Your Decisions Determine Your Business Development Success.

Making and executing decisions is a key part of practicing law. Litigators decide what strategy to follow on a case; negotiators decide where to stand firm and where to compromise; partners decide which associates are right for an assignment and advancement; patent lawyers decide which features of an invention to claim… And so on.

In fact, decision-making is one of the first practice skills we learn in law school. Did you ever witness the disaster that often followed when a student didn’t stick with an argument about whether and why a case was correctly decided? The professor would show that changing lanes repeatedly often leads to flaccid, half-baked arguments that fall apart. The student under questioning would discover just how accurate the phrase “hot seat” can feel, ending up exhausted and embarrassed. Sure, sometimes we make a mistake and have to correct it, but making and remaking a decision burns time and energy and rarely ends well.

Decision-making plays an important role in business development in two essential ways:

  1. Deciding to focus on BD and grow a book of business
  2. Deciding on a course of BD action and following through

Let’s look at each of these decisions and how they may fall by the wayside, undoing potential success along the way.

Deciding to focus on BD and grow a book of business

Most of us didn’t enter practice thinking, I can’t wait to do business development! Instead, something happens that prompts us to turn our attention from billable work to the process of bringing in that work. And we decide to focus on BD and growing a book of business… or do we?

The word decide comes from the Latin decidere, which is a combination of two words that mean to cut off. (See the brief discussion about the meaning of the word decide.) In other words, to decide on a course of action is to cut off other options.

But when it comes to focusing on business development, many lawyers reverse course when they get busy with billable work and deadlines. Far from having cut off the option of not focusing on BD, these lawyers justify why they have to step away from BD “for now” until they get past a busy period. Sometimes they never resume BD focus, and sometimes they repeatedly dip in and out of focus. In either case, they never come close to reaching momentum.

Deciding that things are just too busy to focus on business development feels like a valid decision, perhaps even a necessary one. After all, you can’t slack on billable work to chase new work, and meeting deadlines is crucial. This can feel like an inescapable Catch-22, but there is a solution.

Decide on small, discrete steps you can take to keep your business development work going even when you’re busy, and then do them. These steps may feel too small to matter, but they’ll keep your BD work alive until you can resume focusing on it. Read more about how to use Teeny Tiny containers to accomplish your BD goals even when you’re too busy to do as much as you’d like.

When you carve out a “no matter what happens” block of time for business development, even if it’s just a few minutes, you’re affirming that BD is a top priority for you. You’re executing the decision you made to focus on BD and grow your book.

Deciding on a course of BD action and following through

When you began focusing on business development, you probably created a BD plan to execute an underlying strategy. (If that isn’t how you began, we should talk so you can set yourself up for success in 2023.) Your plan likely includes several buckets of activities, such as networking to meet potential clients and referral sources, following up with key contacts so that you remain top-of-mind, writing and speaking to build your professional profile, and so on. You started executing your plan, but something happened…

Perhaps you didn’t see the results you were expecting or perhaps you had a new idea that seemed like a better approach. Maybe a colleague mentioned something that led to new business, or you read an article with some fresh ideas, and you think you should shift your plan to incorporate those ideas. After all, you don’t want to waste time on something that isn’t working when there’s something better to try, right? Well, yes and no.

Landing new business takes time. How long this takes depends on a wide variety of factors, but most lawyers find that establishing a flow of new business takes longer than they’d dreamed it might.

Business development success lies in having a solid strategy and consistently executing actions to affect the strategy. It takes time to see the results of your actions, but it also takes time to put in the effort necessary to even hope to see results. Frustrating but true.

I recommend my clients work on their business development plan for three months and then evaluate what results they’re seeing. Sometimes that’s measured in new business, but especially for more high value/low volume practices, that’s measured in a wider network, in more conversations about business and how to get in line to pitch a new matter. The three-month evaluation is about whether you’re seeing results, not whether you’re getting new business. If there are no results, then we have to evaluate whether it’s the plan/execution that’s faulty and a change is required, whether skills development is needed, or whether there’s something else going on. If there are some results, I counsel my clients to keep going.

The second evaluation period comes at six months. Are you seeing measurable results that indicate that you’re on the right track? Have you been invited to pitch or join a potential client’s panel of law firms? Have you built inroads in a group of potential clients and begun to develop strong relationships? Are you speaking on a bigger stage (which might be literally speaking at larger gatherings or possibly in smaller groups of carefully targeted contacts)? Have your relationships with your A-list deepened?

After engaging in this analysis, the next question is whether the results are strong enough to indicate that you should stay the course. It’s a more quantitative time in vs. results out inquiry.  Finally, you look at the list you’ve been keeping of other ideas and determine whether you should stop something you’re doing and try one of them instead.

