On Strategic Planning

When I begin working with a new client, someone who wants to build a book of business (or a bigger book), the first thing we do is to build a strategy. I’ve written extensively in the past on the process of developing a strategy for business development. (See, for example, Chapter 3 of The Reluctant Rainmaker and the blog posts How Do You Choose Biz Dev Strategy and What’s Your Strategy?) And yet, what every client wants, quite understandably, is a plan of action items that they can do to build the practice. In fact, we talk about a business development plan more than strategy, and it’s a BD plan, not strategy, that I urge lawyers to revisit on a regular basis. What gives?
A BD plan is only as good as the strategy that underlies it. Without strategy, a plan is just an uncoordinated task list of actions that you think will bring in more business, but the actions don’t function together or reinforce one another, nor are they pointed to a specific outcome other than more business.

Succeeding in business development requires strategic planning; creating a plan that flows from your strategy comes next.
Strategic planning can be difficult (usually is, if it’s done well), and it’s easy to slip into developing a task list instead of a strategy because that creates the illusion of being more productive.

So how do you know when you’re truly engaging in strategic planning?

I ran across this terrific video from the Harvard Business Review called A Plan Is Not a Strategy. In the video, Roger Martin, former dean of the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, distinguishes strategy from routine planning and highlights the fallacy of what we usually call “strategic planning.”

Martin defines strategy as an “integrative set of choices that positions you on a playing field of your choice in a way that you win.” (Emphasis added.) A strategy is coherent and doable, but it’s also built on a theory about why this is the best playing field for you and why you’re better than anyone else on this playing field. That theory can’t be proven in advance, so it’s a calculated risk that must be tested.
A plan, on the other hand, is composed of discrete, concrete action steps that you can complete. The outcome of those actions must be projected, but it is not guaranteed, and unless the individual steps are tied specifically to a strategy (do this to accomplish this aspect of the strategy), the plan lacks an internal coherence. It’s a task list that defines how to use the resources at your disposal, including your time and budget.
And so it follows that strategic planning is the process of defining a strategy and then building a plan to implement that strategy.
An example of strategic planning: Beginning at 4:05 in the video, Martin discusses how, years ago, almost all airline carriers were building plans like one another to grow their market share. More routes, better customer service, steps designed to improve on what was already existing. These carriers had a plan designed to further a long-ago defined strategy.
But Southwest was an upstart that defined a new playing field (point-to-point flights, rather than hub-and-spoke, for one example) that would allow it to reach a desired type of customer (the group of fliers who essentially wanted a more convenient mode of travel than Greyhound without dramatically increasing the cost). In other words, Southwest built a strategy, whereas other airlines simply continued to implement their growth plans. Changing the curtains, if you will, as opposed to placing the window in a new location.
A key criticism of law firms and lawyers is that they tend to follow one another, building a better version of a fairly uniform concept of how to build a practice. Although the planning is often described as strategic planning, it’s usually planning for an old strategy or creating a BD plan that isn’t closely tied to any strategy at all. When did you (or your firm) last take on a review and, if necessary, an overhaul of the strategy underlying your business development plans? Do you know what the current strategy is, beyond seeking clients who need X kind of work and can pay Y kind of dollars?
One line makes this a must-watch video: “While you’re planning, at least one competitor is working on strategy.” Query which camp you (or your firm) belongs to and what result that’s likely to achieve.
Note that I’m not saying you necessarily need to abandon your current strategy and adopt a new one. It may be that you’ve been through the hard work at least somewhat recently and have a strategy that allows you to distinguish yourself from other lawyers and law firms—to win on the playing field of your choice, to use Martin’s words. If that’s the case, check your BD plan to be sure that it’s designed to meet your strategy.
But if you haven’t recently revisited your strategy to determine whether it’s on point—or if you can’t clearly articulate the strategy underlying your BD plan—take this as your sign that it’s time to enter a true strategic planning process. Check out the video for a primer on how to develop a strategy that makes sense for you.

Don’t Surprise Your Client With Your Invoice.

