Business Development Not-to-Do #1: Pursue Individual Companies

JD Supra Perspectives

With apologies to Jim Collins ('Good to Great'), here is my Not-To-Do list to steer you away from unproductive efforts, and a corresponding To-Do for each to get you on the right track for today's market conditions:

Among lawyers who try to make a serious attempt at generating business, most that I've worked with over the past 25 years were in the habit of targeting specific companies. They invested lots of time developing a relationship with in-house counsel, often over a period of years, believing that a BD cycle that long was somehow inherent to the law business. There are two problems with this approach:

  1. It's unconscionably slow, expensive, and risky
  2. There's a much faster, cheaper, safer way to go about it

Cultivating anyone for years is the "slow" part. Years are, well, years. Lawyers' economic system is based on time, so "years" also defines "expensive." "Risky" is the big one, though. There's no way to predict who ultimately will buy, so picking an individual company is inherently risky. You could spend three years cultivating relationships and never get a nickel's worth of business. I know countless lawyers who've experienced exactly that. Yet, many persist with the failed strategy.

There's no way to predict who will buy, so picking an individual company is inherently risky... 

The justification for this casino behavior seems to be rooted in, "I'm a great lawyer. If I spend enough time with these people, they'll see that and give me a chance to show my greatness. From that beachhead, I'll grow my share of the legal pie."

The choice of which companies to cultivate is often based on little more than knowing a single person who works there. "I just learned that my friend Alice is IP Counsel at XYZCo. I'll leverage my relationship with her and, over time, she'll send work my way." Or, worse, at a networking event the lawyer makes a casual acquaintance with someone from XYZCo and interprets that as a basis for opportunity. Worst of all, the lawyer knows nobody there but, seduced by the lure of a cache brand and the prospect of adding a high-profile company to the firm's roster, invests time in a sustained attempt at "relationship-building." Hey, they're big, they're rich, they spend a lot of money on legal services, it's just a matter of time until you cash in, right?

Wrong. You have no objective information that points to any reason why they'd want yet another outside lawyer, much less you specifically. "Because I'm really good" doesn't count. And there's a long list of reasons why this might be a bad investment. Here are just a few:

  • Adding another supplier adds a management burden that they're not willing to take on
  • The CEO's sister is a partner in a competing law firm
  • They're about to embark on a draconian cost-cutting campaign
  • They're about to sell the company, or a raider is about to take it over
  • Unknown to you, someone who had a bad experience with your firm or you is now in a position of influence
  • They may not have -- or acknowledge -- the problem your service solves

This is just a small sample. You know of many others. The point is that there could be any number of deal-killers present, but not readily visible from the outside. You may have to invest months or years just to discover those, much less make a dent in overcoming them.

The whole "pursue" mentality is based on the mistaken belief that, for someone to do business with you, they must first have a personal relationship with you based on frequent face-to-face interaction. It's simply not true.

To-Do: Establish Yourself In an Industry

"Attract" is far more effective and efficient than "Pursue." Just as you diversify your personal financial investments to reduce risk, so too should you spread your risk across as many companies as possible by earning a virtual relationship with many companies simultaneously. By doing so, you don't have to try to figure out who's ready to buy and who isn't, or hang around for months or years waiting for them to be ready.

"Attract" is far more effective and efficient than "Pursue."

Dr. Martin Luther King aspired to a world where people would be judged not by skin color but "by the content of their character." As lawyers, in the BD sense you want to be judged by the relevance of your content, the usefulness of your ideas, the richness of your understanding of the industry/business context, and the creativity of the solutions you advocate.

If you participate in the industry conversation, sharing useful thinking about problems and issues that have sufficient impact that companies must take action to deal with, and that you can solve, you'll create the following mathematical reduction:

  • A percentage of those exposed to your ideas will find them relevant, and will pay attention to you. They'll voluntarily engage with you by subscribing to your blog, email list or Twitter feed, or follow you on LinkedIn, etc.
  • A percentage of those who engage with you will decide that they like and agree with how you think
  • Over time, you'll be inextricably linked to that industry issue in the minds of many people in the industry
  • A percentage of those who associate you with the problem will experience that problem and have to deal with it
  • A percentage of those who have to deal with the problem will consult with you about it
  • A percentage of those who consult you will discover that they like you personally as much as they like your thinking
  • A percentage of those will hire you

Your challenge is to

  • pick an industry where a form of the problem you solve is emerging and has significant enough impact that it commands action and investment, and
  • occurs frequently enough that you don't have to have a huge market share.

I won't trivialize the challenge, but it's one for which the path to success is already well known. You don't have to reinvent the wheel, merely do some thinking, learning about the industry context, and then apply the proven methods consistently. This is completely achievable, and doesn't require anywhere near the effort or risk as pursuing individual companies. 

You're pursuing the industry, and letting its members sort out the rest for you.


Many lawyers are burdened by business development practices inherited from other lawyers, or that they observed among their firm's rainmakers. However, many approaches and tactics that used to succeed in the Seller's Market can't now because the game changed in 2009, which began a Buyer's Market that lawyers will face for the balance of their careers. With that in mind, this is part of a series: A baker's dozen pairs of BD activities Not-To-Do and To-Do.

[Mike O'Horo is the co-founder of RainmakerVT and has trained 7000 lawyers in firms of all sizes and types, in virtually every practice type. They attribute $1.5 billion in additional business to their collaboration.]

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