Tend relationships to grow your practice.

I’ve been doing a tremendous amount of business development coaching recently, and I often tell my clients that rainmaking is all about relationships. I also tell clients that good relationships, personal or professional, should be nurtured – even that low-level employee of a corporate client may prove to be a valuable contact one day. This past weekend confirmed that for me.

Clients sometimes question why I suggest maintaining friendships from college and law school, and the weekend offers the explanation.  I recently hosted a reunion for six of my closest friends from college. Although we stay in touch by email and conference calls, we rarely see each other face-to-face. I was struck by a realization as I looked around at my friends: we’ve come a long way since college.

Of the 6 of us, I’m the only lawyer. Two are in high-level corporate positions, working with multiple law firms and (coincidentally) dealing with issues that were at the core of my interest when I was in practice. And three of the women’s husbands (who are invited for co-ed get-togethers) are in corporate positions as well, responsible for hiring or coordinating efforts with lawyers for some aspects of the business.

The other three women are teachers, and each is also active in the community in some way.  One is a community actor and director who serves on several theatre boards in her city, another holds offices in various groups that her sons have joined, and the third is a leader in more community groups than I can count. These women are well-connected.

In the years since college, we have all advanced in responsibility. Through long history together, these friends (and their husbands) know, like, and trust me, as I do each of them.  If I were still in practice, these connections would be ripe for business development – not because I would “use” my friends to bring in clients, but because my friends would feel confident in hiring me (or others I recommend) and referring others to me. The reverse is, of course, true as well.

Multiple referrals have passed among us over the years, and anytime one of us needs to meet someone for business purposes, working through this extended network almost always gets results. If any of us had judged whether these would be professionally fruitful relationships twenty years ago, the answer would probably have been no. We were either poor graduate students or eager but hungry young teachers, hardly ready to refer business to anyone except perhaps a great restaurant. Circumstances have certainly changed over time.  But my friends’ basic attributes have not: they’re sharp, nice, trustworthy, and service-oriented. Those attributes have led them to success in a variety of businesses and relationships, and our connections are now fruitful professionally as well as personally.

This is only one example of how contacts grow.  The same is true of former colleagues, junior employees of corporate clients, and so on. Regardless of where or how you meet, maintain connections with people you like and trust. You cannot possibly know where life will take you and your contacts or how (or whether) connections will shift over time, but solid relationships often yield business or other useful resources.

A client recently told me that he wished he’d learned years ago to keep in touch with clients and friends at his peer level.  As you advance in experience and responsibility, so will your contacts. In our mobile society, today’s low-level employee at one company may be tomorrow’s vice president at a competitor.

Coaching challenge: Think about good contacts (those whom you know, like, and trust) with whom you have not talked recently. Pick up the phone today and reconnect with a few, or perhaps issue an invitation for lunch or coffee. Nurture these relationships and you will likely find that they pay dividends over time.

Plans are important, but nothing happens without action!

It’s obvious that action is required to bring in new business, right? Sometimes, though, you have a great justification for not acting… When everyone is out of town or busy, when you’d like to get started with networking but no available group feels like a good fit, when you just don’t know where or how to get published or to get an opportunity to speak, what then?

Here’s the simple truth: you will hit roadblocks, quagmires of uncertainty or doubt, and even roadblocks in your business development journey. 

A few of my clients have run into this situation, and their response often predicts (or even determines) their level of success. Those who move forward in a helpful direction, even if it isn’t optimal, tend to do well; those who stall out and wait for the “right” conditions tend to flail and eventually fail. The successful ones pursue a common line of analysis, and that’s what I’d like to share with you today.

Step one: determine whether this is an obstacle, meaning a temporary challenge that can be resolved through action or by the passage of time, or a roadblock, meaning a long-lasting or permanent challenge that is due to issues you don’t control. Imagine that you’ve identified an organization that sounds ideal for your practice. If it’s on hiatus for the summer, that’s just an obstacle. If your review of the events calendar shows that activity has dwindled to nothing and that the organization appears to be moribund, that may be a roadblock.

Solve or wait out obstacles; strategize an alternative approach to get around a roadblock. Continuing the organization example, if the group is on hiatus for the summer, you can simply wait for fall to get involved, and perhaps you can consider helping the group find ways to stay active even over the summer. If the group is moribund, however, even though you could try to revive it, it probably wouldn’t be the best use of your resources, so you should look for another activity.

