, you get adequate cross-training for today’s practice.

For litigators, having the experience of negotiating a substantial transaction or doing other corporate work can be invaluable in teaching one to be a better litigator. Appreciating the type of compromises made during negotiation—sometimes resulting in deliberate ambiguity to gloss over areas of disagreement—can help position your clients better if they end up in disputes. Conversely, your experience as a litigator can help improve the clarity of transactions. And the relationship between lawyers on opposing sides of a transaction is very different from the relationship between litigators. Appreciating the different ways in which lawyers can relate to each other while zealously representing their clients can be helpful in learning how to build effective relationships with colleagues and co-counsel.

In fact, any experience you can get in a legal role that is different from being a litigator can make you a better litigator. This experience can be gained in nonprofit board service, pro bono work, or other similar roles.

Systematically learn negotiation skills both as a direct negotiator and as a mediator.

This point could actually be listed under the category above but is worth highlighting separately to emphasize its importance.

We have all seen the statistics demonstrating that the substantial majority—more than 95 percent—of all litigations settle before trial. That means that a substantial majority of your time as a litigator will be spent negotiating with your adversary or working through a third-party mediator.

Absorb the implications of this reality, and take a negotiation class. Get trained as a mediator so that you know what mediators do—and you absolutely, no question, will find yourself informally and importantly functioning as a mediator within your firm and in complex litigations among co-counsel at many critical points in your career.

Understand the differences among advocating in mediation,  arbitration, and litigation.

Like mediation, arbitration is another way of resolving disputes outside of the courtroom. Arbitration is often used in cross-border disputes because international arbitration awards can be enforced around the world under the New York Convention. Arbitration is also common in healthcare and life sciences cases and in other business-to-business situations.

As a mediator and arbitrator, I often see litigators who have not been able to transition from full-blown courtroom advocacy to the most effective advocacy in an arbitration or mediation. Both require the ability to represent clients judiciously, with an emphasis on voluntary information sharing and procedural agreement, without the full courtroom toolbox and with less information about the case. Arbitration can be a highly practical, business-friendly, and efficient way of resolving business disputes when run well and done with a mediation or arbitration “mindset.” See Bennett G. Picker & Conna Weiner, Commercial Mediation Practice Guide: A Practical Handbook for Lawyers and Their Business Clients (ABA 3d ed. 2023); see also Conna Weiner, “Ten Tips to Get the Most Out of U.S.-Based Business Arbitration,” Commercial & Bus. Litig., Mar. 26, 2020.

Diverse dispute resolution skills are highly valued by potential clients, particularly general counsel in corporate settings. Some law firms even have a disputes department or a dispute resolution department instead of a litigation department. Your ability to market this understanding and appreciation of why it might be important to business clients will make you stand out.

Develop areas of specialty.

Unless your practice is intensely geographically or community focused, ultimately it becomes helpful to develop expertise in certain areas of the law or industries. You pick it up through your experience, but you can also systematically develop it. Join bar association committees and attend classes in your area of specialty. And go to industry conferences, in oil and gas, or pharmaceuticals or healthcare, for example. You may be one of the few lawyers there.

Take breaks from the law.

Being a lawyer is demanding. Refresh and take a break. It will help you be likable.