Legal business development: You’ve got to stand out.

All lawyers in any given practice area are a dime a dozen, right? Think about your own area. Who stands out in your mind? It’s likely (assuming you’ve been in practice for a while) that you can identify at least a few lawyers who catch attention. Maybe it’s the divorce lawyer who’s known for high-profile divorces. Perhaps it’s the patent lawyer who’s created a curriculum to educate her clients on what to expect in the patenting process and what to be doing to maximize the chances of business success. Or it could be the litigator who’s known for baiting witnesses so effectively that fireworks always erupt.

Every lawyer has some skill, experience, attribute, or approach that distinguishes him or her from others. Those distinguishing factors demonstrate to your potential clients what makes you different and why they should hire you. Equally importantly, they also pave the way for you to market yourself in fresh ways.

The points of distinction that you highlight must be those that matter to your clients. If a client wouldn’t see the value in something that sets you apart from others, you’ve merely identified a distinction, not a real difference. You might have to connect the dots in some instances (for example, some clients might not immediately appreciate the benefit of a lawyer who draws on her background in tax law to support her clients’ licensing needs) but when explained the client must understand why that aspect offers an advantage.

When it comes to marketing, identifying a point of distinction will allow you to a marketing message that answers potential clients’ questions or concerns (some of which they may not even be aware of yet) by highlighting your relevant experience or skill. You are able to speak to something valuable that other lawyers can’t, and you immediately rise above the crowd.

To identify what sets you apart, ask yourself:

  1. What past experience (professional or personal) bears on your practice?
  2. What skill, knowledge, or experience do you bring to your practice that will be helpful for clients?
  3. What kind of practice-related opportunities can you forecast, and how can you position yourself to meet them?

If you’re practicing in a large firm, consider too the advantages that flow from having numerous colleagues in widely divergent practice areas. You may have a leading authority on speed dial, or you might be able to find a resource to meet a client’s need no matter the issue he’s facing. This is especially beneficial for newer lawyers who may not yet have the experience or reputation to stand on their own for marketing but who can market their firm quite effectively.

You might also consider how can you serve your clients in new or innovative ways. In addition to your primary services, for instance, perhaps you could offer ancillary services or products to offer a fuller solution to your clients’ needs. Are there free or reduced-fee services that you might offer as a way of introducing yourself and your skills to a class of potential clients or referral sources?

You might stand apart from others by offering a quarterly free Q&A meeting (ideally in person) during which you present must-know points and respond to potential clients’ questions about topics related to your practice area. For example, if you practice elder law, you might host a monthly gathering to help adult children learn what legal issues they should plan for as they assist their aging parents.  You could offer a fee-based group in which you cover key issues in more depth, and you might have certain forms or templates for sale that the adult children could use to implement your suggestions. Although some clients will get what they need from those free and low-cost offerings, others will want or need your help and will hire you.

If your practice spans geographic areas in such a way that you don’t often have an opportunity to meet face-to-face with your clients, look to technology to bridge the distance. Videoconferencing is one common approach that isn’t used as often as it probably should be. You could craft a marketing message around the personal service you offer and the importance of tailoring legal solutions to each individual (or business); weaving in your enhanced communication opportunities will set you apart from others who merely use the words but don’t actually deliver the value.

How might you create a different approach to client service? Consider these questions:

  1. How can I meet both legal and non-legal needs that my clients frequently present?
  2. How can I build innovative services that will benefit my clients?
  3. What might I do to answer potential client questions, introduce my clients to beneficial resources, or otherwise extend my services in unexpected ways?

Identifying your points of differentiation and using them to craft a marketing message requires analysis, insight, and sometimes even an intuitive leap. Hold a brainstorming session with the proviso that no answer is too wacky to be considered.  Sometimes impractical or unpalatable ideas provide the leap to a truly unique marketing message and practice. And don’t hesitate to seek help with this: sometimes outsider vision reveals what an insider will never see.

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 hosted a reunion for six of my closest friends from college last weekend.  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.  (And here’s proof: a special “welcome” to the lawyers who have recently subscribed to this newsletter at the suggestion of one of my college friends – you know who you are!)  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.

Working Your Practice

I recently attended a business seminar focused on hiring and managing employees. I was surprised that the program started by asking us attendees to identify our business vision and what we stand for. I was even more surprised to find how difficult that was to do!

You may have heard the distinction between working in your business as opposed to working on your business, popularized by Michael Gerber’s The E-Myth. The former is what you do to earn money, and the latter is what you do to design and build your business.