Step two: if you’re waiting out an obstacle, get started with something else in the meantime; if you’ve hit a roadblock, go to plan B. Could you identify some leaders in the group whom you might contact directly? Is there a next best organization you might join? You might choose instead to work on getting an article written and published, or you might track down a speaking opportunity that makes sense for your strategic plan.

There is always a viable Plan B. If you find that you’re tied to a single approach, pull out a piece of paper and brainstorm alternatives, giving yourself permission to list even the silliest ideas in service of finding the right idea.

Whether you adjust your plans to move around an obstacle or a roadblock, you must keep moving. Don’t allow an obstacle to prevent you from launching or continuing your business development plan. There’s always more than one route to a goal. Choosing to wait until you can execute your original plan (or even what feels like the best plan) is analogous to delaying the start of an exercise program because you plan to ride your bike but can’t because it’s monsoon season.

In summary: make your plans, but be ready to adjust them in response to obstacles and roadblocks. Plans are important, but when it comes to business development (and just about everything else, too), nothing happens without activity.

Find Your Weekly Minimum

What happens to your business development activity when you get busy?  If you’re like many others, you may find that it slips. I’ve had more than a handful of clients who hire me to ramp up their rainmaking, and they succeed – right to the point that they’re so busy they pause and start backsliding.

We’ve all been taught that a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush, and there’s truth to that. I’m no hunter, but we all know intuitively that if you focus exclusively on the bird in hand and ignore all the others, you’ll have to start from scratch when you need to find another bird.

“I’m going to pause for a little while, just til I get this work off my desk.” That’s one of the most dangerous statements you can make. Throw that out too often, and I can almost guarantee that you won’t get the results you want from your rainmaking efforts. You’re likely to end up tired, behind the 8-ball, stressed out, and feeling like a failure. And here’s why…

When you “hit pause,” you’re not pausing at all: you’re just stepping into the feast/famine cycle. In this cycle, you need new business so you start business development activity; you grow your practice, only to slack off when you have substantial new business on your desk and you turn to getting the work done, which causes you to drop back on your rainmaking activity; and the result is that the flow of new business drops and at some point you realize you need more business – and the cycle starts again.

Fortunately, there’s a simple way out to interrupt this cycle.  Identify the minimal amount of rainmaker activity you can do and still generate new leads and new referrals.

  • You might find that you get referrals and new business from current clients, and so you might decide that, no matter what, you will make time to take one client to lunch each month and to plan a phone call to check in with others once a week. (And if you get significant additional work from current clients, you’re in a great position, because that means that you have an opportunity to engage in business development activity every time you do billable work.)
  • You might analyze where your clients have been coming from and discover that your blog is generating a lot of calls that lead to business. If so, you should ensure that you post at least weekly, and you might even investigate hiring someone to help with SEO or AdWords, to gain additional visibility.
  • You might discover that you have an effective follow-up system and that you can expect to get measurable new business after speaking. Develop a system that allows you to send out proposals to speak on a regular basis, and ensure that you speak at least quarterly.

As long as you have a reasonable rationale for your minimal level of rainmaking activity and you stick to it, you’re likely to avoid the feast/famine cycle. You’ll continue to see some variation from time to time, but when you’re strategic and consistent, those swings will be much less significant.

Here’s your checklist for determining your MERA (Minimal Effective Rainmaker Activity):

  1. Review the sources of your business over the last two years. What activity generated the most business? What generated the least? Be sure to distinguish activity that’s slow yield from activity that’s low
  2. Set a minimum activity level in the top producers. Calendar whatever it is that you’ve determined you’ll do, and don’t allow yourself to delay, even when you’re busy.
  3. Delete all other rainmaking activity from your calendar… FOR NOW. This approach is not designed to generate the most business possible.  It’s designed to defeat the feast/famine cycle.  It contains the seeds for long-term success, but you’ll need to do more in the long run to produce maximum results.
  4. Set your date for re-evaluation and don’t get complacent. The only downside to MERA is that you can lull yourself into thinking that any activity is adequate for any circumstance, and that just isn’t true. MERA is only for the times when you’re tempted to press pause.

