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Many lawyers perceive business development as complicated, sometimes overwhelming, maybe even intimidating, and as a result feel an array of negative emotions about pursuing business: fear, anxiety, reluctance. Too often, this translates into avoidance. Today, we’ll eliminate complication, which should have a beneficial effect on the other reactions.

To succeed at business development, you need five things:

  • Something to sell
  • A business problem that creates demand for what you sell
  • A sizable group of people who are subject to that demand-creating problem
  • A way to sustain communication with that group
  • A process by which you help those who reveal their interest make a reliable decision that stands up to internal scrutiny

That’s five things, not fifty. Forget all the laundry lists of marketing and sales tactics. They all derive from these five things. Let’s look at them individually.

Something to sell

You may be chuckling, thinking, “Of course I have something to sell. I sell legal services. You know, Litigation, Corporate, IP. Like that.” There’s your first problem. Somebody else is already selling that. In fact, thousands of somebodies just like you are selling that, which makes it a mature service, and a relative commodity. It’s really hard to get noticed when you’re one of thousands offering the same commodity.

The second problem is that these days, those who buy mature legal services are increasingly often professional buyers in corporate Procurement departments, or are seasoned inside counsel being guided by procurement professionals. Using BigData and other analytical tools, they know more about what the cost and value of what you’re selling than you do. Their job is to rationalize and normalize those purchases to yield the highest quality at the lowest cost. And they’re good at doing just that. Relationships are the icing on the cake, if available, and have only marginal impact on their decision.

A business problem that creates demand for what you sell

Nobody wakes up in the morning and thinks, “Hey! I should buy some legal service today. Yeah, lemme get some Corporate service!” Demand for legal service derives from business circumstances, problems, and opportunities. Those are the prime movers in the causal chain, and the foundation for the relevance you need to earn to be welcome in the conversation that leads to decision-making.

If you were able to sit at the figurative conference table where executives and their internal legal counsel are discussing how they’ll achieve their objectives, you won’t hear anyone using legal service labels -- not even inhouse counsel. No, the conversation is about, for example, what to do about cybersecurity. Should we invest heavily in R&D? Should we acquire a company with an existing product? Or should we acquire a startup with the technical talent we lack? Maybe we should merge with a competitor? Or abandon the at-risk product line entirely?

There will be legal components to any solution they settle on, but the conversation isn’t about legal services. At this stage, when strategic or tactical decisions are in question, legal service nouns -- and those who identify themselves with them -- are irrelevant.

A sizable group of people who are subject to that demand-creating problem

You recognize that Blockchain and other cryptocurrencies are here to stay, and that this emerging category is a potential game-changer, either positively or negatively depending on what business you’re in. Your background is in financial service litigation. Your expertise is anticipating and blunting future threats, and defending your client’s position when a formal challenge can’t be avoided. Where can you find a concentration of people who are subject to that risk, and who are therefore obligated to care about the problem? Is it commercial banks? Brokerage companies? Insurance companies? Or FinTech companies? Or the investors in either or both?

A way to sustain communication with that group

Whichever industry or segment you choose, it will have a number of publications, conferences, and other established communication channels that are trusted by stakeholders in that business. These channels cannot publish blank pages, or broadcast dead air, or have vacant speaking spots. They need relevant content that attracts eyeballs or ears, or sells tickets and puts butts in the seats. If your ideas are fresh, relevant, and provocative, you can earn your way into these trusted channels and benefit from their implied endorsement of you.

With social media, there are countless channels with no barriers to entry, and the ability to create your own properties. Create a blog and publish your thoughts. Syndicate your blog posts in relevant LinkedIn groups. Participate in the commenting and discussions in those groups. Start an issue-focused LinkedIn group that you control. Further syndicate your ideas via Twitter and other channels. Subscribe to influential blogs and comment on their posts. The possibilities are only limited by your creativity and willingness to seek advice.

A reliable decision process

When your thought leadership earns you an invitation to be considered to help solve the problem, don’t try to persuade them to choose you. Instead, recognize that the most important problem the stakeholder group faces now is making a decision about what to do. Decision-making is hard, and many groups don’t know how to go about it in a reliable way.

A high-integrity decision has three legs, like a triangle:

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  1. Willing stakeholders
  2. Data to inform the decision
  3. Decision process

Too often, the decision group lacks a credible decision process. The result is that the willing stakeholders grind away on the wrong data until their willingness fades. In that vacuum, a dominant voice imposes a solution, one that often fails because the other stakeholders haven’t bought into it.

Providing a process that enables the stakeholder group to make a well-informed, eyes-open decision that they’re invested in is a huge contribution, and demonstrates a unique value of having you as an advisor.

Mike O’Horo


To learn more about the concepts at the endpoints of the decision triangle, explore the three components of the Decision Process: Door-Opener, Cost of Doing Nothing, and Stakeholder alignment.