The distinction between business development and marketing is often overlooked, and non-marketing professionals may use the two terms interchangeably. Business development is a career-long process with twists, turns, ups and downs over time. Marketing, on the other hand, is more about advertising your name or product to a particular audience, rather than cultivating the important relationships that will benefit you over your career. People often underestimate the importance of business development, but it is never too early to start developing, growing and maintaining business prospects in the form of client and referral relationships.
Business development is a forward-looking exercise that starts in law school, if not before. But even if you did not get started at the beginning of your career, you can still implement the techniques below, recognizing that your efforts may take several years to bear fruit.
The attitudes we bring to our interpersonal dealings influence our professional lives, as we interact with superiors, subordinates, peers, staff, referral sources, and clients. You have undoubtedly heard the maxim that how you treat the receptionist or secretary will be conveyed to their boss, who just may be the person deciding your future with the firm. If you are rude, unpleasant, or unprofessional to others based on their status, you may earn a negative reputation that will follow you in your career. The better approach is to be pleasant and civil to everyone you encounter, especially in the professional setting.
You can develop the way you want to present yourself by observing and emulating those people around you who you respect, and adopting useful behaviors (and avoiding distasteful behaviors). Often, we can better understand how our own behavior is perceived by watching another person engage in the same behavior. Conversely, we can imitate the behavior and attitudes that we consider successful.
An important and often dismissed aspect of success is attitude. A lawyer may be extremely intelligent and competent, but without the right attitude, he or she will not maintain enough business to support and grow his or her practice, whether in a large firm or small office. Conversely, the earlier you develop the mindset that being a lawyer is about much more than billing hours, and recognize that you are fortunate to be in the profession, the likelier you will convey a positive attitude about yourself and our profession, which will lead to future business.
Another important aspect of projecting a positive attitude is to care about the quality of your work, your client’s needs and how to serve them, and the experience of your day. If you think of practicing law as a “job” where you show up, do tasks for a set number of hours, and leave, you will not maximize your skills as a lawyer and you will not develop business. You will not be projecting yourself as a knowledgeable, successful attorney passionate about clients’ needs if you send the message that you locked your law degree in your desk drawer when you left the office at five o’clock. In other words, whether in a professional or social setting, you want to carry yourself so that you instill confidence in others, so that they want to hire you or refer family, friends, and clients to you one day.
Projecting a positive attitude can greatly impact how you are perceived by present and future clients and colleagues. Make the best of every situation. When you raise a problem, present a solution, an option or the commitment to find the best possible outcome.
Remember law is a service industry, and you serve internal and external clients. Internal clients are your colleagues, who can direct work to you. To serve internal clients, help them look good to their external clients. Let them know how your skills can help their individual clients or their overall practice. External clients do not work in your organization, and present greater opportunities to develop business not only for yourself but also for your colleagues. Follow the golden rule and treat clients, both internal and external, as you would want to be treated—with work performed and advice given timely, respectfully, and accurately.
Cultivate a mentor
Find someone who is interested in you and your success. A mentor may be interested in you because you remind her of herself, because she has known you your whole life, because you are involved in a similar practice or extracurricular activity, or because it will help her success. She does not have to be an attorney. Assigned mentor relationships have value, but informal, independently developed mentorships can be even more precious.
Ask for feedback
Spend more time listening than talking, and welcome constructive criticism. When receiving feedback, do not be defensive. Take the feedback, and seek out more. If you disagree, get a second opinion. Like Oliver Twist said: “Please sir, I want some more.”
Associate with people you admire
Take them to lunch or meet for coffee to talk about how they got where they are, and to hear their advice on success. Lawyers have opinions and like to share them, so keep what works for you and discard (but do not forget) the rest. Approach the learning curve like legal research—when your different sources converge on the same advice, accept it as a core principle.
Join and participate
You may have heard these suggestions already from mentors and more senior colleagues, but perhaps they will have more impact if seen in black and white, from an independent third party. Joining a group and getting your name on a list is better than nothing, but attending the group’s events and getting to know other participants will help you build your personal network of professional contacts.
Join a nonprofit board (or advisory board), the young professional’s group in your chamber of commerce, and the ABA Section and local bar association section relevant to your practice. Participate by attending the meetings and events, introducing yourself to the leadership and other attendees, volunteering to be on a committee, or writing an article (which does not have to be a law review article, and does not require you to be a public speaker). Do not take on responsibility you are unable to carry out, because that is worse than never volunteering in the first place.
Keep your eye on the long-term prize
Rarely do you meet someone who hears what you do and says, “I have that very issue right now and need you to resolve it for me.” Rather, you encounter the same people in different places and at different times, and they become confident in your competence and think of you when that “very issue” arises. This is where attitude ties back in—even if they contact you about something not in your practice area, instead of telling them what type of lawyer they need to find, help them find that lawyer and make an introduction. Whether the referral is to a colleague or someone outside your firm, you are building goodwill with that client and with the recipient of the referral. Even if you are told that you do not need to worry about bringing in your own business because there is plenty to go around, do not neglect your own professional development. You do not want to be asked 10 years later why you do not have your own clients. If you think you don’t haveenough time to get your work done and participate in non-billable activities, make time. Watch less TV, or find an industry-related organization that allows you to have fun while making these important connections.
The number of lawyers in the United States has increased dramatically in the past few decades, and because lawyers do not retire at the rate that other professionals retire, you are competing against lawyers at all stages and ages. You must find a way to stand out in the field, to distinguish yourself from your colleagues and outside competition. Cultivate an area of legal interest or topic that interests you personally. When you tie your personal interests into your legal knowledge, your attitude reflects your excitement and interest in your professional life, which in turn can enhance your career.
Whether you are a big-firm lawyer or a solo practitioner, whether you graduated summa cum laude or barely passed the bar exam, you can have a successful practice and be a good lawyer. A positive attitude and targeted approach can help you cultivate and keep the internal and external clients to maintain your career for the long-term.
About the Author
Rachel Albritton Lunsford is a partner with Barnett, Bolt, Kirkwood, Long & Koche, P.A. in Tampa, FL. She can be reached at 813.253.2020 ext. 168 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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