How to Develop a Client-Centric Approach to Business Development at Your Law Firm

by JD Supra Perspectives
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Clients come to law firms because they need help finding and implementing solutions – each law firm employee is in essence a legal solution provider and a problem solver. And in a crowded and often unpredictable business climate, it is more important than ever to embrace and anticipate changes to meet the shifting needs of clients. Most importantly, we always need to put our clients first and ensure that every employee embraces a client-centric mindset.

You may not want to hear this, but being a great lawyer at one of the top firms in the Am Law 100 doesn’t guarantee you a solid book of business anymore. Neither does having a law degree from one of the top schools in the country. None of these fancy credentials matter if you don’t have the right people skills (or emotional intelligence) to connect with clients on a personal level. 

Surveys have shown that clients make buying decisions from people they like, trust and whom they believe are subject matter experts (in that order). Of course, the firm brand matters, as does a lawyer’s credentials, but not as much as they used to because clients are more value driven today than ever before, and at the heart of it, a client is hiring a human being who they feel understands their legal and business needs, and cares about them. They are in a bind and have a problem that needs to be solved. This provides a great opportunity for mid-size law firms as well as small boutique firms, because they can often offer clients greater flexibility with pricing.

In this very saturated market, a lawyer is unlikely to build a loyal client base solely through providing high-quality legal services. In a relationship-driven business like law, often what sets a lawyer and its firm apart are the intangibles such as delivering stellar client service (which includes anticipating client needs, acting as a business advisor and a lawyer, and being predictable and accountable). If you always keep in mind that the vast majority of legal work goes to those lawyers who understand their clients’ businesses inside and out, make their clients look good both internally and externally, and are the kind of people with whom clients genuinely like working, you will always be on the right path. Today it’s not so much about the name on the door, the fancy marble offices, but rather about going above and beyond for your clients. 

My current firm consistently underscores that everyone at our firm is in a business development role and it fits well with our entrepreneurial culture. We empower all of our lawyers to develop business, and we stress that the only way to be successful at business development is to make the time for it. To support that, we developed a number of initiatives to give our lawyers the tools to succeed in lead generation and client retention. The cornerstone of these efforts is a business development pipeline lead generation program based on Karen Kahn’s must-read book Daunting to DOable (more about the book in a minute).

Participants in the pipeline program, who range from first-year associates to senior partners (because it’s never too early or too late to focus on enhancing your book of business), meet together monthly to brainstorm leads, discuss tactics and outreach, and report back on their progress and roadblocks. The program also focuses on best practices in cross-selling, client service and networking. We are striving to provide our lawyers with the critical skills they will need today and tomorrow to generate new business and develop stronger professional relationships. It doesn’t matter if they are an introvert or an extrovert, or prefer in-person networking to online networking – there is something for everyone in this program. 

The best part of this program is that doesn’t require a huge financial investment. It’s doable for firms of any size as long as they are willing to make the time commitment. Of course, there are a few expenditures, such as buying Karen’s book, setting aside a modest budget for entertainment for the participating lawyers’ in-person networking with clients and prospects, and the monthly group lunches.

Because we know that clients regularly hire outside counsel who they’ve known for many years – from law school, a prior firm, a friend of a friend or a past matter – the program focuses on cultivating relationships, a core principle of Karen’s book. We also stress that it’s important to treat everyone with whom you come into contact as if they could be a future client or referral source, a helpful guiding principle in how to interact with your professional network.

We provide tools and strategies to help our lawyers enhance their professional relationships with a combination of in-person and online networking (LinkedIn has transformed the way in which our lawyers have been able to efficiently communicate and stay in touch with key individuals in their networks). The core concept of the program – and Karen’s book – is that there are a lot of great lawyers in the industry, so you must find ways to stand out from your competitors and outshine them. 

One great way to do that is by going out of your way to aid individuals in your network without expecting anything in return to build stronger relationships over time. These are actions such as helping someone find a job, sending a newsworthy article to an important contact, or congratulating a contact on a professional or personal milestone. I truly believe that cultivating relationships and helping people are the keys to professional success today. 