If you don’t know how to determine what activity is most likely to yield results for you, you’ll have trouble with this task. Building a practice requires you to know what produces results so you can do more of that.  If you don’t, we should talk.  Just click this link to schedule a complimentary 30 minute consultation.

Obvious but ignored: rainmaking success requires action.

New behaviors, especially those that play out in public for others to see, can be difficult. We lawyers especially, who tend to fall toward the perfectionist side of things, perceived a high risk in trying something new.  What if we fail? What if we look stupid? What if we really mess up?  

Recently, I took on a new role in my church. Despite having observed others perform this role, I was really nervous: I’d be in front of the whole congregation, taking on a highly visible part of the service.  In preparation, I read the handbook for performing this role, searched online for other guidance, drafted and revised the words I’d say, and mentally walked through every part I’d play in the service over and over.

I noticed three things about my preparation: 

  1. I could envision failure more easily than success.  I imagined tripping and falling on the altar stairs.  I imagined dropping the microphone and books and trays. And I even came up with my response should those things happen: flash a winsome smile, chuckle, and say “Well, at least I got THAT over.”
  2. I spent more time preparing than I did acting. I invested close to three hours reading and working on the comments I’d make. I even typed out the comments and then copied them by hand onto an index card!  And all told, I probably spent 15 minutes performing my role.
  3. While the preparation I did by myself was helpful, I got the most benefit from the few minutes I spent talking with others who could tell me what to do. The handbook, while helpful, included some directions that we didn’t use, and certain steps weren’t clear to me. So I grabbed someone who’s served in this role for more than ten years and asked for help—and she straightened me out right away.

The other thing I noticed is that I hear these same observations from my clients when they’re talking about business development. Reluctant rainmakers (those who would really prefer to build a book of business just by being a good lawyer, not engaging in specific business development activity) are especially inclined to spend as much time in gearing up for activity as doing it, and much of that time may be spent in fruitless worry.  We typically don’t call it that, of course: we may call it planning or brainstorming or waiting until the time is right.

The antidote to this paralysis by analysis is action. Action is the only antidote. In my church analogy, I started to feel more competent in my anticipated role when I talked with someone who could answer my questions, not when I read books or visualized my part in the service. And having performed that role once, even though I didn’t do things as well as I would have liked, I know what it feels like, where my specific challenges are, and what I need to do to improve.

With business development tasks, action may feel high-risk because of the possible consequences if it goes wrong. The truth, however, is that (barring exceptional circumstances) a misstep can usually be corrected, and in most cases, a small amount of preparation will avert disaster. In other words, don’t go into a meeting cold, don’t attend an organization’s meeting without knowing what the group is about and who’s in leadership, and don’t call an important contact without having some sort of plan.

Most of us hold back too long on rainmaker activity; few rush in without forethought.

Here’s the take-home

Where are you stalling in your business development plan?

  • If you’re stuck in planning where to start, get outside help from a mentor, a colleague, or a marketing professional.  It can be difficult to begin with the 30,000-foot view that is an overall strategy, and outside help can be instrumental.
  • If you’ve been putting off an activity because the time isn’t right, ask what will make for a “right time.” Sometimes the delay is legitimate.  If you can’t pick out specific circumstances that you’re waiting for, you’re probably just delaying. Examples of appropriate delay include waiting for a contact to return from vacation before you make a call or waiting until there’s a vote on specific legislation before releasing a white paper about how to respond to the new rules. Fruitless delay occurs, for example, when you’re waiting to get “more information” without being clear on what information you need or how to get it.
  • If you’ve been delaying an activity because you don’t know how it will play out, ask what you can afford to lose rather than what you might gain. Good planning can’t remove all risk. If you’re considering an action that might blow a relationship, you’re right to be cautious. If you’re holding off on getting your profile up on LinkedIn because you’re not sure how best to describe your practice and experience, you have almost nothing to lose.  (For a review on this, see Little Bets by Peter Sims, and my review of the book.)
  • If you’re waiting for your schedule to free up, act immediately. One of the most challenging aspects of business development is doing the work even when you’re busy with client work. Failing to do that, however, risks getting into the feast/famine cycle. Almost worse, for mid-level and senior associates and service partners, you run the risk of believing that everything is going ok with your career, when the truth is that today’s economy demands that every private practice lawyer must at least contribute to business development.

