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Start business development early

|Written By Sasha Toten
Start business development early
Photo: Shutterstock

Especially in private practice, succeeding in law means more than just practising law, it also requires business savvy. There is no practice without bringing in the work first. As a result, business development is a critical skill all lawyers should hone, starting as early as possible.

The topic of my last article, developing a personal brand, provided information about an important piece of business development — establishing a network and your own identity within the field. What comes afterward is building and managing relationships within that field so the business will follow.

It is never too early to start — and to get going, you should first prepare a business development road map.

If you work at a firm with a marketing department that provides business development coaching, make an appointment to get their guidance. If your firm doesn’t, it may be worth investing in a private coach.

Recently, I met with Barb Sheperd, the chief marketing officer at Bennett Jones LLP, to discuss business development options for articling students and young associates. Sheperd pointed me to the firm’s internal business development resource, appropriately called PluggedIn, which provides a wealth of marketing, social media, business development, and coaching information for Bennett Jones lawyers at all levels.

And the marketing client service team provides guidance to groups of lawyers (for example, the business development boot camp), as well as individual business development coaching plans.

Similar to brandbuilding, business development involves marketing yourself. Sheperd advises students start brainstorming early how to build this into their practice, suggesting you can start small by allocating an hour a week to this activity. Perhaps begin by reworking your firm biography to incorporate personal interests in a meaningful way that demonstrates what you can uniquely contribute.

She also suggests getting active with your social media presence on LinkedIn to help build your profile, to highlight your areas of interest, and to generally get your name out there.

Whatever your plan, it is important to break it down into small manageable chunks, focusing on a few tasks at a time and ensuring you carry them out, learn from your mistakes, and continue improving.

Before breaking it down, do a personal audit to define your business development needs and then create a step-by-step action plan with the help of your coach.

Part of this includes determining who to build relationships with to get work, both inside and outside the firm.

Students and junior associates may directly build client relations to some extent, but will likely focus more on internal relationships by getting to know lawyers within the firm to build trust and loyalty.

For those at smaller firms, this may mean building relationships with lawyers at firms that have a different practice focus, so you know where to turn if you do not have the expertise to assist your client.

Ultimately, you want other lawyers to know they can trust you with their clients. Later on, you want to be confident if you are referring your client’s work to a colleague in an area you’re unfamiliar with, the lawyer will not jeopardize your client relationship. This is important no matter what point in your career you are at.

For an internal plan, begin by creating a small list of the firm’s lawyers you would like to work with. Start with one, and identify his or her practice areas and why you want to work with him or her. Reach out to the lawyer directly, or ask a colleague to make an introduction, and then set up a meeting, perhaps over coffee.

When you are ready to start your external business development plan, research the key contacts at potential clients’ organizations so you can figure out who to be introduced to, ideally by a colleague. At Bennett Jones, we use a CRM database (InterAction) that can identify who knows whom at each organization.

Next, research the issues affecting the client, work on your proposal for why the client should choose you, set up a meeting, and work towards getting retained through follow-up meetings over the following few months.

Then, move on to the next lawyer or client and tackle the next task in your business development road map.

While many lawyers can succeed without creating formalized business development plans, establishing good habits up front will lead to future success in developing a long-term and loyal client base. So start thinking about this process now, get the guidance you need, and you could be well on your way to successfully managing your career with your own action plan for business success.

Sasha Toten is an articling student at Bennett Jones LLP in the Toronto office.

  • President

    Stuart W
    This is really firm-specific, but could be potentially terrible advice for students/young associates. When you are an associate, it's a unique opportunity to build relationships without the BD/commercial focus that comes later in your career. Once people know you're thinking about what's in it for you, they will be more suspicious of your actions and requests. Most associates at big firms will not make partner. The reason is almost never because the associate wasn't thinking about business development enough - it's usually because he/she is not a strong enough lawyer. Young lawyers should focus on skill development. Seek out the opportunities that will help you become a good lawyer. Think strategically about that instead of BD.

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