If you try a new idea before giving your old plans a fair trial, and especially if you do that over and over, you won’t hit momentum and you will undercut any potential of harnessing the power of consistent execution. Instead, you’ll jump from one plan to another then to another, expending lots of energy and investing lots of time and getting few results.

The Bottom Line regarding your BD plan

Take consistent action with your business development plan. Decide to engage in BD with consistency, and you’ll see results. But if you keep changing plans midstream and discover that your results are lacking, question the strength of your decision first.


Setting Aspirational Plans?

Nearly two years ago, I began spending time on creative writing for the first time in many years. I certainly wrote while I was practicing law — memoranda and briefs galore! —and I’ve written voluminously for my business (The Reluctant Rainmaker, among other books and articles) and for the nonprofit I founded. But this kind of writing is different: it’s something I want to do, it’s a bridge to a future that I want to live, and it’s something with no urgency whatsoever.

Does that remind you of the definition of business development? Your situation might be different: particularly if you’re a sole practitioner, if you’re working in an eat-what-you-kill firm, or if you’ve lateraled (or merged) into a new firm and need to establish yourself, business development may be not just urgent, but also important. For many lawyers, though, business development activity is calculated to reach important professional and personal goals, but it isn’t urgent.

That’s exactly why it’s important that you set your schedule so that you have dedicated daily or near-daily time for business development work. In the absence of outside motivation, your commitment to the time you set aside on your calendar may be the only thing that ensures you move forward on your BD activity. Of course, you’ll miss a scheduled BD block sometimes, but when it’s on your calendar, you’ll have an immediate prompt to get back to it at your next scheduled time. By calendaring this important task, you’ll ensure that it gets done.

There’s a danger to this approach, though: the aspirational plan. I define an aspirational plan as a plan that only the perfect you can accomplish on the perfect day. If your schedule is already busy, deciding to add in an hour a day of BD work is probably unrealistic. Deciding that you’ll have a BD lunch every day is probably unrealistic. Deciding that you’ll start a blog or podcast and post every week? Probably unrealistic unless you have remarkable support, a list of topics, and a carefully laid business development plan to ensure that the work gets done.

Aspirational plans are dangerous because they feel like they’ll guarantee progress toward your goal; the truth is that unrealistic plans (the perfect me on a perfect day plan) will be thwarted because it’s unrealistic, and you will likely end up discouraged. You may even look at not following an aspirational plan as proof that you don’t have the time (or, worse, the ability) to build your practice.

A creative writing tool I’ve learned from best-selling author Jennifer Louden is applicable here: the Teeny Tiny container. A Teeny Tiny container is a short period of time for writing or BD that you can keep no matter what. It’s less time that you think will be useful, possibly as little as five minutes. My Teeny Tiny containers are usually 15 minutes.

Teeny Tiny containers of business development activity delivers results because you’re committed to the time, you build a track record of success with keeping that commitment, and you can knock out small tasks like a catch-up email or chip away at larger ones like investigating conferences where you might speak. You may not see results from a single Teeny Tiny container, but the time adds up, and you may find yourself committing to larger periods of time as you build your BD skills. This business development process, setting short but inviolable blocks of time for BD, works even if you’re subject to demands from a court, clients, more senior lawyers, or anyone or anything else that may upend your plans at a moment’s notice: barring extraordinary circumstances, we can all find five or ten minutes.

For this approach to be successful, however, you must have a clearly defined business development strategy and a set of tasks that are calculated to affect that strategy. You must know what you’re going to accomplish during your Teeny Tiny container; otherwise, you’ll waste your time deciding what to do or working on uncoordinated BD tasks that keep you busy but don’t actually move you forward. Be sure that you leave breadcrumbs as you close your time each day so that you can get to work immediately during your next time block.

Finally, during your monthly review, look at how the Teeny Tiny containers have worked for you. Track your completion percentage (number of containers you planned minus the number you missed, divided by the number planned and multiplied by 100) to see how well you kept your commitment. If the percentage is low, try again with a smaller time block or reduced frequency. Look at your accomplishments during the month, including things like the number of contacts you made, progress you made toward writing or speaking goals, etc. Finally, if your completion percentage is high (90% or more), consider whether it’s realistic to increase your time commitment. If it’s low (under 50%), consider whether you should reduce the amount of time or the frequency of your containers so that you’re able to keep your commitment.

As a result of keeping Teeny Tiny containers, I’ve completed more than 20 essays in the eight months (one of which has been selected for publication) and begun outlining a book I’d like to write—all while running my business and a small nonprofit, planning a wedding celebration and honeymoon, having two rounds of Covid, coordinating treatment for a geriatric dog and cat, and more. I guarantee I wouldn’t have accomplished as much without this approach. I’d love to hear your results if you give it a try.