Action is required for business development success.  We’re still early in 2018: get your year in gear by acting today.

How Your Environment Affects Business Development

There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, “Morning, boys, how’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, “What the hell is water?”

I read that little anecdote in a Wall Street Journal adaptation of the commencement speech David Foster Wallace made at Kenyon College.  It struck me as amusing at first, but then it struck me as a great teaching story.

Are you living in an environment that you’re not really aware of, just because you don’t know anything could be different?  Environment is critical to success, whether it’s success in business or in life.  Want to lose weight?  You’ll have better odds if your pantry is packed with water and oatmeal than if it’s jammed with sugary sodas and potato chips.  Want to know what’s going on in politics?  You might prefer to hang around others who care about politics and read the Wall Street Journal than to spend your time watching E! and talking about Snookie.

When it comes to business development, environment is often an unappreciated factor for success.  Let’s look at three examples.

  1. How do your systems support business development activity?  Those systems might include where you put business cards you’ve been handed by new contacts – can you find them so that you can follow up?  Do you have a system in place for following up, or is it catch-as-catch can, sometimes great and sometimes nonexistent?  Do you have a system for tracking your business development activity, both so you can see whether you’re keeping the commitments you’ve made and also so that you can track the outcome of your actions?

    Systems create your personal operating environment.  If your systems aren’t strong, you need to realize that and correct it.

    Example: I noticed recently that I’d been swallowed whole by paper at my desk now that I’m managing my own business and personal life along with three other businesses.  I’d always had fairly good systems, but the influx of paper and the associated tasks had overwhelmed those systems.  My office looked as if the post office had thrown up on it, and finding anything in less than ten minutes was unlikely.  And between the busy-ness and the renovations I’ve been doing, my home didn’t look much better.  So I hired a concierge service  and a home and office organization specialist. The difference in my physical and mental space is enormous.

  2. How does your leadership support business development activity?  If you’re a law firm leader (whether that’s managing partner, group leader, or someone who informally leads a team), what you say and do about business development can have far greater impact than you might realize.

    What do you do and say about business development?  Do your actions reflect what you’d like those you lead to do?  I once worked with a lawyer who encouraged every person he led to take on a variety of business development activities, but he didn’t like to network, was too busy to meet people one-on-one on a regular basis, didn’t consider himself to be a great writer or speaker, and – in short – didn’t do anything he encouraged his team to do.  Guess how their business development worked out?

  3. How does the way you spend money support business development activity?  You can certainly build a solid book of business without spending a lot of money, but if you think you can do so without spending any money, you’re kidding yourself.  It’s important to make smart investments in growing your practice, whether that means joining appropriate groups, getting subscriptions to key publications, getting business development training, or retaining a coach or consultant to help you see how to address your obstacles and to build opportunities.  If you’re unwilling to invest in growing your practice, you’ll stunt any opportunity that comes your way rather than being able to take advantage of it.

Check yourself on these examples of environment and see what you notice about the environment you’ve created.  What do you notice?  And, even more importantly, who serves as your “older fish” to point out the environment that you can’t see?

The clock never runs out on legal business development

Sports is a great teaching forum for lessons about business development. For a few examples, check these articles about sports lessons on my blog.

In a Super Bowl XLVIII, the Denver Broncos’ fate was sealed by the beginning of the fourth quarter. There’s always some possibility that a team can make a comeback, but 28 points down with 15 minutes to play takes that possibility almost to zero.

A friend observed that in the 4th quarter, the Seattle Seahawks were playing just for fun, sure of a win. But here’s the thing: they continued to play hard until the last possession. Not because they “needed” to—even a few mistakes and turnovers probably would not have changed the outcome of the game—but because those who excel in any field continue competing against themselves even when they’ve achieved the initial goal. Not “whew, we’ve won, let’s relax now,” but “yes! We won! Now let’s see how far we can take this win!”

And by the same token, even when every player and every fan had given up hope of a Broncos victory, the Broncos continued to play as best they possibly could.  Although they didn’t play anywhere approaching the level that got them into the Super Bowl, they didn’t give up just because it was clear they were going to lose. Instead, they kept fighting to minimize the loss.

What does this have to do with legal business development? It’s all about attitude. Attitude, mindset, mental approach, belief system—all of these concepts describe not just what you do, but how you do it.

