Long Run Business Development Efforts That Will Pay Off Over Time.

Over the years, I’ve noticed that some lawyers are making mistakes that will undermine their business development efforts. These are short-sighted decisions that may seem smart in the short run but will cause great damage over time.

Marketing Don’t #1: “It’s all about me” newsletters. A lawyer I don’t know subscribed me to his mailing list, using two of my email addresses. That’s a mistake (and probably illegal) in itself. Absent a business relationship, all newsletter subscribers should be subscribers by their request. Getting this right is critical. No one should ever be surprised that they’re receiving your newsletter.

But that isn’t the only mistake. The newsletter is short and well-written, but it only recounts what honors and accolades this lawyer has received since he last wrote. Since I don’t know this person, I have no interest in what he’s done. Even if he were an acquaintance, an entire email about “me, me, me” is unlikely to hold my interest. I’ve received this newsletter two or three times over the last year (I didn’t unsubscribe because I wanted to see whether and how the newsletter would change over time—but it hasn’t) and I have yet to read a substantive article or even comments that are directed to the reader.

The take-home message for you who send newslettersMake sure there’s something that’s designed to be helpful for the reader. Yes, share your news, and let your readers know that you’re up to good things, but don’t let that be the sole focus (or even the primary emphasis) of your newsletter. Write for your readers, not at them.

Marketing Don’t #2:  Skipping relationship-building on social media. This error shows up in two ways: adding a connection without engaging or making a connection and immediately making some sort of business pitch. (I’ve also been subscribed to a lawyer’s newsletter simply by virtue of having made the online connection—see mistake #1 above.) Making a connection without engaging in some way means that the connection is unlikely to do much of anything for you, but it probably won’t alienate anyone. But going directly to business certainly could. You wouldn’t walk into a networking meeting, meet someone for the first time, and make a business request while you’re still shaking that person’s hand, so don’t do the equivalent online.

Relationship-building online should follow a similar trajectory as relationship-building in the “real” world. Meet (or make the connection online), explore areas of mutual interest to discover what you have in common, whether you like each other, and whether you’d like to have a business relationship. That process can take minutes or months. But it’s only when that process is concluded (or well underway) that it becomes appropriate to look for referral opportunities.

Even better, of course, is bringing the process to culmination by asking how you might help the person you’re getting to know. One of the best, and most under-utilized, questions you might ask a new contact (virtual or in-person) is, “How would I recognize someone I should send to you?” If you ask this question of someone who is likely to be a good referral source, you will almost certainly have the question returned to you.

The take-home message for you who network online:  Don’t skip the relationship-building phase in online networking.

Marketing Don’t #3: Don’t forget that you must invest in your practice to see it grow. Several lawyers recently have told me this is not the time to be spending money on business development, a perception that started at the beginning of the pandemic. There’s no harm in hitting pause in periods of great uncertainty, but getting stuck there is certainly risky. Some lawyers are still holding the purse strings so tight that their metaphorical hands must be going numb.

I’m certainly not going to suggest spending money willy-nilly, nor would I ever recommend a lawyer extend him- or herself beyond the bounds of sound financial decisions. However, choosing not to spend money can be a short-sighted decision made from fear. Growing a practice does require making smart investments. Just like no wise lawyer would choose to go with a typewriter to save on the costs of using a computer, no wise lawyer would reject a practice-building opportunity simply because of a financial investment.

That doesn’t mean that you need to make the Bentley-level investment every time; sometimes the used Chevy is perfectly adequate and perhaps even a better choice. If you notice yourself thinking that an opportunity is just right except for the cost, ask yourself these questions:

  1. What’s the financial outlay?
  2. What outcome might I see?
  3. What’s the likelihood of that outcome?
  4. What’s the financial investment-to-payoff ratio?
  5. What are the non-financial benefits that would likely accrue?

The take-home for lawyers considering a practice-enriching investmentConsider not just what an opportunity costs but also what results it is likely to offer. Not all opportunities will be right for you, but don’t allow yourself to miss out on something that offers an advantage simply because it comes with a price tag.

Internal Networking Tips (Especially For Lawyers New To a Firm)

Every lawyer must be able to bring in at least enough work to support his or her own practice. Of course, with rare exceptions, no one springs into business development fully formed. It’s a process that takes both time to perform and time for the results to appear. Successful BD requires effort and skill. Every lawyer should be actively engaging in BD activity of some sort, no matter their time in practice.