Marketing lives and thrives, however, when you’re working on your business. That’s when you come up with a new way to talk about what you do and identify an under-served client sector that needs your services. That’s when you come up with a great idea for an article, you write that article, and you consider who might help you land a speaking opportunity to develop further and share what you wrote in the article.

So, here’s today’s question: how much time are you spending on your practice? And is the time you’re spending effective?

Effectiveness is driven by not just the degree to which you’re able to raise your professional profile and the business you bring in, but also by the number of smart ideas you have and implement. As Seth Godin writes, “Pretty good ideas are easy. The guts and persistence and talent to create, ship and stick it out are what’s hard.”

Take some time today to work on your business. If you don’t know where to start, start with asking what is your vision for your practice. Consider your practice area, your sub-niche within that area, the clients with whom you work, how you serve those clients, and your practice setting, for starters.

Burning the candle at both ends?

I burn my candle at both ends
It will not last the night.
But ah my foes and oh my friends
It gives a lovely light.

Edna St. Vincent Millay

What do you think when you read this?  If you’re like many lawyers, you felt a flutter of recognition — perhaps just before you recoiled at the idea that, perhaps, your candle won’t “last the night.”  It’s just the weak who can’t burn and burn and burn, right?

Sustainability isn’t an exciting word, and most of us don’t see it as something to aim for.  After all, we tend to want bigger and better and more, not homeostasis.  What does it mean, though, to have a “sustainable practice”?

According to Merriam-Webster, “to sustain” means (among other things) “to supply with sustenance: nourish” and “to keep up, prolong.”   And sustainable means, of course, “capable of being sustained” or “of or relating to a lifestyle involving the use of sustainable methods.”

How do you nourish your practice?  How does your lifestyle support you in keeping up and prolonging your ability to work effectively?  My clients have experimented with many different approaches, and the list that follows recounts some of the most successful.

  1. Discover what’s meaningful to you and focus your attention and practice on that. If it’s client service, you will draw a strength and energy from serving your clients that someone who’s in practice because of the intellectual stimulation won’t experience.  Connecting to what matters to you illuminates your purpose.  Having a purpose nourishes your practice.
  2. Delegate.  If you can identify aspects of practice that you personally don’t have to fulfill, you’ll increase your energy by passing it along to someone who can handle it.  If you find yourself thinking that you’ll spend less time doing it (whatever it is) than teaching someone else to do it, consider whether you’ll save time over the long run if you turn it over, even if it requires an investment of time now.
  3. Connect.  If you enjoy socializing, make sure you have a group of lawyers you join for lunch or drinks or a volleyball game on a regular basis.  You’ll increase social contact, have a group of colleagues to use as sounding boards, build a resource for giving and getting referrals, and more.  You can even do this online, but consider whether you’d get more out of interacting with flesh and blood colleagues.
  4. Notice how your body feels when you have adequate sleep, nutrition, and exercise.  Just notice.  If noticing convinces you that you feel better and have more energy, do something with that knowledge – noticing alone won’t change anything.
  5. Develop discipline.  You can put a schedule in place that will support you.  Plan time when you put your calls on hold and get concentrated work done.  Set time aside for meeting with your support staff, the lawyers you supervise, and those who supervise you.
  6. Take time for outside interests.  Hike, read, act, whatever… But don’t allow yourself to be one-dimensional.
  7. Do you live on adrenaline and caffeine?  If so, chances are that you’re running from crisis to crisis.  Ask yourself whether there’s a way to limit the crunches to times when there’s really a crisis.  What feels good about putting out fires?  Spending some time resolving this will provide support for making changes that leave you working on a non-emergency basis, which facilitates having more energy.  Adrenaline and caffeine are great, but they’re hardly the key to a sustainable practice or life.

Set aside time to check your progress on these and other habits that support you and your practice.  Because it’s easy to get sucked into a hectic schedule (with your candle burning not only at both ends but in the middle, too), arrange a relationship that will hold you accountable to whatever adjustments you may decide to make.  Consider whether coaching might be the appropriate relationship.

Billable time or biz dev… Or both?

Last week, I delivered a business development workshop for an Atlanta law firm, and gave my recommendations about how much time lawyers should spend on business development.  Although the exact number depends on several factors, in general I recommend 1-5 hours a week, with more time suggested for more senior lawyers.  Some participants bristled at the idea of spending that much time on business development.

But here’s the easy-to-miss, critical distinction: done properly, time spent with clients is business development time.