Some of the core principles we are focusing on in the program center on developing a more client-centric mindset and building a strong professional brand in the process. For example:

  • Investing in clients and getting to know them on a personal level in order to strengthen relationships. 
  • Learning about the companies, businesses and industries of important clients inside and out at the expense of the firm and on the lawyers’ own time. What challenges and opportunities are your clients facing? How can you help them with these? Delving into these areas will enable you to better anticipate their needs and be a smarter legal solution provider.
  • Saying YES more. Say yes to most opportunities that come your way that interest you, even when they make you a bit uncomfortable. Maybe it’s writing, speaking or taking on a leadership role within an industry professional organization. It is often during the times when you step outside of your comfort zone that you are able to truly grow. Always under-promise and over-deliver on these opportunities.
  • Connecting in person and electronically. In the digital world in which we live, networking online is just as important as making in-person connections. LinkedIn is the most important social media channel for business development. Spend the time to develop a strong LinkedIn profile that highlights your professional attributes and background.
  • Engaging on social media. Having a strong LinkedIn profile is the first step but regularly liking, sharing and posting value-added content is how to effectively use social media. Use LinkedIn to reconnect with contacts and to keep abreast of job moves and professional milestones of important contacts. 
  • Regularly asking clients about their business goals, being attuned to their needs and then developing solutions to meet those needs.
  • Frequently following up with important contacts by sending them value-added content with a personal note.
  • Adding value by connecting people who can create value for each other. One of the best ways to build relationships is by linking people to each other. For example, instead of taking one client or prospect out for drinks or dinner, bring several clients/potential clients together. People enjoy meeting each other, especially when they have commonalities. They will appreciate you for introducing them, and you will strengthen your relationship to all of them in the process, which is a win-win for everyone, most importantly, you.
  • Smartly network. Become an expert networker by making people feel special and being a good listener. Don’t hijack the conversation and talk about yourself too much – always remember to listen vs. talk. Maximize your time at the functions you attend so that you can meet as many key people as possible. Make sure to get business cards from the people you meet and connect with them afterwards on LinkedIn with a personal note.
  • And perhaps most importantly, regularly asking clients how you’re doing and what you could be doing better/differently. Many lawyers don’t open the door to feedback because they’re afraid of what they might hear, which is a huge mistake. An even bigger mistake is asking for feedback and not acting on it. So always follow through.

With the limited time that we each have for things outside the scope of client work, it’s important to start off each week with a big picture look at what you want to accomplish in business development. Avoid placing too many things on the “If I have time I will…” list. Consider blocking out an hour in your calendar at the beginning of the day, or use your commuting time to draft an article, connect with VIP contacts on social media. It’s important to remember these types of investments in business development only work if you make the time for them. 

Clients are seeking outside counsel who they can call on for thoughtful quick answers, who really understand their business and anticipates their needs. They want not just a lawyer, but a business advisor. They also want to know that you consider their business and legal issues to be of the utmost importance and that you will be a fierce advocate for them. All that being said, you can be the best lawyer in your area of the law, but if no one enjoys working with you or you are considered to be a difficult person, you will not be as successful as you could be. Nurturing relationships and being engaged in your clients is vital to business development success. Law is first and foremost a relationship business and this is why we stress to our lawyers the importance of cultivating and nurturing connections throughout their careers.

If you always remember that everyone you encounter is someone who is a potential source of future business and that being a successful lawyer requires the continual nurturing of relationships, you will be well on your way to business development success.

[With more than 15 years of experience in professional services marketingStefanie Marrone leads the business development, marketing and communications functions for full-service, mid-size law firm Tarter Krinsky & Drogin LLP. She has worked at some of the most prominent law firms in the world, developing and executing global revenue generating, business development, internal and external communications strategies, including media relations, branding, content marketing and corporate journalism, and multi-channel content marketing and thought leadership campaigns. She is currently the secretary of the LMA Northeast Region and is a frequent speaker and published author.]

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