Whenever a lawyer hires me, he or she wants to know, “What will I have to do to generate the amount of business I need?” I’ve had various answers, mostly based on each lawyer’s specific circumstances. However, I’ve come to a more fundamental conclusion, kind of the business development version of a Unified Field Theory (with apologies to Einstein and all other physicists).
The key is to engineer backward from getting hired. What’s required to get hired?
Associate with a demand-driving problem
You have to be associated with a business problem that has legal ramifications, and in contact with those affected by the problem at the time they’re ready to deal with it. (Actually, since everyone you’re in contact with isn’t going to hire you, you have to be in contact with lots of such people.)
What’s the predicate for that? You have to motivate them to seek you out for consultation, which requires you to be discovered, and to be seen as relevant to their industry, company, role, and current challenges.
Make yourself famous
So, you have to be widely perceived as knowledgeable about that problem or opportunity. Within the boundaries of that space, you have to be famous for it.
Lawyers also want to know how long it will take to produce results. To which I ask, “Among whom are you famous, and for what?”
Unfortunately, for most lawyers, the answer is “nobody” and “nothing.” I’m not being harsh. Apart from a dozen or so, maybe even a few dozen, clients who are big fans, are they truly well known among an identifiable, addressable group?
Most aren’t because they haven’t had to be. For a long time, enough business came in by accident for them to be successful. They became famous to a few people within a client at a time during a matter, but it was matter-specific and had a short shelf life.
So, how long does it take to make oneself famous? That depends on how well you understand business, and are able to identify emerging issues and problems whose impact requires a decision and action. Some are able to do that quickly. Others struggle for many months. Some just can’t get there at all because they resist the shift from a production mindset to a demand mindset.
Until you have a discrete Who, What, and Why, you can’t do anything
Your Who must be in an opportune position, i.e., they’re making money, focused on growth and success. Of the three values they can choose two of (Good, Fast, Cheap), they’ll opt for Good and Fast.
If they’re not exploiting opportunity and making money, they’ll opt for Good and Cheap.
If they’re a big, powerful company, they may even demand all three, particularly if you’re associated with a mature problem where they have the luxury of picking from among dozens or hundreds of lawyers without risk.
Ideally, your Who is in a robust industry with lots of dynamic communication channels with low barriers to entry. Nobody can afford to try to create their own channels, or gain repeated access to a small handful of channels. You won’t have sufficient reach or frequency.
Your What (problem) must have meaningful strategic, operational, financial, or career consequences (The Cost of Doing Nothing) sufficient that your Who doesn’t have the luxury of doing nothing. That provides your Why.
Test your thesis
Once you’ve figured out a thesis that satisfies these criteria, you have to test it. That means talking to people within your Who group to get their feedback on your thesis. Simultaneously, this manufactures a network of people who are more likely to need you, and who are beginning to associate you with this high-impact What.
Once you confirm that you’re right, i.e., that this is a problem that your Who must care about, you’ll have to continually reinforce your public association with your What, among your Who, with great frequency and reach. This means speaking at conferences, writing articles, blogging, conducting webinars, posting and commenting on social media, etc.
Every day, every week, every month, every year.
If you’re not willing to do that, it’s not going to work. You’ll be frustrated and discouraged, and will waste a lot of time and money. You have to put in the time, more than you think you must, and more than you may want to. Doing the right things is great, but it won’t matter if you don’t do enough of them.
Finally, lawyers ask me how long it takes. That’s a function of how much time you devote to it each week. Nobody knows what the critical mass of aggregate invested time is for BD success, but let’s arbitrarily say that it takes 1000 hours of legitimate marketing and sales effort to generate X amount of business. If you spend two hours per week (the pittance that many lawyers think they can get away with investing), it will take you 10 years. Sobering, eh? At four hours per week, five years. And so forth.
To make enough time available, eliminate fluff that you spend time on now. What fluff?
Gratuitous relationship-building, i.e., calls, meetings, and lunches with people who aren’t clients, and for whom you don’t know or suspect a demand-triggering problem
ABA working groups, which are overwhelmingly populated by competitors, relative to buyers
Courtesy calls on people who’ve never given you work
I’m not saying that these activities are inherently worthless. I’m saying that they’re consuming scarce time that you simply can’t afford if you’re serious about developing the book of business you claim to want. You should be using every possible hour to interact personally and digitally with the “Who” that you’ve thoughtfully defined.
Ditch those courtesy lunches with corporate counsel or -executives from whom you’ve never gotten any work, but that you justify as relationship-building, in the hopes that, somehow, a better personal relationship will translate into business. Even if the restaurant is in your office building, you’re still committing an hour-and-a-half to that lunch. If you’re in the two-hours-per-week-BD-budget club, you’ve just consumed 75% of your weekly budget on the vague hope of getting something someday, somehow, by means you can’t define.
Instead, in that same amount of time, you could have sent 10 artful emails to your Who, containing useful information that reinforces your association with the problem that makes you relevant to them, and establishing an “idea relationship” that’s extensible, i.e., they can share it with others.
If you posted that same thinking into your LinkedIn profile, and syndicated it to 25 LinkedIn groups that contain your Who, you’d reach thousands of people directly, and some of those will share it with their network, extending your reach.
So, which is smarter? Spending 90 minutes on vague hope with one person, or reaching thousands of people with specific impact?
This is just one example. The point is that lawyers have outdated habits from many years of robust demand, or inherited from mentors who whose habits were formed under those optimal conditions.
Firm committees and civic groups
You may be thinking, “What’s wrong with serving on firm committees or civic groups?” Nothing. The question isn’t, “Is this worth doing?” Lots of things are worth doing. But, will doing them make it more likely that you’ll have time for biz dev, or less likely?
Focusing on the raw merits of the activity is a philosophical exercise that won’t help you. The question is, “If I spend time on this, will I have enough time to generate the business that I say is important to me?” You have to make hard choices. Might your partners look a bit askance if you step away from the Associates Committee, or even the Executive Committee, to focus on biz dev? Probably. But, if you don’t have time to do both, which do you really want? What’s more important to you?
Try this thought experiment. If business development was absolutely the most important thing in your business life, what would your day look like? Would you allow yourself to sit for two hours in a committee meeting in the middle of the day? This reflects the bad habit of relegating BD to the fantasy category of “extra time,” after everything else has been satisfied. That was OK when the (time) cost of acquiring business was much closer to zero. Now, though, it’s a recipe for failure.
Rank your goals in descending priority. This time, make BD first:
Legitimate BD activity to develop additional $1 million in business
Have a real life outside of work
Do great work
Keep clients loyal
Help manage the firm
(Surprised by #2? Make some time for yourself and those who are important in your life.)
I know every fiber of your lawyer being is recoiling at making business development the first allocation, but give it a try anyway. You’ll accomplish an important purpose: For the first time in your life, BD won’t be given leftovers.
Let’s say that your billable hour target is 150 hours/month. That leaves 50 hours of prime time during the business day for BD, plus some evenings and weekends. Yes, I said “evenings and weekends.” If you’re serious about getting business, it’s necessary. You can also shift some billable work to evenings and weekends to free up more prime time for BD.
Start with a clean sheet of paper and plan a month in which you devote 60 hours to BD. Think about when you’ll do your BD work, and put :30 and :60 blocks of BD time commitment into your calendar each week. At the beginning of each week, fill in the blocks with specific activities to complete.
This is what it takes.