That’s because, “All things being equal, people will do business with – and refer business to – those people they know, like and trust.” This quote, from Bob Burg’s excellent book Endless Referrals, sums up why it is that relationships serve as the basis for rainmaking. It also clarifies why your current clients should be your top priority for business development, followed by former clients and referral sources, then “warm” contacts, and only finally strangers.

Focus first on those who already know, like, and trust you, and then seek to expand those sources of business. That order of approach dictates, in turn, the priorities that you should set as you work to develop your book of business.

Your current clients are your “low hanging fruit.” Your top priority should be providing excellent client service to your clients. Consider these aspects of client service:

  • Communicate with your clients and observe their preferences for amount and kind of communication that they want.
  • Be responsive. Manage your clients’ expectations and ensure that your clients always know how to contact you or someone in your office.
  • Share bad news appropriately. Deliver the news as soon as possible. Explain the news, what it means, and advise the client about next steps.
  • Be reliable with cost estimates and billing.
  • When you bill, do so in a comprehensible way that’s explained sufficiently to forestall questions about what was done or why.
  • Facilitate your work with your clients. Anything you can do to make it easier for your clients to do business with you is likely to be well received by them.
  • Spend time with your clients. Consider spending time with clients in a social setting or (where appropriate) by visiting their place of business to develop a more full understanding of their business.
  • Deliver extra value to your clients. By providing some assistance, promotion, or service to your client that is over and above the legal services you’ve agreed to provide, you demonstrate the importance you place on your client relationships generally and on that client specifically.
  • Conduct client satisfaction interviews or surveys. Unless you ask, your clients are unlikely to volunteer their level of satisfaction unless they’re dissatisfied to the point of considering terminating the relationship or effusive in praise.

When you apply these priorities to your business development efforts, you’ll begin to view your billable work as a rainmaking activity as well as the heart of your practice. You’ll also begin to see relationships as the “must do” meat of your business development plan, and you’ll understand why you shouldn’t expect to move a new contact quickly from stranger to client. As a result, you’ll be able to stage the rainmaking work you do so that you put time in where it’s most effective. And over time, you’ll find that your business development work yields much better results.

Proper planning can help relieve pressure.

“Pressure is what you feel when you don’t know what you are doing.” Peyton Manning

This quote stopped me in my tracks. My first inclination was to disagree, because I sometimes feel pressure because of a deadline or because of the importance of some activity, even though I know what I’m doing.  Digging a bit deeper, though, I think Manning has a point.

When it comes to business development, the lawyers most under pressure are those who don’t have a cohesive plan, who aren’t implementing their plan consistently, or who haven’t fully committed to one or more activities that are likely to help them secure work.  Although they know what they’re doing on certain levels, there’s a disconnect between intellectual knowing and buckling down to do the work. If you know that you should request an on-site meeting with a client, for example, and you expect that you might well land more business or receive a referral or even deepen a valuable relationship, but you don’t ask for the meeting, you’re going to feel pressure.

In contrast, if you have a plan that you’re implementing consistently, though you may feel tension until you see results from your plan, that tension is different in nature. When you know what you’re doing, both in terms of the specific activities and the timing, you also know that you can shift your plan as needed to tweak your results.

You know that you have something that’s fundamentally workable. You’ve done your homework and you’ve prepared yourself and your plan.

Do you feel pressure about business development? If you do, take a few minutes today to get to the source of that pressure. You’ll probably find that it’s one of these issues:

  • You don’t know what you’re doing (you don’t have a plan or you don’t know how to implement some aspect of your plan)
  • You don’t know how to make time to implement your plan consistently (so you never have an opportunity to reach momentum)
  • You don’t know how to perform one or more activities incorporated in your plan (and so you haven’t even started)
  • You’re terribly uncomfortable about some aspect of your plan (you aren’t confident that you can engage in business development activity without harming relationships… or your ego)
  • You need to bring in new business now and you don’t yet know that your plan will work (you haven’t implemented your plan and you’re focusing on the need for business rather than on your ability to meet that need

Which of these issues underlies the pressure you’re feeling?  Once you’ve identified the problem, you’re that much closer to solving it. If you aren’t sure where to start, please schedule a complimentary consultation so we can get acquainted and mutually decide whether I can help.

How to avoid amassing untouched stacks of business cards that you should use for follow-up.

Here’s how it happens…

You get back to your office, having met some interesting new contacts, armed with their business cards and good intentions of following up. You take those cards, maybe flip through them to remind yourself of who’s most interesting, and then you put them somewhere safe, so you won’t forget. My “safe spot” was always on a bookcase just behind my desk. Yours might be your credenza or your desk drawer.

