When sales cycles in the legal profession can be as long as five years, it can be challenging to convince partners to participate in business development. But that’s no excuse to let this important activity slide, says Dr. Sharon Meit Abrahams, PhD, Director of Professional Development/Diversity & Inclusion, Foley & Lardner, and author of 100 Plus Pointers for the New Partner. Any law firm that wants to prosper in the midst of unprecedented challenges in today’s legal environment must make sure their partners take an active role in business development.
Here are Dr. Abrahams thoughts on these issues and her recommendations for moving forward.
First it’s important to understand the distinction between marketing and business development. Marketing is the firm’s branding, which can come about through speaking at events, sponsoring events, writing articles, distributing brochures, and establishing a website and LinkedIn page. Business development is all the activities that take place in the sales cycle, which largely revolves around building and nurturing relationships. Dr. Abrahams recommends the following as a key techniques involved in business development.
1. Develop a personal brand.
It’s essential for partners to get in front of and stay top of mind with people so they are remembered. To that end, they should seek opportunities for personal branding – such as speaking at conferences and authoring articles for a blog or third-party publication. Dr. Abrahams also suggests partners consider all the ways they can interact with prospective clients. Perhaps after meeting at a conference, forward an article of interest via email. Maybe during a networking lunch, the partner mentions his mother’s out-of-this-world apple pie. Follow up after the event to share the recipe.
2. Establish a worthy online and respectable physical presence.
The Internet and social media are affecting the legal sector just as they have affected other industries. “If you lack an online and social media presence, prospective clients won’t find you,” warns Dr. Abrahams.
“Part of your credibility in today’s world is based on your presence and exposure. It comes naturally to the younger generation to establish a personal brand online, so senior partners should find a young attorney to mentor them in these new ways,” she advises.
At the same time, younger attorneys need to understand that their physical presence is part of their personal brand. “Proper business attire commands respect, while casual attire could cause clients to raise their eyebrows. How you present yourself matters,” cautions Dr. Abrahams.
3. Focus on serving, not selling.
Too many lawyers focus on selling themselves, when they should focus on being problem solvers. Those that simply pitch themselves and tout their strengths will miss out on client opportunities. Dr. Abrahams says partners should go beyond selling legal solutions to sell business solutions.
“Talk to your clients. Ask them about their business. What’s keeping them up at night? What’s impacting their cash flow? You can’t offer a solution if you don’t know understand their problems,” says Dr. Abrahams.
While this approach requires patience and restraint, it’s essential to building relationships that can ultimately turn into client engagements.
For instance, say a prospective client mentions the need to find funding for her company. The partner could connect her an investment banker, a private equity capital firm, or other relevant resource. This positions the partner as a trusted advisor. When they need legal assistance at a later date, they will think first of that helpful partner.
4. Know and promote fellow partners.
“In any size law firm, you need to know other partners’ expertise. You’re not just selling your services, you’re selling your firm,” she says. “For instance, let’s say you’re in the intellectual property world, but you’re talking with a client and they make a comment about their challenges with hazardous waste. If you don’t know that you have a partner who’s expert in environmental law, you’ll miss a huge opportunity.”
5. Provide resources.
To help their partners learn the ins and outs of business development, Dr. Abrahams recommends that law firms offer them training resources. She maintains a career resource library of business development, sales, and marketing materials that lawyers can access at any time, including the following titles:
- The Trusted Advisor, by David H. Maister, Charles H. Green and Robert M. Galford
- The Success Principles, by Jack Canfield
- Marketing to Women, by Marti Barletta
- The Difference: How the Power of Diversity Creates Better Groups, Firms, Schools, and Societies, by Scott E. Page
- Never Eat Alone, by Keith Ferrazzi
- The Associate as Rainmaker, by David King Keller
- Compensation Plans for Law Firms, by James D. Cotterman
The library includes non-law-related books since they can be excellent sources of inspiration and ideas. Dr. Abrahams advises time-strapped lawyers should at least read the Cliff-Note versions and executive summaries of these books.
“I really believe that you need to be a business-solution expert and not a legal-solution expert. It’s one of the best ways to get a foot in the door, keep it there and become a trusted business advisor,” concludes Dr. Abrahams.