Business Development Not-to-Do #2: Focus on the Legal Department

JD Supra Perspectives

Legal matters don't originate as legal matters. They always derive from something else.

In terms of business development, lawyers' version of the Holy Grail is having a relationship with, or merely being able to pitch to, a company's General Counsel. That's considered the enabler to (presumed) BD success. Actually, for many reasons it's not, and that extends to the entire legal department. There are three reasons why I urge lawyers to pay more attention to line-of-business management and less to the Legal Department.

  1. The Legal Department is a trailing indicator of demand for legal services, not a leading indicator
  2. They're a tiny fraction of the company's population
  3. It's a crowded space; all your competitors are focused there

Trailing indicator of demand

If you reverse-engineer your most desirable matters, continually identifying another immediate precursor until you arrive at the "prime mover," you'll always find that it was a business behavior, attitude, omission, decision, etc. Legal matters don't originate as legal matters. They always derive from something else. Some readers may be thinking, "What about when a client gets sued. Isn't that the beginning of the chain?" For that client, yes. But they're merely the final piece in a behavior/attitude/decision chain begun by the adversary.

By the time an issue is defined as a legal issue, it's too late to enter the game as anything but another vendor begging for a slice of the pie.

You'll find that the line-of-business managers, out there at the pointy end of the stick, are the actors or observers of those triggering behaviors. They're the first to be aware of the business issue that may later become a legal issue, or require a legal component to its resolution or completion. That's where the vibrant industry conversation occurs, and where you can establish your relevance to those principals' concerns. If you participate in that (as I urged previously) you're very likely to know about opportunities or threats before the company's in-house lawyers know about it. If you're part of that early conversation, your odds of being chosen to participate in the solution go up a lot. By the time an issue is defined as a legal issue, it's too late to enter the game as anything but another vendor begging for a slice of the pie.

Tiny fraction of the population

If the Legal Department is your sole or primary entry point or sales focus, you're severely limiting your access relative to the number of alternatives. Even the largest in-house departments, such as an insurance company, are well under 2% of the overall headcount. For most companies, it's a fraction of a percentage point.

Here's an example. If you're a litigator, you're one of roughly 400,000 litigators in the US. There are somewhere around 16,000 US corporate counsel. That means there's roughly a 25:1 ratio of sellers to buyers. Those are tough odds.

To Do: Focus on Line-of-Business Management

By contrast, there are an estimated 2,000,000 line-of-business managers within the Fortune 500 alone. Cobbling together data from various sources, it looks like there may be another 3,000,000 managers in another 486,000 US companies with more than 50 employees. That's 5,000,000 managers -- just in the US -- compared to fewer than 35,000 corporate counsel worldwide.

...remember that the industry conversation includes corporate counsel.

Another advantage the industry focus offers is the greater number of communication channels available to connect you to your market. Since any one outlet will limit the number of times you can appear there, you need a lot more channels to become widely known. Also, the legal-issue conversation is narrower and attracts a large number of competitors, making it much harder for you to differentiate yourself, get noticed. The industry conversation is much broader, deeper, more dynamic, and with infinitely more participants on the buying side.

Finally, remember that the industry conversation includes corporate counsel. They have to keep up with the issues that are important to their internal clients, so when you speak to and with the industry, you're reaching the Legal Department, too. However, unlike your competitors who only speak "legal," by speaking "industry business" you raise the odds of getting referred to in-house counsel by the voices that are most important to them.

Stop viewing companies through the narrow keyhole of the Legal Department. Use the industry conversation as the key that opens the door 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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