Business development in a law firm - should you be scared?
BUSINESS DEVELOPMENT ("BD") - it’s a phrase that sends shivers down the spine of even the most hardened and experienced lawyer. In some cases it has even deterred people from continuing a career in private practice with many citing the desire to no longer do business development as a major factor for making the jump in-house.
Within many law firms, for example, the path to partnership is usually preceded by the question, “how much business can you generate?”. It’s a question which often sends senior associates taking off over the hill, never to be seen again!
Common responses as to why lawyers leave law firms for the perceived utopia of in-house include:
- “I don’t like doing [business development]”
- “I don’t know where to start”
- “I don’t like networking”
- “Most of my clients are institutional clients”
- “It takes up too much time”
- “I’m not naturally good at meeting new people”
Ironically, business development skills are a key asset for any aspiring or existing in-house lawyer; not in the sense of generating and fostering business, but rather developing and enhancing relationships – developing those relationships between you and your board, the employees, key suppliers and customers, as well as other stakeholders in the business.
In fact, when people refer to wanting to "go in-house" to be involved in the decision making process of the business, it’s not that much different from how a law firm needs their associates and partners to think and operate. It all boils down to relationship building.
And that gets to the heart of business development in any organisation.
The reasons why you must build relationships (whether in-house or in law firms) are multiple:
- to resolve issues and achieve results fast and effectively;
- to ensure the smoother running of the business;
- to add value to your firm's or company’s business;
- to generate business (for companies, see second bullet point above)
- to make your colleague’s job smoother and easier, and to make your job smoother, easier and more fulfilling; and
- to help with your future promotion or job prospects.
Indeed, top of the list of questions (industry and law firm) employers will ask themselves as to why they should hire a lawyer is, “what is the value proposition in hiring this person?” In other words, "what's in it for us?".
In addition to your technical skills, knowledge and experience, employers need people who will interact and pro-actively provide solutions to their daily challenges. Just having the specialist knowledge and the ability to burn the midnight oil to churn out documents in your pod or office is not enough to fulfil a value proposition.
You have to actively demonstrate that your presence and contribution adds value to the business, the clients and other stakeholders, as well as the well-being of your future colleagues. In order to enhance your bonus, pay review and promotion prospects you must demonstrate that you are the ‘go to’ person for any issues.
That doesn’t mean that you have to resolve each and every issue. Far from it. You may know someone who can help, or you can delegate the matter to someone in your team, or refer the query to another colleague in the firm (cross-selling services). But being a success in any legal job requires you to achieve the ultimate accolade of ‘trusted advisor’ which encompasses more skills sets than a mere competent professional.
Whether you are in private practice or working in-house, business development (in one form or another) is a tool for your own success. It’s not just essential, it’s critical. It’s there to be embraced, not shied away from. And regardless of your seniority or if you are just starting out, there’s no better time to start than today.