You think about following up with your new contacts. You want to find just the right opener. Something personal, to help recall your conversation, or better yet something you can share that brings value and is connected to your conversation.

And then you get distracted by a deadline or a phone call or someone dropping by your office with a quick question. Your thoughts shift to the task in front of you, and you remind yourself that you need to get back to that stack of cards.

The cycle repeats itself over the next few hours or days or even weeks. Having delayed this long to get in touch with your new contacts, you feel a pressure to have a strong follow-up. “Nice to meet you” just doesn’t cut it after two weeks, does it? But the memory of the conversations is getting dimmer, and you’re finding it harder and harder to come up with a good enough follow-up. Plus those distractions just keep coming.

And then, weeks or months later, you look at the stack of cards, sigh, and throw them away, resolving to do better next time. And you rationalize it. The contact wasn’t that interesting. The opportunity wasn’t that promising. Besides, they didn’t contact you either. Networking is a two-way street, and if they didn’t do their part, it’s ok that you never quite got around to the follow-up.

Sound familiar? Here are three steps you can use to shift this experience, follow up consistently, and get better results from your networking.

  1. Make a few notes immediately after networking so you can remember your new contacts. As soon as you leave the meeting, jot a few key words on the back of your new contact’s business card. If you’re a talker, dictate your notes using a service that will email a transcript to you right away. (You can find multiple apps, or use a service like LegalTypist.) Import the notes into a contact management system so you can use them for initial follow-up and to lay the groundwork for future contact.
  2. Have a deadline for your follow-up, with a personal “no extension” policy. Resolve that you will follow up within one to two days at the absolute outside, no matter what. (Nancy Fox suggests using the 30 minutes after a meeting for follow-up.) Set your deadline in advance and make it a part of your follow-up system.
  3. Extra credit: plan “connection time” at least twice a week. Use it for follow-up when you’ve met new contacts, or to connect with someone on your “A list” of contacts if not.
  4. Use a template to make your initial contacts easier. Use a template that you adapt to the circumstances, so your follow-up is always personal but never created from scratch. Having a starting point makes it much more likely you’ll get the initial follow-up done, whether your system calls for follow-up by telephone, email, or handwritten note. 

Once you’ve made your initial follow-up contact, calendar your next contact. You may not get a response to your initial follow-up, so be sure you know when you’ll be back in touch and how you’ll make that contact.

Networking without follow-up is a waste of time. Consistency builds relationships, and successful business development requires relationships, not just contacts. Implement your follow-up system today—especially if you have business cards collecting dust!

How to Decide Whether to Write an Article, Deliver a Presentation, or Attend a Conference

“Should I write an article for this publication? Should I accept this invitation to speak? Should I attend this conference?” Since neither time nor money is unlimited, you’ll have to make some difficult decisions about which business development activities to pursue and which to let pass.

Especially if you’re eager to get new business, it’s easy to accept any opportunity that crosses your path. Accepting scattershot opportunities will leave you with scattershot results, sap your energy and resources, and ultimately leave you exhausted.

When you’re evaluating an opportunity, ask yourself the following questions:

  1. Will this activity reach the right audience?  Whether it’s writing for, speaking to, or networking with the wrong audience will not bring enough benefit to justify the investment of time, so ask this foundational question before you begin. Your business development plan will define the right audience. Who are your ideal clients and referral sources? That’s your audience.
  2. How much time will this require?  Be realistic in your estimate – before you begin.

  3. What results would make the expenditure of time worthwhile? As with any business development activity, you must measure the results that you get. What’s more, you must know, before you begin, what results would make it worthwhile for you to have undertaken this activity.
  4. What’s the opportunity cost of this activity?In other words, if you take on this activity, what must you give up? Look at the cost in both time and money. Consider, before you begin, whether you would be better advised to invest elsewhere.
  5. What non-business development benefits will you get from the activity? Depending on your stage in practice and your personal finances (or revenue from your practice), other benefits may outweigh a lack of clear business development payoff.

Depending on your strategy and plans, any activity can be a simple way to increase your professional reach or a time-consuming and ineffective approach.  Going through these questions will help you to make foundational decisions that will get you on the right track—before you undertake any new activity.

Will you clients and contacts think of you first when they need help?