Where do you stop yourself when you’re succeeding? This shows up most frequently in the feast/famine cycle: stopping your business development work simply because you’re too busy and don’t need the work… Right up until the moment that you realize you don’t have enough work, and you have to start all over again. If things are going well, how can you ensure that you’re pushing the envelope to make things go even better?

Even more importantly, where do you stop yourself when you’re not succeeding? It doesn’t take a failure to knock some people off their game. Sometimes it’s just being slow to get results. We all want to see speedy success, but especially when it comes to bringing in new business, it doesn’t always work that way. That’s why it’s so important to check your metrics. Are you making progress toward your objectives? (And that’s why it’s important to set goals, so that you can measure progress and not just movement.)

Of course, sometimes failure is final. A critical skill is knowing when to keep pounding away and when to change course. (For more on this, see Seth Godin’s short and smart book The Dip. You’ll find my review here.)

How you choose to push yourself or back off is telling when it comes to whether you’re likely to succeed in building a consistent pipeline of new business. Next time you meet a business development goal you’ve set, ask whether there’s something more you can and should do to exceed that goal. Push yourself just a bit further. And if you catch yourself thinking that you failed or that your plan is never going to work, take a breath, question your assumptions (which often requires some outside help), and see what you can do to transform your failure into success.

Because here’s the truth: the clock never runs out on business development as it does on a football game. You don’t have to accept poor results as the end of the story. Instead, you can reevaluate your plan, reshape your strategy, rethink your objectives, and get some help. Keep fighting smart, and your failure will not be final.

Would you prefer slow-yield or high-yield activity?

When you write and speak in your area of practice, you create objective evidence that you know the subject on which you were writing or speaking, and you demonstrate that others want to learn from you. Is that valuable?  Absolutely.

When a potential client or referral source compares two biographical sketches, one with a long list of publications and presentations and one with a short or nonexistent list, guess who looks better?  The long list builds credibility immediately, even if the person reviewing the list lacks the knowledge to make any kind of substantive determination about the lawyer’s competence.

Objective evidence of competence, built through publication and presentation lists, is valuable. Done well, that work can deliver dividends for years, both as reputation enhancement and as good content for following up with new contacts.

But… 

If you’re looking to bring in new business as quickly as possible, writing and speaking are unlikely to deliver the return you’re seeking. 

Preparing a publication or presentation usually takes a lot of time. When you know how, you can limit the time required to some extent (you may even be able to have a junior colleague do some of the heavy lifting for you) and you can shape your work product to be both informative and marketing-friendly. But before you put your name on a publication, or before you stand up to speak to an audience, you’ll put in a lot of time to make sure you have everything straight. It isn’t light duty.

Most lawyers find that speaking generates contacts but usually not an immediate influx of business and that writing rarely even generates contacts. That’s because there’s a distance (physical or conceptual) between you and your audience, even if you’re writing and speaking to the ideal audience. There’s a barrier that a potential client would have to scale to consult with you about a specific matter. And most people simply won’t scale that barrier in the ordinary circumstance.

So, in summary, writing and speaking can help you to build a great reputation, and you can harness the benefit of your work in a variety of ways over time… But you probably won’t see a quick uptick in your business. Does that mean you should not write or speak?  Absolutely not. Every lawyer can benefit from writing and speaking, if that work is done well and with an eye toward its use in marketing.

But too many lawyers get stuck in the trap of wanting to build such a good reputation that clients will seek them out. It’s a nice fantasy, and at one time it might have been closer to reality—but not now. Just as a wise farmer plants crops that will mature at different times, you should plan marketing activities that will deliver results at different stages. And you must recognize that, in most instances, writing and speaking are long-term strategies.

So, what’s a short-term strategy?

If you need business today, close your email right now and go meet with your clients, former clients, and those who have referred you business in the past. When you finish those conversations, meet with people you know well who need your service but haven’t yet given you business. Talk about what’s going on for them, share what you’ve been working on, and explore where need meets ability. Listen more than you speak. Hour-for-hour, those conversations will deliver a bigger and faster payoff almost every single time.

Writing or speaking vs. building relationships?  You must do both. Choose which activities to do when based on what your goals are. Just don’t convince yourself that you can sequester yourself in your office and write a great article that will deliver a steady stream of clients to your door right away.