Let’s talk about billing and the effect it can have on your client relationships. Billing is, of course, one of the fundamental business and ethical aspects of practicing law. But it isn’t just that: it’s also a form of relationship development, practice management, and even business development. How you manage billing shows something about your attention to detail, how you clearly and fully communicate with a client, and more.

Most of the time, invoicing is fairly routine. You have an agreement for an hourly or alternative fee arrangement, you and your team track the work you do, that work is reflected on monthly invoices that explain the work completed, you review the invoices and correct or modify them before sending them to your client, and the client pays within a reasonable amount of time.

But what if there’s a fee increase, a delayed bill, or a passage of time that leaves a client surprised by your invoice? Surprise will leave your client dismayed. The legal budget may be strained in unexpected ways, and your client contact may face unpleasant questions from a superior or a corporate Board. You’re guaranteed to get pointed questions about the invoice, and you and your client contact will spend time resolving the issue. Worst of all, trust may be damaged, maybe even broken. This change in your client relationships can further impact your business development process and growth goals.

The good news is that avoiding these problems is simple: communicate about any changes in advance.

  • Planning a fee increase? Notify your clients about the change in advance—don’t just send a bill at the new rate. I’m also hearing that some firms are increasing rates multiple times a year now, without any guideposts for when that may happen. I don’t recommend that: it creates unpredictability and brings undue attention to your fee.
  • An unusually high amount of work to be charged against an annual legal budget? As soon as you see the meter going up, reach out to discuss the work, the spend, and the client’s priorities.
  • Something slipped and you’re sending a late invoice? Give thought to how you’re going to position the tardiness, what effect it will have on the budget and perhaps other pending work, and how it reflects on you as a businessperson. In some cases, you may find that a discount or write-off, perhaps a significant one, makes sense.

The same is true if there’s a misstep in a matter you’re handling that causes your client to conclude that a fee is unduly high or unearned in light of the circumstances. Here, you likely can’t communicate in advance. You may ward off these issues if you evaluate each invoice in context before sending it to the client, but there will be times when a client’s feedback, or its intensity, is surprising. Aim for collaborative communication. Listen to the client’s concerns and emphasize that you value the relationship as you respond. The outcome of the discussion is important, but maintaining trust is likely more important than receiving.

While it’s important that you receive due compensation for your work, be aware that clients are likely watching the bills more closely now than they have in the recent past. Inflation is hitting us all, individuals and corporations alike, and expenses may be increasing without a corresponding increase in income.

Clear communication can help you to manage expectations, prevent surprises, and build or maintain a collaborative approach that leaves your client feeling comfortable that your interests are aligned. Ensuring clear and effective communications with your clients will greatly contribute to your business development strategy and future business growth.

P.S. I have two openings for the new clients this month, and then I will not be accepting new clients again until January 2023. If you’d like help in growing your book of business, let’s have a conversation. Book a complimentary consultation here.

“I’m too busy for business development!”


There’s one objection I hear more than any other from lawyers who want to grow their practices but find themselves stuck: “I’m too busy for business development!

That objection is often factual (sometimes there’s more billable work to do than any reasonable human can accomplish in a day) as well as an unassailable excuse for those who feel resistance to business development. After all, billable work comes first, right?

If you’re feeling a time pinch, consider these questions to determine how to proceed:

