Business development (BD) has for a long while been widely recognised as a key ‘soft skill’ for lawyers working in private practice. But in light of the worsening economic crisis, which will inevitably result in even greater rivalry between law firms in a sector that has already become fiercely competitive, it will become more important than ever before.

Selling v Business development

Selling is focussed on the ‘now’ and often involves cold calling or knocking on customers’ / clients’ doors to flog a specific good or service, ironing out any objections / concerns they might have about doing a potential deal, negotiating prices before agreeing final terms and then shaking on it.

BD on the other hand is more forward-looking and involves identifying organisations and individuals outside your firm, then cultivating relationships of trust with them to generate future pipelines of work. It is known for being a slow burner and ultimately involves staying on top of where prospective work might come from and requires lawyers to develop a deeper understanding of what clients want from their legal advisers, especially as markets continue to evolve and potentially helping them to identify new opportunities for working together.

Common objections

Given the pivotal role BD plays in the future success of law firms as well as its intrinsic link to an individual lawyer’s career progression, particularly at the more senior end, why is it so often dismissed as a luxury? Other common objections to participating in BD activities often include, I’m too junior, I don’t have time, I’m no good at it or I don’t know where to start.

Firstly, stop treating BD as a bolt-on and make it an integral part of your day-to-day responsibilities. Secondly, it’s never too early to start. And thirdly, if you invest time and effort into it there’s no reason why you too can’t master this key skill.

Be proactive and play the long game

Granted, much of what you do as a trainee solicitor or junior lawyer is likely to be more reactive but just like networking BD is all about playing the long game. Take ownership of your development and actively seek out opportunities to get involved in existing firm-wide initiatives such as next gen programmes, content writing (albeit initially as a ghost author), speaking on panels (again – this could initially be representing your firm at a graduate recruitment event before gradually progressing to conferences etc) and by attending as many networking (internal and external) events as possible.

Also, work on building your personal brand and start getting active on social media because gone are the days when LinkedIn was used exclusively as a job search platform. There’ll be more on how to do both of these effectively in future content.

Knowledge is your secret weapon

To become an effective ambassador for your firm it is first vitally important to fully appreciate the internal landscape, future direction and priorities. Who are the key rainmakers, what your firm’s strategically significant practice areas and who are their most important clients? This is why internal networking, including getting to know the business support functions, especially the BD teams and indeed partners’ secretaries is so important. Both are huge fountains of knowledge and under-utilised resources that are far too often neglected by many lawyers.

Once you’ve gathered all the knowhow on your immediate internal surroundings, most future research should involve developing a deeper understanding of the sectors any existing and your target clients operate in as well as keeping abreast of what rival firms are up to. That means doing some homework and poking around your firm’s Client Relationship Management system. Also, spot trends by regularly browsing articles published in the legal and relevant industry press as well as being aware of how breaking news stories churned out by the mainstream consumer media might impact the economy and in turn priorities for in-house lawyers. For example, how quickly did you link the Covid19 pandemic to the work done by lawyers? It is precisely this level of knowledge that will help you stay ahead of the curve.

As well as the news, monitoring what individuals and organisations post on social media can also offer clues on what is keeping prospective or existing clients awake at night. It also helps you learn more about what individuals are really passionate about. Is it diversity, the environment, the US presidential elections, Brexit or something more trivial?

Relationship building and offering solutions 

As already highlighted at the start of this blog – much of BD is about building relationships of mutual trust and integrity. Step away from BD and selling – instead focus on relationship building.

To do this effectively you must learn to know everyone in the room (or Zoom call!) and be able to hold meaningful two-way conversations with them. For further tips on the art of conversation as well as the importance of learning to listen properly check out: “Are you really listening or dreaming about what to eat for supper?” and “Business networking: the art of conversation.”

But remember, it’s not all about networking events and client lunches – every interaction you have with a colleague or external contact is a potential BD opportunity. So, remember to ask appropriate questions, listen attentively and cut the noise by being useful and offering bespoke solutions.

Business development during a downturn

All of the above is well and good but let’s be realistic for just one moment. Clients are going to be less inclined to switch law firms in the current economic climate. But that doesn’t mean BD is no longer relevant. I’d say it’s quite the opposite. Now is the time to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with existing clients / contacts because it’s also when loyalty is likely to be built. So, even if opportunities to win new clients are more limited it’s definitely no time to neglect existing relationships.

But please refrain from using glossy brochures or generic marketing emails as shields. Be courageous, try not to fear rejection and put yourself out there. Pick up the phone – even if it’s simply to ask one question – how can we help? After all, clients / contacts are also human beings and just like you or I are likely to be feeling isolated, lost and worried about the future and therefore may well welcome the opportunity to chat through some of this with you. But remember authenticity is really important here.

There’s absolutely no denying that the economic crisis has given rise to endless challenges for every law firm. That said, it has also created opportunities as well as the perfect climate for associates brave enough to step out of their comfort zones to get involved in helping their firms to secure future pipelines of work, which is what will ultimately differentiate the winners from losers.

By Husnara Begum, Associate Career Coach and Contributing Editor