Think Business Development Doesn’t Matter? Think Again.

business development

I occasionally talk with associates, in the first few years of practice ranging through senior associate levels, who tell me that they don’t need to pay attention to business development. The reasons vary. Some lawyers feel they’re “too new,” some don’t plan to make partner and think business development is therefore irrelevant for them, and some say they’re just not good at business development — so why bother?

My answer is the same in every case. You should only be concerned with business development and networking (which is the foundation of business development) if you want to have a career. Any career.

Harsh? Maybe. True? Absolutely. Let’s take a quick look at each objection.

I’m too new! The best time to begin thinking about business development is a few years ago, and the second best time is now. That’s true even if you graduated from law school this week.

College and law school classmates may not be in a position to deliver high-dollar legal work now, but some (perhaps many) of them will at some point. They’ll want to send their work to someone they know, like, and trust. Who better than a long-time friend who’s established a strong professional reputation? If you aren’t that person, one of the (other) classmates with whom you’ve lost touch very well may be. Likewise, the low-level employee with whom you discuss interrogatory responses will go up the chain of command as you do. Wouldn’t it be nice to have a strong relationship with her as she moves into positions of power?

Bottom line? You’re never too new to begin networking and establishing good connections with those who will be future decision makers.

I don’t want to be a partner, so business development doesn’t matter for me. Partnership certainly isn’t for everyone. But unless you plan not to work (in or out of law) after leaving your firm, you should be networking anyway. If you want to move in-house, connections with clients and with other lawyers may pave the way. The same holds true if you choose not to practice law: only a small fraction of positions are filled solely through advertisements. The rest are filled through, or with the help of, contacts. And other activities generally undertaken for business development purposes (such as writing articles and speaking) help to establish a reputation and a reach that will be useful when searching for a new job or career.

If you plan to continue practicing law in a firm, portable business is your key. Lawyers up to their 3rd or 4th year of practice may make a lateral move without portables. Past that level, however, such a move is difficult (always, and even more so in today’s economic environment) if not impossible.

And, by the way, if you change your mind and do decide to shoot for partnership, you must be able to show you have at least the strong likelihood of generating business, and many firms will require (explicitly or not) that you have brought in work already.

Bottom line: almost regardless of what kind of work you do, business development will play a role. Get started now. Delay won’t make it easier.

I’m not good at business development! Perhaps not. Perhaps you’ll never be a rainmaker extraordinaire. But you can learn some skills and you can polish your approach. You can implement plans to make sure you’re regularly performing the activities likely to lead to new business. Observation convinces me that, especially with some guidance and assistance from a mentor or coach, someone who is dedicated to business development will succeed.

Again, the level of success may vary (and the ease of realizing success), but one thing is certain: if you don’t try, you will not succeed. Don’t fall prey to the lazy thought that your inexperience or discomfort with client development (or inadequate skill in it the steps that generate business) means that you can never be a sufficient rainmaker.

Julie A. Fleming, J.D., A.C.C. provides business and executive coaching with an emphasis on business development, leadership development, time mastery and organization, and work/life integration. Julie holds a coaching certificate from the Georgetown Leadership Coaching program and holds the Associate Certified Coach (ACC) credential from the International Coach Federation. She is certified to administer the DISC(r) assessment, the Leadership Circle Profile 360, and the Leadership Culture Survey.

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