  1. Ask whether this busy period is a short-term situation or a long-term one. When might you reasonably expect that your load will be lighter? If it appears that this level of busyness is a new normal, you’ll need to revisit your BD plan and start fresh. A short-term adaptation can keep you moving forward according to your plan, but a long-term situation requires a fresh approach.
  2. Ask whether there’s a way to offload some of your responsibilities to create time for BD. Perhaps this would be a good time to focus your LinkedIn activity on sharing good content created by others (along with an insightful comment) rather than writing something new. Perhaps you could ask a colleague to write a newsletter article that addresses a topic of interest to your clients from another perspective so that you’re off the hook for drafting your own article. (Points as a cross-selling effort!) Or perhaps it’s shifting some personal obligations to free up time for BD.
  3. Determine how much time you can realistically devote to BD during this period and what to do for maximum effect. Whatever your answer may be to this question, block that amount of time out on your calendar and hold it as a high-priority appointment.
  4. Determine the highest value activities that you can complete in the time available. Your BD plan is a living document, so go back to it and re-examine your priorities. If you’ve decided to create a document or course to guide potential clients through an issue related to your practice, for example, you’ll need to decide whether that’s an important enough investment to devote your limited time to it. Unless you’re at the beginning of your BD journey and focusing on establishing your platform and professional brand more than working to bring in new business in the short term, you’ll reap the most benefit from person-to-person contact. Revisit your “A list” and calendar reminders to communicate with those high-value contacts. Set aside 15 minutes for a catch-up call with one of them. Schedule coffee with one of these contacts to explore mutual interests and opportunities. Remember, people are the route to new business, so when you’re busy, be sure you’re staying visible to your most valuable connections.
  5. Calendar a date to re-evaluate your workload. The mistake I see too many lawyers make is putting BD on hold “temporarily” while they’re busier than usual and never moving back to the activities they’d planned. Without some defined end to the busy period (preferably a date to revisit the workload, but possibly also a defined benchmark such as the close of discovery in a large case), it’s easy to let the busy period expand… and expand… and expand. At some point, the hiatus will become so long that resuming BD activity feels like you’re starting from scratch, and that may be a daunting prospect to face. Know how you’ll identify the end of the hiatus and trigger your return to regular BD activity.

Finally, when you’re too busy for regular BD activity, cut yourself a bit of a break—but not too much. Don’t fall prey to all-or-nothing thinking. Business development is a long game, and you will likely go through several periods of reduced activity when you’re unusually busy. As long as those periods are limited and you focus on high-value activities, you can continue moving forward with success.

How Do YOU Define Client Service?

A few years ago, I ran across an article that’s stuck with me titled, “How to Deliver Exceptional Client Service.” Written from the perspective of a web agency, the article starts with the bold-but-obvious thesis that just doing what the client hired you to do isn’t exceptional, nor will it set you apart from your competitors. Consider this:

“You are hired to design and develop a new website for a retail client. The client loves the design, and the pages you develop use the latest in HTML5, CSS3, and responsive design, resulting in a website that works wonderfully across browsers and devices. The e-commerce features of the new website help the client significantly increase their online sales, and the entire project is delivered on time and on budget. Now, is this “exceptional” client service? I don’t think it is.”

Substitute words that are applicable to the kind of legal work you do—you’re hired to negotiate an employment agreement or to handle a divorce or to guide a company through a merger—and you do that, do it well, and do it within the budget the client expects. That’s good client service, sure. But it isn’t, and shouldn’t be, exceptional.

(As a side note, just doing your job in any respect isn’t enough to set you apart from others. That means strategic thinking, responsive communication, and being accessible to your clients won’t distinguish you from other good practitioners. I often urge lawyers to find their points of distinction, and too many count these attributes as extraordinary when they aren’t.)

The article sets out seven ways to uplevel your client service:

  1. Create real relationships. “If we do not engage with our clients in a real, personal way, then we are just another vendor….”
  2. Ask real questions. Connect with your clients.
  3. Participate in more than just projects. Go outside a pure business setting with your clients.
  4. Help them with services that you do not provide. This is where your network supports your business development work: make introductions to help your clients.
  5. Pick up the phone. In today’s environment in which a telephone call may be viewed as an interruption, you’ll want to be careful to equate good communication with a spontaneous telephone call, but the point remains: know how your clients want to receive communications, act accordingly, and do so in a way that builds your relationship.
  6. Face the bad times head-on. How you handle sharing bad news says volumes about you as a practitioner and about how you view your clients and your responsibility to them.
  7. Be thankful and show appreciation. The personal touch is always appreciated, even if it’s not discussed.

Be sure to read the whole article. It’s a quick read, and well worth your time.



Three Obstacles to Business Development Success

Having spoken with thousands of lawyers in the almost 20 years I’ve been consulting, I’ve identified three universal challenges to business development success.  Do any of these sound uncomfortably familiar to you?

1. “I don’t know what to do.”  There’s so much information out there about how to bring in new cases and clients and, even more importantly, how to ensure that your current clients are satisfied — no, delighted — with the service you provide. Sometimes, having lots of good information is overwhelming.  When I work with someone on business development, one of the first things we focus on (after clearly identifying the goal at hand) is to simplify tasks, according to a targeted plan. Don’t flail around and try “the latest thing.” Figure out what works well for you and do it consistently.