Jon, a mid career lawyer working in a boutique law firm, handles white-collar criminal defense matters. Most of his clients come through referrals from other lawyers. Far too often, those lawyers fail to appreciate that they need someone who practices in the area every day. Instead, they try to handle a matter themselves. After doing the best they can and finding that their best is insufficient, they discover that they need someone who knows the government prosecutors and who can read the subtle signals in government requests.  That’s where Jon comes into the picture.

Jon can only get referrals early in the process—early enough to be of maximum assistance to the client—if the lawyers who send those referrals, think of him as soon as a white collar issue arises. A prevalent myth holds that simply being a great lawyer who gets great results is enough to bring in business. Unfortunately, if you are not top-of-mind for your clients and contacts, they won’t think to call you even if they do need you. What’s more, especially if you deal with clients who are not legally sophisticated, they may need you and not even know it. 

In an ideal world, your contacts will always think to call you when there’s a matter with which you might be able to help. In the real world, your contacts are likely to be so preoccupied with their own concerns that they won’t think of you unless you have taken steps to ensure that they know your skills and that you regularly engage with them.

What’s the solution? Deliver interesting and useful information to your clients (including former clients) and contacts on a regular basis, and use that delivery of information to build and maintain relationships with them.  When you engage in a useful way with your contacts, you raise your profile with those contacts. You may become the go-to person in a particular area of practice by virtue of the relationships you build over time.

Here’s what you need to do:

  • Create a clear description of your practice, including examples. Test it to be sure that a wide variety of people understand what you do and what kind of work you handle.
  • Share that description (in a natural way) when you talk with others, and share the stories that will root that description in their memory. We’d all like to believe that a single explanation of the work we do is sufficient, but chances are that it isn’t.
  • Look for opportunities to deliver useful information. That delivery can come in the form of widely distributed newsletters or client alerts, or you can send interesting articles or thought snippets one-by-one. Just be sure the information you share is relevant and adds value for the recipient.
  • Whenever you get in touch with someone in your network, create opportunities to build the relationship just a little more. Relationship-building doesn’t have to mean a 3-hour lunch. It can be as simple as, “Did you catch the game last night? Do you follow [seasonal sport]? Who’s your team?” When you keep in touch, you’ll have plenty of chances to have a short exchange that will grow your relationship.

Everyone is operating inside his or her own bubble, and it’s your job to reach into the bubble (in a welcomed, non-intrusive way) as a reminder that you’re a likeable person who’s ready to help. Done properly, that message will be exemplified in everything you do, and you’ll feel much less pressure to make a plea for business.

How do I choose the right differentiators?

A reader recently sent in a question following this article about finding ways to stand out from other practitioners in your field. After outlining several potential points of differentiation, this general litigator asked, “I just can’t figure out how to make myself stand out in a town with thousands of attorneys.  I write, I speak, I’m involved – but I am not really generating any traction. How do I choose the right way to differentiate myself from everybody else?” 

My Answer: 

Distinctions come to be in one of three ways:

  1. By virtue of the practice area, such as Hatch-Waxman Act work or doing special needs trusts.
  2. Due to some particular experience or skill developed in the past, such as a patent licensing lawyer who has a background in tax issues and can therefore address at least some tax issues without having to resort to a tax lawyer.
  3. As the result of experience gained over time in one or two specific subcategories of a practice — which is what you describe with the concentrations you mentioned and (to a lesser degree) the classes you’ve taught as an adjunct professor.

When it comes to building your own practice (as distinct from looking to introduce potential clients to other firm lawyers in other areas of practice, for example), #3 is probably the most common way to set up a point of distinction.

When you’re deciding what to pursue to set yourself apart, think about whether the areas of practice you might pursue are ones you enjoy and could envision as the scope of your practice, the likelihood that those areas will hold steady and preferably expand over time, and the accessibility of a viable category of potential clients who would need help in those areas. If one of the substantive areas you’re considering tends to be cyclical, consider whether there’s a related practice area that is counter-cyclical. There’s nothing wrong with a cyclical practice area as long as the same factors that would drive business down in one area would drive it up in another.

Given that you’re in general litigation, I think you’ll end up with two avenues of distinction: one is substantive, as you’ve outlined above, and the second may be in terms of how you serve your clients. Think about what you can do to make it easy for your clients to do business with you, how you can provide a “value add” for them, and so on. Those take time to figure out, but keep it in the back of your mind and notice what you see that works well (or not) and what clients seem to value.

Most importantly, recognize that even though a distinction may sometimes occur organically, it more often is something that you will select and them bring to fruition. That means that you can choose your area(s) of focus and work to increase your experience and build your reputation in those areas, but it also means that you need to make your decision now and get moving.