Where do you stop yourself from getting results?

A few days ago, a colleague and I were swapping stories about our business missteps: the things that just didn’t work, and the things that were colossal, flaming failures. To listen to us, you might think that neither of us had a viable business, much less a successful one—but fortunately, that isn’t at all the case.

Although the failure stories are fun to tell (with sufficient hindsight and success in the time since), the real story is in how we respond to the failures and, more importantly, how we turn failures into success. Stella and I shared experiences in which we’d had to undertake massive action to change course and shift our results. Sometimes graceful, usually not, we’d refused to quit until we had succeeded.

Toward the end of our conversation, Stella said, “That’s the difference between success and failure: knowing when to quit, and when to dig in and do what it takes to succeed.”

Are you stopping yourself when instead you should shift strategy and keep going? Here are some indicators:

  • Have you put in enough effort? I attended a Christian high school, and every classroom included a poster that read, “Bless me, Lord, according to my preparation.” Religion aside, if your preparation has been half-hearted, you can’t expect good results. Be honest: have you put in the necessary time and energy to get the results you want?
  • Are you picking apart opportunities unfairly? Lawyers are highly skilled at finding problems, and that skill sometimes undermines business development. For example, are you waiting until you find the perfect opportunity to get active in a relevant industry organization? Are you searching for the perfect speaking opportunity? If no action seems to have a sufficient likelihood of success, you may stop yourself from taking any action at all—and that’s a certain route to failure.
  • Are you unconsciously looking for proof that you can’t land business? If you believe that business development is a talent that you may lack, you may unintentionally expect and then highlight any evidence to support that proposition. Do you expect to succeed?
  • Do you feel disheartened? It’s ok to feel discouraged for a time, but recognize that feeling as an impotent emotion. When you’re disheartened, you’ve given up and your activity will grind to a halt.A client once consulted me on an upcoming pitch and described some of the challenges that might prevent him from getting the matter. Rick’s tone was downcast, though he put a good face on it by asking how he could address the problems in the future, so he might succeed next time. He had already given up on the pitch, which ensured that he would not be successful.

    I pointed out that he had declared failure prematurely and challenged him to buckle down and shoot for success or to bow out of the pitch contest altogether. Rick chose to strategize how to meet the challenges that had consumed him. He was irritated (first with me, then with the challenges themselves) and he used that energy to create and deliver a powerful pitch, and a few days later he received the good news that he’d been retained.

    When things aren’t working out, take a bit of time to be disappointed, but then get your energy flowing. Do whatever you do to pump yourself up (work out, listen to powerful music, review a list of your successful engagements) and then get active.

  • Do you have a partner who can push you forward? I pushed Rick forward, and many times my mentors have urged me to continue when I really wanted to give up. Be sure that you have a mentor who can offer objective insight into whether you should keep going and who will give you a swift kick if you stop yourself. You may find this a difficult determination at times, and outside help and support makes all the difference.

A successful business development plan will require you to give up unsuccessful activities, but before you stop, be sure that you’re stopping for the right reasons. Don’t allow discomfort or discouragement to stop you short.

Do this & never compete on price again.

Warning: Being a fungible billing unit is bad for growing your law practice!

I’ve written previously on finding your Unique Service Proposition, which distinguishes you from other lawyers (and non-lawyers) serving your ideal clients’ legal needs.  In that article, I noted that if you are one of a pool of fungible practitioners, you’ll be forced to rely on other ways of distinguishing your practice—including, perhaps, competing on price.

In today’s cost-conscious environment, many lawyers feel that they must compete on price. (Note that this issue applies to all lawyers, regardless of the size of firm of sophistication of practice.) No savvy client will pay an undeserved premium, and clients seem to hold the advantage in hiring lawyers these days. But competing on price is not the only option.

Other lawyers struggle to find a reason why a potential client should choose them over someone else. Personal connections make a difference, and many lawyers feel most skilled in landing business after a face-to-face consultation. But getting to that point may seem daunting.

When it comes to marketing, if you feel like you’re just one of a large number of fungible billing units, you’ll have trouble standing out from your competitors in a way that will be appealing to potential clients.

The common thread? The belief, All of the lawyers in my practice area are the same.

At first blush, this may be true. You most likely have the same education and similar experience (though the depth of that experience may differ), and most lawyers would say that they are strategic, good listeners, responsive, and smart. Fair enough.