2. Mindset challenges. The challenges that we create for ourselves (and please note that I am including myself here!) vary dramatically. I’ve heard all of the following:

  • Business Development is easier for them (men, women, lawyers in big firms, lawyers in small firms, litigators, transactional lawyers, and on and on and on).
  • Everything I do has to be perfect, and I’m busy getting ready to get out there.  (This crops up a lot with lawyers who see speaking, writing, and holding leadership positions in an organization as a good route for business development.)
  • I have to do it all myself, so I’m going to clear the decks and then get started.
  • I’m too young.
  • I’m too old.
  • I tried [insert activity here] and it didn’t work, so why should I bother?
  • My technical skills are so good, that I don’t need to market.

There may be at least a grain of truth to each of these rationalizations (and the infinite variations that exist), but buying into these statements is a huge red flag.  These “reasons” justify a lack of success and perhaps even a lack of effort.  Neither leads to great results.

3. “I don’t have enough time to get my work done and live, and now I should add on business development activities? You’ve got to be kidding me.” This obstacle is the most valid and therefore the most insidious. It also plays into the mindset obstacles, because very often a lawyer who holds a negative belief about client development will sink more and more time into fruitless business development activity. Imagine, for instance, a lawyer who polishes an article to the point of “perfection,” only to find that it’s no longer newsworthy. Fortunately, you can implement three steps to create time for business development: prioritization, systemization, and delegation.

What blocks your business development efforts?

Let’s Talk Professional Development

Every lawyer—associates and partners alike—should have a professional development plan.  Professional development and business development go hand-in-hand for several reasons:

  • Professional development includes identification of strengths (and how to maximize them) and weaknesses (and how to compensate for them). Doing this will help you to work more effectively, work with clients more effectively, and grow as a practitioner.
  • Professional development can help you refine what you want your practice to encompass, the areas of substantive law you want to address, the mix of those areas, the kinds of clients you want to represent, and more. This information is critical for business development because it defines the scope of your activity and offers direction for how your BD activities should be focused.
  • Professional development plans are designed to help you determine your long-term practice goals and how to reach them. Defining the kind of practice you want to have and your role in it will focus your BD activity; it will also ensure that as you take the professional development steps laid out, you’ll be working toward an end result you actually want.
  • Professional development plans can help you uncover the habits, attitudes, and mindsets that will support or retard your success so that you can address them. If you believe, for example, that you are responsible for building your own practice, you’ll be more likely to focus on BD and to implement the plans you set; if you believe that other lawyers in the firm will feed you work, your BD efforts will feel less pressing and you’ll be more likely to let your plans slide. Likewise, excellence is necessary in practice, but perfectionism is often a one-way ticket to paralysis, so you need to know where on the spectrum your tendencies fall. Failing to explore your beliefs about practice and your role in it means you’ll be on unexamined autopilot—and that’s a quick route to disaster.

Once you have a current professional development (and business development) plan in place, it’s time to determine what you’ll choose to focus on from these lists over the next year. For professional development, I recommend a mix of skills/experiences and attitude/habit development goals. For instance, you might set goals of becoming the go-to person on a certain area of the law within your firm and in the outside world, learning how to delegate work effectively to more junior lawyers and to staff members, and getting speaking experience designed to prepare you to speak at a large conference that your ideal clients attend.

Your firm may request you to create a PD and/or BD plan. If so, it’s necessary to use the firm’s approach, and it’s wise to do your own personalized plan or addendum as well. The key difference between your personalized plan and the plan that you may co-create with your firm is that the personalized plan is keyed to your goals without attention to the firm’s goals except to the extent they support your desires.  Your plan should be designed to fit what you — as owner of your practice and “CEO” of your career — want.  The two plans might be identical, or they may be quite at odds.  If you know that in 10 years you’d like to have a personal injury practice with a partner ready and willing to buy you out so you can compete in the America’s Cup, for instance, that’s almost certainly a goal that you’d be wise not to share if you’re working in a mid-sized insurance defense firm because your goals and the firm’s goals don’t mesh.

