Can Using Business Development Effectively Give you a Competitive Edge?

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The obvious answer to the title question is of course, yes.

Last night, I had the opportunity to join William McLaughlin, the Business Development Manager for Southeast Asia at ZICO Law on a webinar for NEXL, a business development platform. We had a robust discussion around this topic which I’ll share when the recording is available, but in the meantime, let’s delve into some of the questions that I’d considered in advance and where lawyers and law firms are today when it comes to business development.

Is Business Development Different from Marketing?

I really hope that everyone reading this already knows that the answer to this question is yes. Historically, law firm professionals (meaning those in your marketing departments) have always understood the difference, but lawyers and law firms have expected them to wear both hats. However, over the last several years, firms have begun to understand the difference and are heeding the professionals’ advice to segment out these two functions within firms. Although some smaller and mid-sized firms still have only one person (or one person per function) in many cases, you’re seeing more finely delineated actions associated with both roles. This will also be dependent on geography (as we discussed during the session last night).

How Have Clients’ Expectations Changed Over the Last 1-3 Years Regarding Business Development?

Firms don’t do anything unless their clients drive it. And while we still do business based on the adage that clients want to do business with those they know, like and trust, there is an expectation and understanding now, depending on the type of work and clients, that some firms will begin that process or include in that process a business development and, in some cases, operations, professional, who is responsible for the “professional” side of the transaction. That person has an understanding of the clients’ business, the industry, the market factors, and will then bring in the relationship partner when the timing is right. As firms become more sophisticated and recognize that they are more profitable and efficient when run as businesses, and their clients demand this more and more, this will and has become more common.

What Are Some Effective, Competitive Business Development Strategies?

Is there anything new when it comes to business development? Not really – the tried and true methods are successful for a reason. Sally Schmidt, President of Schmidt Marketing, Inc. authored a fantastic piece for Attorney at Work on “Six Business Development Strategies for Lawyers,” which suggests how traditional methods can be adapted for pandemic times (or dare we say “normal” times?). These ideas are ones to lean on and hone to be successful and effective – I’ll delve into a couple, but first and foremost, you need to come into any business development activity with goals and a plan – what is it that you want to achieve and why? Know who you want your clients and potential clients to be, and the techniques and strategies you’ll use to get them will become evident.

  • Cross-selling: I know a lot of lawyers hate this term, and so we’ve changed it to become a lot of different things, but let’s all be grown-ups and admit that when we put down our swords and share the table with each other, these tactics actually work. Take an honest look at your existing clients and referral sources (this includes those of you with a membership network like the ILN) and do a gap analysis – Sally discusses this in detail, saying that you want to look at where you’ve represented them in the past, both substantively and geographically. Then, put together a client team that can cover these services and jurisdictions. If your firm doesn’t have that coverage, look at your referral partners for those teams – clients don’t care about the details; they just want you to get the work done effectively and efficiently. If you already work well with your referral sources (again, think membership networks!) why not leverage them in this way?
  • Stay visible to clients: People often think of content as “marketing” and it often is, but you can easily translate it to business development. Is there a particular client that you’ve been trying to get more work from or a meeting with? Ask them to co-author an article or be a guest on your podcast. Look at what their company has been doing lately and write about some of their issues (broadly, of course), and then drop them an email with a link and why it might be useful. Content isn’t just for marketing.
  • Make proactive pitches: Similar to the cross-selling suggestion above, this is another great time to connect with referral colleagues or your colleagues in other offices or practice and industry areas to see where you may be stronger together in pitching for new work.
  • Expand institutional relationships: Previously, we’d do a lot of this in person. You can choose to do some of that on a limited basis in person now, depending on your clients’ locations and tolerance, or you can get creative – offer to host a webinar for their in-house team or set up one-on-one calls without video for people who are fed up with video.

Consider too for some that hiring a business development coach may be a great answer. It’s not for everyone, but creating an environment within the firm where groups of lawyers are accountable to each other for their business development activities can be helpful as can giving people guidance on developing their goals, strategies, and tactics.

What are the Emerging Trends in Business Development?

There are a few key trends in BD at the moment – why do these matter? If it’s not something that your firm is doing or considering, it may mean that another firm has a competitive advantage over you when it comes to winning business.

  • Overall, we’ve seen an increase in investment in business development, with marketing and BD leaders becoming more of a part of the strategic operations of law firms. [LexisNexis, January 2021]
  • Firms are creating more of a defined business development process. [LexisNexis, January 2021]
  • We’re seeing greater use of tracking, though whether the input of data is effective is still questionable. [Attorney at Work, March 2021]
  • Firms are being more collaborative – this is a trend that started in past years, but has been accelerated because of the pandemic and the accessibility of tools like Teams and Zoom. [Attorney at Work, March 2021]

Law firms have gotten increasingly sophisticated in the almost twenty years that I’ve been in the legal industry, which continues to benefit both the clients and the firms themselves. The more we focus on the twin goals of adding client value and increasing law firm efficiency (both of which lead to profitability), the more I believe we’ll see the importance of the law firm business professional rise.

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