Blog/Podcast: 5 Ways to Embrace Business Development at Your Law Firm

Most lawyers have gotten the hang of marketing, or at least appreciate its importance. Fewer attorneys, however, understand that marketing alone isn’t enough to make the phone ring. Marketing and business development go hand-in-hand and they need to be employed in combination to ensure your success.

Jon Mattson, Director of Business Development at BakerHostetler, says that law firms need to get over their “if we build it, they will come” marketing mentality and be more proactive when it comes to building client relationships. He’s fostered a culture of business development at his firm, and he joined the Law Firm Marketing Catalyst podcast to share tips you can implement at your firm.


  • Tip #1: Take a hint from accounting firms.

The Big Four accounting firms don’t have many differentiating traits between them. Clients will get pretty much the same service regardless of who they hire, so firms have to compete on relationships. As a result, accountants spend more non-billable hours educating clients on emerging issues and understanding their clients’ needs, with the goal of creating those all-important relationships.

There is more differentiation among law firms, but firms don’t always capitalize on their distinctive advantages, often resting on being “full-service” — which doesn’t always mean much to clients. Lawyers are more hesitant to spend non-billable time developing relationships. However, law firms can take a note from the accounting industry and dedicate more time to cultivating relationships. Although this work isn’t billable, it’s still an investment in the long-term health of the firm.

  • Tip #2: Ask your clients what they want.

If you’re trying to build a culture of business development at your firm, you’re better off thinking outside-in rather than inside-out. Consider your clients’ point of view and stand in their shoes to understand what’s important to them. Without knowing exactly what your clients expect from you, you’re only offering services based on your own assumptions (which could be totally wrong).

One way to learn what your clients want? Ask them directly through client satisfaction interviews. Speaking with your clients about how you can improve will help you refine your services and you’ll unearth all kinds of opportunities that never occurred to you. The conversation lends itself to discovering unmet needs that you can fulfill in the future and it strengthens your important relationships.

  • Tip #3: Focus on industry, not practice area.

Law firms tend to differentiate based on practice area, which is a good way to organize internally, but from a client’s point of view, it’s not very useful. Generally, industry is first and foremost on clients’ minds; they want to know you’ve done work for similar businesses and that you understand the needs and nuances of their sector. They don’t care about their lawyer’s practice area, as long as he or she accomplishes what needs to get done.

Mattson is a proponent of multidisciplinary client teams, e.g., layers from different practice areas. They’re the number one way to deliver top-notch legal services. It’s not possible to provide a team for every client, but a diverse group of lawyers can provide a broader perspective and can better handle the issues your most demanding clients face, no matter what comes up.

  • Tip #4: Hire dedicated business development staff.

Want to take your business development efforts to the next level? Consider hiring client-facing business development staff. At larger firms, individual attorneys are so specialized that it’s hard for them for see the entire picture of the firm and they don’t always have the time or knowledge to find the right resources for clients. Dedicated business development staff (who are, essentially salespeople) can act as a bridge between clients and legal services. They have a deep understanding of clients as well firm capabilities, and they can find the right solutions for clients while freeing up precious time for attorneys.

Like client teams, this approach isn’t right for every firm or every client. However, it’s a good option for some firms and their important client relationships. Although you should strive to provide the best service to all clients, there are some relationships that are much too valuable to deliver anything less than grade-A service. These are the clients that benefit from having a dedicated point person who can find exactly the right resources for them.

  • Tip #5: Ease lawyers in slowly.

Lawyers are a skeptical bunch, especially when they don’t see immediate results. Business development is not a natural fit for many people in professional services and firms may need to overcome resistance when implementing new business development initiatives. Still, it’s important to make a firm-wide commitment and encourage ongoing education.

Small-scale pilot programs can help lawyers get used to business development programs without forcing them to jump in head first. Then, you can adjust and build on successes slowly. Regularly communicating goals and outcomes is also an important part of getting buy-in.

Business development training doesn’t need to be intensive, either. Simple lunch-and-learns about developing an elevator speech, using LinkedIn, or understanding the sales cycle are a great place to start. These initiatives are scalable and useful for firms of all sizes, and even small steps can help create the culture of business development that all firms need.

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