What’s the Problem?

When you aren’t achieving the results you want to see from your business development activity, you almost certainly have one of three problems. Identify the problem, make a thoughtful shift, and you will likely see your results change. (The difficulty, of course, is in knowing what change to make, but that’s another topic for another day.)

So, what are the three problems?

  1. Not enough quality potential clients (directly or by referral).  You may not be having enough conversations that lead to a “getting the business” conversations, or you may be having plenty of conversations, but with the wrong people. For instance, if you’re having numerous business conversations that don’t intersect with your area of practice, you have a “leads” problem. (Unless, that is, those conversations lead to your bringing business to a colleague and getting an origination credit even though you personally aren’t doing the work.)
  2. Not enough sales conversations, or not being able to close the sale. Your connections may stall short of an opportunity to discuss a specific legal problem that your prospective client has and to offer your services, or you may find that you’re unable actually to land the work. You won’t be able to grow a sizeable or a stable book of business until you solve a sales-related problem.
  3. Poor client service. If you don’t serve your clients well (in what you do for them as well as how you provide that service), you’ll have dissatisfied clients. Studies show that unhappy clients often don’t communicate their dissatisfaction but simply take their business elsewhere, leaving the former service provider unclear on what happened. If you’re losing clients often, if you aren’t receiving referrals from your clients, or if your clients have repeat business that doesn’t come to you, you have a problem with client service. Although this problem will initially affect your work with current clients, it will eventually undermine your opportunity to secure new work.

Do you have a problem in one (or more) of these areas?  Identifying the problem gives you an opportunity to identify an appropriate solution.

Evidence-based business development decisions

Have you ever found yourself wondering whether to pursue one or another course of action for business development purposes? Absent a crystal ball, unfortunately, it’s often difficult to know in advance what will get you the maximum reward. But if you track your results, you’ll be able to use the simplest system ever. Here’s how.

  1. Keep a record of your activities. You can make this simple or quite complex, but you’ll probably find simple to be more actionable. The simplest way to do this is to create a spreadsheet with spaces for date, activity, results,  next step, and decision. Every time you complete an activity, note it.
  2. As you begin to see results (or the lack thereof), update your spreadsheet. Many activities will get immediate results of one form or another (inviting a contact to lunch, for instance), but some may have a longer gap between action and result (actually having lunch with that contact and waiting to see whether you get work, introductions, or some other next step as a result). Schedule a monthly review to keep track of those longer-term results.
  3. Note your next steps.Assuming you’re going to continue this activity, what would your next step be? Ideally, you’d complete this entry after you see results, but if your activity is more prone to long-term results, you may need to project a next step based on the results you anticipate. If that’s the case, be sure that you go back to confirm whether those results actually came to pass. (If not, all the more reason for you to track your activity carefully and improve your predictions!)
  4. Once a quarter, review your activities and results, and decide whether you should stop or continue the activity based solely on the results you’ve attained.You might choose to overrule that decision (if, for instance, your results represent a promising midpoint toward a meaningful outcome), but this decision should be based purely on the evidence you see.
  5. For each “stop” you note, ask yourself what activity you might start to replace it. Use the evidence you’ve gathered to hone your ideas. If every indication is that attending bar association meetings is not beneficial for you, don’t add another bar group and hope for a different result. Instead, investigate an industry organization or a business group.

Want to get even better results? Ask a mentor or trusted colleague to help you determine what to start, stop, and continue. The benefit of this process (adapted from the performance review context) is that you’ll quit making decisions based on emotions like hope (“but if I keep doing this, I might land an amazing piece of business”) or fear (“I’m really comfortable doing this, and if I start doing that instead, it’s going to be hard and I might fail”). And when you remove emotion, you’ll see clearly what to do.

What should you start, stop, or continue?

Legal business development: You’ve got to stand out.


All lawyers in any given practice area are a dime a dozen, right?
Think about your own area. Who stands out in your mind? It’s likely (assuming you’ve been in practice for a while) that you can identify at least a few lawyers who catch attention. Maybe it’s the divorce lawyer who’s known for high-profile divorces. Perhaps it’s the patent lawyer who’s created a curriculum to educate her clients on what to expect in the patenting process and what to be doing to maximize the chances of business success. Or it could be the litigator who’s known for baiting witnesses so effectively that fireworks always erupt.

Every lawyer has some skill, experience, attribute, or approach that distinguishes him or her from others. Those distinguishing factors demonstrate to your potential clients what makes you different and why they should hire you. Equally importantly, they also pave the way for you to market yourself in fresh ways.

The points of distinction that you highlight must be those that matter to your clients. If a client wouldn’t see the value in something that sets you apart from others, you’ve merely identified a distinction, not a real difference. You might have to connect the dots in some instances (for example, some clients might not immediately appreciate the benefit of a lawyer who draws on her background in tax law to support her clients’ licensing needs) but when explained the client must understand why that aspect offers an advantage.

When it comes to marketing, identifying a point of distinction will allow you to a marketing message that answers potential clients’ questions or concerns (some of which they may not even be aware of yet) by highlighting your relevant experience or skill. You are able to speak to something valuable that other lawyers can’t, and you immediately rise above the crowd.