Your task is to dig deeper and find what sets you apart from others in your practice so that your potential clients and referral sources know what makes you the best lawyer for their specific needs. Without a clear point of differentiation, you are simply one of many fungible lawyers, which makes your business development job more difficult.

When searching for what makes you different, consider these examples:

  • Does (or should) your practice focus on some subset of clients or issues? For example, you might be an employment attorney who focuses on the food service industry.
  • Do you have previous experience or education that is particularly relevant to your practice? For example, if you do white collar defense and you previously prosecuted such cases with the Department of Justice, that insight will distinguish you from other defense attorneys.
  • Do you approach your cases in an unusual way? For example, you might offer a collaborative approach. In some practice areas, flat fee billing or a retainer engagement would be a distinctive form of practice.
  • What skills or resources do you have that benefit your clients? Consider fluency in a foreign language, a wide network of advisors and service providers you can refer to your clients, or a familiarity with a foreign legal system that’s relevant to your practice.

When you determine what sets you apart from others who practice in the area of law that you do, you lay the groundwork for business development activity that is both distinctive and appealing. But remember: the touchstone of these points of distinction must be usefulness to your clients. You should not market based on your skill in rock-climbing, because it will not benefit clients—unless you have a niche practice in representing individuals who suffered injury on rock climbs and now seek to sue an expedition leader.

Questions for you to consider today: What sets you apart in a way that your clients value? How can you capitalize on that attribute or experience in your marketing?

Do you think of sales as a “four letter word”?

One of the primary objections lawyers have to business development is that business development equals sales, and “sales” is a four-letter word. (Sometimes the stereotype of math-challenged lawyers does stick!) The word may conjure the stereotypical used car salesman, ready to unload a lemon just to make a quick buck. And, of course, no one wants to be a part of that kind of sale—to sell or to buy.

A sale, however, only refers to the exchange of money for a good or service. There’s nothing unprofessional or sleazy about that. The distaste we feel for sales comes from how the sale is made, not from the fact of the sale itself.

If ethically questionable business development tactics are repellant to you, you will likely take great care to avoid engaging in them. To be certain, start by reading your jurisdiction’s ethics rules, and make a note to reread them at least annually since rules and commentary may change. In most cases, you will find the rules broad enough to encompass any type of activity you might choose to do. If you have any question, you’ll need to find answers before you proceed, since this is not the place to hope or assume something is acceptable. Most of the time, within a few well-understood rules, you won’t even wonder.

The bigger concern, then, is not about ethics but rather about appearance. Does your business development activity look (or feel) pushy? Desperate? Obnoxious? Would someone view the fact or the substance of your business development activity or materials as an indication that your practice is not doing well? Is there anything unprofessional about business development or marketing? These are the real questions.

Business development done well is never pushy, desperate, obnoxious, unprofessional, or anything remotely similar.

Consider this: when you approach your business development activity from the perspective of service, you will almost certainly come across in a positive way. Service calls on you to explore the potential client’s situation and objectives, to share your skill and experience in the area, perhaps to make some initial suggestions on approach, and to determine whether a good match exists between the potential client’s needs and what you have to offer.

Business development, at its most successful, is an exploratory conversation. Both sides bring information to the table, and both seek information and a sense of comfort from the other. If there’s a match, business results. If not, you have formed a connection that may lead to a referral, or work in the future.

If you approach business development from need (as in, I’ve gotta have this business to make payroll or to make partner), the lines become blurred. An unspoken self-interest may cloud your ability to explore the potential client’s needs or to give a fair evaluation of the matter’s merits or your ability to meet the need. The same self-interest may blind you to warning signs about the client: hints of an inappropriately demanding or unrealistic outlook, signs of inability or unwillingness to pay your fee, or a fundamental philosophical mismatch.

The risk of appearing pushy, obnoxious, or desperate comes into play when self-interest controls the conversation. It’s up to you whether your business development and marketing activity will seem unprofessional.

When you come first from an attitude of service (even when you also really want the fee or the client relationship), you’ll put the relationship before the retention. In doing so, you will avoid the risk of feeling like you are being aggressive (as opposed to assertive), too eager (as opposed to deliberate), or rash.

What’s your primary motivation today: service or self-interest?