Summer can be an ideal time to work on your PD and BD plans. You’ll have plenty of time to develop them before year-end conversations with firm leaders, and you’ll be ready to hit the fall running. So, start now.  Set aside time on your calendar, and mark it in ink.  Designing your plans will move you forward like little else.  Don’t miss this opportunity.

Build Your Peer Network

Quick check: how’s the health of your professional peer network?

Lawyers are accustomed to building a network within their firm as a resource for questions about how certain partners work, business development expense reimbursement, and more. And that’s important, particularly for new associates and lawyers who’ve recently made a lateral move or were part of a merger. Fortunately, building such a network generally isn’t difficult. Your practice group likely holds regular meetings, and you can meet others at functions such as all-attorney luncheons. As is true of any kind of networking, your success will depend largely on your follow-up. Issue coffee or lunch invitations, set up a Zoom meeting with lawyers in other offices, and engage in pure social chat as well as professionally-focused conversation.

It’s also useful to build a broader network with peers from other firms or other geographic regions for discussions about issues such as landing a leadership role in a community-based organization and using that exposure to build your network and your professional platform. Especially when the group you connect with is truly your peer group —female associates working in a large law firm, sole practitioners in practice for 7-12 years, lawyers interested in leaving the law — the input from others can suggest new ideas and provide much-needed support.

Wondering how to find a peer group?

  1. Seek out online communities on LinkedIn, Facebook, or other platforms. The benefit to these is clear: you can participate anytime, day or night, and there is little risk of having your identity revealed if you’re careful not to post too many identifying details.  Of course, when you read what others have to say, there’s no way to consider the source of the comment, which may reduce its value.
  2. Explore bar association-sponsored peer groups. Young lawyers’ groups, senior lawyers groups, or law practice management groups are fertile grounds for wide-ranging discussions about how you practice and how to pursue your career goals. You can also join a substantive section for more input on the mechanics of your practice.
  3. Use your network to build your own group. You might start a group of peers with a monthly discussion topic, planning to meet at lunchtime or after work for an hour or so. The ideal group size is 6-12 members, with rotating leadership roles so that no one bears the ongoing responsibility for an agenda or plans. Be sure to design a mechanism for a group check-in on what topics are important to the members and how well the group is functioning.
  4. Groups run by a coach or recruiter. These groups are run by a professional facilitator, so there’s a continuity in leadership and the leader is trained. The groups tend to stay on track because everyone makes a commitment when joining that the leader will emphasize, often along with a financial commitment. Self-revelation is possible without being unduly vulnerable, because the group members typically will not know one another outside the group and may even come from different geographic areas, and you’ll receive coaching from the leader as well as peer input.

Whatever avenue you use to find or build a peer network, don’t neglect this. There’s no better route for sourcing ideas and support on professional topics including career moves, finding good candidates for employment, making and receiving introductions, and so much more.

Beyond Strengths and Weaknesses

When you’re working on your BD plan, it’s important to have an objective and accurate sense of your strengths. I’ve met lawyers—my client Nate, for example— who enjoy making presentations to large groups of people (at a conference, for example) but rarely get follow-up conversations that lead to business when, in contrast, small-group or one-on-one conversations often forward the progress toward landing a new matter.

Several problems could account for the difference. I watched as Nate spoke from the stage at a conference and later saw him speak with a few individuals and smaller groups between conference sessions. I realized that speaking to small groups and individuals is a strength for Nate while speaking to large audiences is a weakness. This wasn’t a blind spot: Nate kicked off our first post-conference conversation by telling me that he knew he hadn’t done well, but that he planned to work on his speaking skills and improve so that he’d knock it out of the park at his next presentation.