To identify what sets you apart, ask yourself:

  1. What past experience (professional or personal) bears on your practice?
  2. What skill, knowledge, or experience do you bring to your practice that will be helpful for clients?
  3. What kind of practice-related opportunities can you forecast, and how can you position yourself to meet them?

If you’re practicing in a large firm, consider too the advantages that flow from having numerous colleagues in widely divergent practice areas. You may have a leading authority on speed dial, or you might be able to find a resource to meet a client’s need no matter the issue he’s facing. This is especially beneficial for newer lawyers who may not yet have the experience or reputation to stand on their own for marketing but who can market their firm quite effectively.

You might also consider how can you serve your clients in new or innovative ways. In addition to your primary services, for instance, perhaps you could offer ancillary services or products to offer a fuller solution to your clients’ needs. Are there free or reduced-fee services that you might offer as a way of introducing yourself and your skills to a class of potential clients or referral sources?

You might stand apart from others by offering a quarterly free Q&A meeting (ideally in person) during which you present must-know points and respond to potential clients’ questions about topics related to your practice area. For example, if you practice elder law, you might host a monthly gathering to help adult children learn what legal issues they should plan for as they assist their aging parents.  You could offer a fee-based group in which you cover key issues in more depth, and you might have certain forms or templates for sale that the adult children could use to implement your suggestions. Although some clients will get what they need from those free and low-cost offerings, others will want or need your help and will hire you.

If your practice spans geographic areas in such a way that you don’t often have an opportunity to meet face-to-face with your clients, look to technology to bridge the distance. Videoconferencing is one common approach that isn’t used as often as it probably should be. You could craft a marketing message around the personal service you offer and the importance of tailoring legal solutions to each individual (or business); weaving in your enhanced communication opportunities will set you apart from others who merely use the words but don’t actually deliver the value.

How might you create a different approach to client service? Consider these questions:

  1. How can I meet both legal and non-legal needs that my clients frequently present?
  2. How can I build innovative services that will benefit my clients?
  3. What might I do to answer potential client questions, introduce my clients to beneficial resources, or otherwise extend my services in unexpected ways?

Identifying your points of differentiation and using them to craft a marketing message requires analysis, insight, and sometimes even an intuitive leap. Hold a brainstorming session with the proviso that no answer is too wacky to be considered.  Sometimes impractical or unpalatable ideas provide the leap to a truly unique marketing message and practice. And don’t hesitate to seek help with this: sometimes outsider vision reveals what an insider will never see.

The Clock Never Runs Out on Legal Business Development


Sports is a great teaching forum for lessons about business development.

In last weekend’s Super Bowl, the Denver Broncos’ fate was sealed by the beginning of the fourth quarter. There’s always some possibility that a team can make a comeback, but 28 points down with 15 minutes to play takes that possibility almost to zero.

A friend observed that, in the 4th quarter, the Seattle Seahawks were playing just for fun, sure of a win. But here’s the thing: they continued to play hard until the last possession. Not because they “needed” to – even a few mistakes and turnovers probably would not have changed the outcome of the game – but because those who excel in any field continue competing against themselves even when they’ve achieved the initial goal. Not “Whew, we’ve won, let’s relax now,” but “Yes! We won! Now let’s see how far we can take this win!”

And by the same token, even when every player and every fan had given up hope of a Broncos victory, the Broncos continued to play as best they possibly could.  Although they didn’t play anywhere approaching the level that got them into the Super Bowl, they didn’t give up just because it was clear they were going to lose. Instead, they kept fighting to minimize the loss.

What does this have to do with legal business development? It’s all about attitude. Attitude, mindset, mental approach, belief system – all of these concepts describe not just what you do, but how you do it.

Where do you stop yourself when you’re succeeding? This shows up most frequently in the feast/famine cycle: stopping your business development work simply because you’re too busy and don’t need the work…Right up until the moment that you realize you don’t have enough work, and you have to start all over again. If things are going well, how can you ensure that you’re pushing the envelope to make things go even better?

Even more importantly, where do you stop yourself when you’re not succeeding? It doesn’t take a failure to knock some people off their game. Sometimes it’s just being slow to get results. We all want to see speedy success, but especially when it comes to bringing in new business, it doesn’t always work that way. That’s why it’s so important to check your metrics. Are you making progress toward your objectives? (And that’s why it’s important to set goals, so that you can measure progress and not just movement.)

Of course, sometimes failure is final. A critical skill is knowing when to keep pounding away and when to change course. (For more on this, see Seth Godin’s short and smart book The Dip. You’ll find my review here.)

How you choose to push yourself or back off is telling when it comes to whether you’re likely to succeed in building a consistent pipeline of new business. Next time you meet a business development goal you’ve set, ask whether there’s something more you can and should do to exceed that goal. Push yourself just a bit further. And if you catch yourself thinking that you failed or that your plan is never going to work, take a breath, question your assumptions (which often requires some outside help), and see what you can do to transform your failure into success.

Because here’s the truth: the clock never runs out on business development as it does on a football game. You don’t have to accept poor results as the end of the story. Instead, you can reevaluate your plan, reshape your strategy, rethink your objectives, and get some help. Keep fighting smart, and your failure will not be final.

Struggling with failure? Legal Rainmaking Myths offers a full section on the misapprehensions that keep smart lawyers from succeeding in legal business development. Find the Kindle version here; the print version will be available in a few weeks.