New (whether brand new to the practice or new to a firm due to a lateral move or a merge) lawyers face a special challenge in building a business development plan, simply because they’re new. Even more challenging than creating a personal BD plan in a new firm is figuring out how you fit into the firm’s overarching business plan. It’s tough to promote a firm or its lawyers without knowing the lawyers to some degree, knowing who covers what area of practice and what experience they have, and even how the firm approaches potential clients (what business does it want and what business isn’t a fit?) and how it handles new engagements.

When you’re new to a practice or new to a firm, networking is the place to start. Networking falls into two basic categories: internal and external. Nearly all lawyers have internal (i.e., in-firm) clients in addition to the external clients we normally refer to as such. A new lawyer needs first to learn about the internal clients among his colleagues: who handles real estate work? Is her practice limited to commercial real estate? Who are some representative clients?

Some of this comes naturally as you get to know other lawyers, but particularly in a large firm, it can take quite a bit of effort. Best ways to begin:

  • Read, carefully, each lawyer’s profile on the firm website, focusing on lawyers whose practice has some nexus with your own. Yes, you probably did this when you interviewed, but now you’re reading so that you can speak knowledgeably about the firm’s scope of practice and so that you know who to call when a potential client needs to talk to someone in another area of practice. Especially if you work in a larger firm, you won’t remember the details, but certain profiles will stand out to you. Make it your habit to read a handful of profiles each week and keep notes.
  • As you identify colleagues whose practices are complementary to yours and/or who stand out to you in some way, reach out to them, introduce yourself, and get to know one another. You’ll begin to build your own internal network as a result.
  • At all-attorney meetings or cocktail parties or over informal lunches, make it your habit to learn more about at least one lawyer’s practice. Ask good questions, keep the lawyer talking, and you’ll be regarded as a sparkling conversationalist — because, after all, we all enjoy talking about ourselves, and lawyers love telling their war stories. Good questions to ask: “Who is your ideal client?” and “How would I know that someone I’m talking with would be a good client for you?” (Caution: be sure that you’re really engaged in the conversation and genuinely curious. Otherwise, this question will sound fake, as if you’re just parroting a question someone told you to ask.)
  • If your firm publishes a newsletter of recent developments, read it. Follow the firm and key colleagues on LinkedIn and engage with their posts. This is a simple way to learn what’s going on in the firm.

These tips will help you to develop your awareness for cross-selling opportunities. So, if your client mentions a problem in another legal area (say you practice IP and your client mentions an employment issue) you can be ready to connect your client to a trusted lawyer in your firm. Cross-selling to satisfied current clients is probably the easiest kind of client development you can do.

And, of course, as you get to know your colleagues, you’re raising your own profile with them. That means that when they have the opportunity to make a referral to someone in your practice area, you’re increasing the chances that you’ll be one of the lawyers they consider. As you offer opportunities to others, whether that’s billable work or a chance to speak on a panel, you’re building value in the relationship. You will likely find, over time, that the value comes back to you—directly and in ways that you would never have anticipated.

Internal networking can feel like a sidestep from business development, but it’s a can’t-miss activity, especially if you’re new to a firm. Take some time to evaluate how plugged in you are to what’s happening within your firm and who’s doing what work, then create an internal networking plan for yourself. You may be surprised at the benefits that come your way.

Failing To See Options

Let’s start today’s newsletter with a little joke.

During a visit to the mental asylum, a visitor asked the Director how she decides whether a patient should be institutionalized.

“Well,” said the Director, “we fill up a bathtub, then we offer a
teaspoon, a teacup and a bucket to the patient and ask him or her to empty the bathtub.”

“Oh, I understand,” said the visitor. “A normal person would use the
bucket because it’s bigger than the spoon or the teacup.

“No.” said the Director, “A normal person would pull the plug. Do you want a bed near the window?”

This joke might offer special insight to lawyers because we so often develop tunnel vision. We may be creative when it comes to client work, ready to dream up new and inventive legal theories or approaches to help our clients achieve their goals. But when it comes to our own lives, we often fall into a rut. See if any of these statements might ring a bell with you: 

  • Of course, I have to be at the office from early til late; that’s how it’s always been. (If that’s your belief, how have the last couple of years shifted it?) 
  • Of course, I want to grow my book of business as big and as fast as possible; the end result is my only measure of success. (If that’s your belief, do you find that you’re bringing in good work or work that you regret taking on?) 
  • Of course, I have to speak (or network like mad, or write an article, or teach CLEs, or…); that’s how [insert a rainmaker you know] did it, and it’s obviously the way to succeed. (If that’s your belief, do you enjoy the BD task you’ve identified enough to do it regularly? Are you skilled enough to do it well?)