The problem is that we tend to talk about strengths and weaknesses as if a weakness is just an undeveloped strength.  Not so.  Sometimes, a weakness is an inability, pure and simple, that can be corrected only by bringing in assistance from another resource.  Here’s what I explained to Nate (with thanks to Don Blohowiak, a coaching colleague who shared this useful framework):

  • Potential refers to your native capabilities than can be (but have not yet been) developed.
  • Strengths refer to the capabilities that you execute competently to masterfully.
  • Limitations refer to the capabilities that you have in short supply.  Some limitations can be developed, and others will require replacement from another source.
  • Absences refer to the capabilities that you simply don’t have.  There is no shame in lacking capabilities.  No one has every possible capability.  Instead, the task is to find someone whose capabilities are complementary to your absences.  (If, for instance, you are leading a client service team and complex accounting is an important part of the matter and you lack masterful accounting skills, you must find someone who can bring that competency to the team.)
  • Weaknesses refer to the capabilities that you pretend to have but cannot actually execute.

Using this model, Nate’s speaking to a large audience is a weakness (as he recognized) but because he pretended that he could correct it, the weakness could not be eliminated.  Nate was failing at business development because he was leading from a weakness and pretending it was a strength.

Review your business development plan, your professional development plan, your career strategy plan – any plan at all that reflects your goals – and ask these questions:

  • What are my strengths?
  • How are my strengths reflected in my plan?
  • How can I develop my potential so I can deploy those capabilities in my plan?
  • What weaknesses am I denying?
  • Do my priorities coincide with my strengths?

If, like Nate, you lead from weakness, you will produce only frustration.  Spend some time in honest self-reflection and look for opportunities to shift what you’re doing based on your natural and developed capabilities.  And, if (like Nate) you find that you’ve been pretending that you are developing your weaknesses, stop pretending.  Shift your approach.

The Romance (or Not) of Practicing Law and Getting Business

I’m on vacation this week, so I’m sharing a slightly updated version of one of my most popular newsletter articles, unearthing an article that’s almost 20 years old and still fundamental to understanding client relationships. Enjoy!

Nearly 20 years ago now, David Maister (a now-retired advisor to professional services firms and author of several excellent books) wrote an article that distinguishes the relational and transactional views of client relations.  Here’s the crux of Maister’s argument:

In The Trusted Advisor (Free Press, 2000), my coauthors and I pointed out that building trusting relationships with clients leads to many benefits: less fee resistance, more future work, more referrals to new clients, and more effective and harmonious work relationships with the clients.

However, many people have built their past success on having a transactional view of their clients, not a relationship one, and it is not clear that they really want to change. Stated bluntly, professionals say that they want the benefits of romance, yet they still act in ways that suggest that what they are really interested in is a one-night stand.

. . .

Most professional-to-client interactions involve little if any commitment to each other beyond the current deal. The prevailing principle is “buyer beware.” Mutual guardedness and suspicion exist, and the interaction is full of negotiation, bargaining, and adversarial activity. Both sides focus on the terms, conditions, and costs of temporary contact. Each side treats THEM as “different,” as “other.”

. . .

Moving from a one-night-stand (transactional) mentality to a romance (relationship) mindset is not about incremental actions, but requires a complete reversal of attitudes and behaviors. One approach is not necessarily “better” than another, but there is a real choice to be made.

In today’s legal economy, clients have more options than ever before. They can choose from a wide range of law firms (the size of firm and perceived expertise becomes only one factor to consider rather than the deciding factor in every instance), from numerous individuals, and even from outsourcing options that may rely on non-lawyers or technology. While transactions can be valuable, good client relationships can form a strong foundation for a practice. Relationships yield repeat business and referrals because they’re built on trust; transactions are won one-by-one, which usually yields only one-off work or entry to compete for each new piece of work. Building relationships certainly takes effort, but it’s effort that builds toward long-term value. Transactions also take effort, but it’s effort that usually doesn’t lead to a next step beyond the transaction at hand.

Consider this quote from the article:

The real challenge, however, is for all of us as individuals, not as firms. Transactions are common because they involve less hard work and demand fewer skills. Ultimately, however, they are not in the best long-term interests of either professional or client. (emphasis added)

Mutual trust will allow both sides to get more of what they seek than continued mutual suspicion. Relationships are not more “noble” than transactions, but where they can be created they are much more profitable.

If you’ve never asked yourself whether you want relationships or “one-night stands” with clients, go read Maister’s article and ask yourself now. The topic was ripe in 2005, but it’s absolutely critical today.



Legal Business Development: 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.