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?