The truth is, there’s nothing necessarily wrong with any of those beliefs. The problem comes in when a belief becomes a rut or ignores important considerations. Building a big book of business quickly is appealing—unless it means you’re accepting any work that comes your way without evaluating whether the work or the client is a good fit for you. If you’re trying to build your book by following someone else’s plan and doing the same things they’ve done, you may find that your personality or preferences make their approach a poor fit for you, which will usually guarantee equally poor results.   

There may be costs, perhaps even enormous ones, involved in making a change to your approach to practice or business development.  But the highest cost of all lies in failing to see options.

If we feel stuck, without options, in an uncomfortable practice (or in a firm that isn’t a good fit, or in a BD plan that doesn’t reflect our skills and preferences), chances are good that we’ll fight for a little while but eventually give up the struggle, succumb to the familiar even if it’s uncomfortable. 

If we see options, the struggle may be more intense because we’re struggling with the situation as well as the options we’ve identified, but eventually, we’ll have the ability to make a choice. The choice may demand a huge investment from us, but we avoid the impotent sense of surrender.  

Choice offers power.

Sometimes the answer is both as clear and as obscure as pulling the bathtub plug when presented with the options of a bucket, teacup, or a spoon to use to empty the tub. Alternatives that may be obvious to someone standing outside the situation may be invisible to the person facing it. That’s why it’s often so valuable to talk with a colleague, a friend, a spouse or partner, or a coach or consultant who can see options that you might miss.

What challenges are you facing? What options do you have? Can you identify all of the options (including those hidden in plain view) and the results of each? That’s the moment of decision and the moment of power.

New Lawyer Skill Focus: How To Deliver Bad News

This is one of the most challenging communications issues that new lawyers face — really, that any of us face. Something has gone wrong, there’s an adverse ruling, or someone made a mistake. How do you deliver that news?

Whether you need to inform the client or a more senior lawyer, the process is largely the same. (Why? Because every other lawyer in your firm is your internal client. More on this another day.) For ease of reference, I’ll write about this process as an attorney-client communication.

  1. Let your client know you have something to discuss and ask for the amount of time you expect the conversation to require. In other words, don’t call and let the news dribble out while your client is checking her watch and needing to get to another meeting. Elementary, but critical: “Is this a good time to talk? I’ll need about 10 minutes of your attention.”

  2. Provide any necessary background. For instance, “Stan, you probably remember that we filed a motion to compel a few weeks ago so we can get documents about XYZ Corp.’s finances.” If there’s any confusion about the background, explain.

  3. Spit out the news you need to convey. “Stan, the judge has ruled against us.”

  4. Explain what the news means. This is, of course, the crux of the conversation. Two things may happen after you spill the news, depending on the magnitude of the news: either the client will be silent and wait for you to explain, or she may be angry. (Frankly, the former may be more difficult to handle.) Unless you (or the firm) made a mistake, do not apologize.  Do empathize.

  5. If there’s a solution needed, or if logical next steps exist, explain what they are. Can you move to reconsider? Knowing your judge as you do (and you do, if only by reputation, don’t you?) would you recommend such a motion? How can you accomplish damage control?  This is the most important skill in transmitting bad news, in my opinion, because it’s most often overlooked. Things do go wrong, but when they do, you want to be the person who has options to suggest. Be sure you’ve thought through what you’re proposing because you’ll lose credit for any “solution” you put forward that may create additional problems unless you’ve thought them through and have a credible risk/reward explanation.
Be sure to deliver the news as soon as possible, because bad news does not improve with age — and you’ll likely just get more and more nervous. And finally, tempting though it may be, don’t try to cover up bad news. Unless you can solve it (and almost without exception, even if you can) your client deserves to know what’s happened. This is an integrity issue; it also guards your reputation. Fail to share the news you should, and it will destroy trust.

Most of all, remember to keep breathing. You’ll probably have some really bad news to deliver in your time, and keeping it in perspective is useful. Learning from your mistakes is imperative. Depending on the magnitude, almost everyone will forgive one mistake.

But in law, two strikes likely means you’re out.