The Three Levels of Business Development for Lawyers

levels of business development

Three levels of business development? What is this, Wolfe, you trying to sell some kind of self-help seminar?

No, you’ll see what I mean.

But first, some background, and a disclaimer.

The background is that this is my 200th blog post, so I wanted to write something that would help people. Also, this comes on the six-month anniversary of starting my solo law practice, Zach Wolfe Law Firm, where I focus on non-compete and trade secret law.

So far it’s going well. I say there are two key components to a successful solo law practice: (1) bringing in business, and (2) everything else.

Bringing in business is, of course, the hard part. If you bring in enough business, the “everything else” can be a pain the butt, but you’ll figure it out. If you don’t bring in enough business, well . . .

I know what that’s like, because it happened the first time I tried solo practice.

Trial and Error

I first tried hanging out a shingle eight years ago, and don’t get me a wrong, it wasn’t a total failure. I had enough paying client work to keep the lights on. But about a year into it I could see that I wasn’t consistently bringing in enough business to make it sustainable for the long term.

So what made the difference? Why did I struggle to bring in enough client work the first time, but this time I have more than enough business to keep it going (so far).

Well, I could tell you, or you could listen to my upcoming interview on the Texas Appellate Law Podcast, but I’m not going to, at least not in this post. That’s because I don’t want to play into selection bias, or its cousin, survivorship bias.

Wikipedia says selection bias is “the bias introduced by the selection of individuals, groups, or data for analysis in such a way that proper randomization is not achieved, thereby failing to ensure that the sample obtained is representative of the population intended to be analyzed.”

Survivorship bias? That’s an irrational preference for reality shows that aired on CBS in the late 90s.

Sorry.

No, survivorship bias is actually the “logical error of concentrating on the people or things that made it past some selection process and overlooking those that did not, typically because of their lack of visibility.”

Ask any successful lawyer how she built her “book of business,” and you’re likely to hear some selection bias. Let me give you an example.

Well, I started off as an associate working in the business litigation section of Big, Biggs, and Biggie, LLP. I guess I impressed one of the senior partners with a motion I drafted, because he started asking me to work on all his cases. He played golf with the general counsel of Andersen Coopers, a big accounting firm. They sent him all their accounting malpractice cases in the state. I worked on those cases and got to know the legal department there. When that partner started to slow down, I gradually took over the lead role, and today I’m the rainmaker who has the relationship with the accounting firm. Now I’ve got two junior partners and four associates working under me just to handle their litigation.

So there you have it. The way to develop a book of business is to work hard, impress a partner, and then take over that partner’s key client when the partner retires.

That sounds great, but obviously there’s a problem. By selecting that particular lawyer as an example, we haven’t picked a representative sample. What about all the lawyers who tried that approach and failed? Maybe they didn’t get along with the senior partner. Maybe the accounting firm had a merger and the general counsel changed. You see the problem.

You have to take any successful lawyer’s business development advice with a big grain of salt. What worked for them may not work for you.

Still, while my specific experiences may not apply to you, I do have some general lessons that may be helpful.

The Path to Business Development Enlightenment

As I thought about these lessons, I realized that my business development mindset has gone through three stages. Three phases of business development consciousness, if you will. Ommmmmmmmm.

Phase one is the cliché stage. That’s when you’re a novice and you believe the old saws about getting business. “Always be closing” etc.

Phase two is the conventional wisdom stage. That’s where you realize that the clichés are wrong, or at least misguided, and you learn the conventional wisdom that people who are good at business development know.

Phase three is the enlightened stage. You ascend to that plane when you realize that the conventional wisdom, while helpful when you were getting started, can be wrong in some important ways.

Let’s make this more concrete. Come along with me as I journey through the three phases applied to four classic business development dilemmas.

1. Can introverts be good at developing business?

When I started out as a lawyer, I just didn’t see business development in my future. As an introvert, I had a hard time imagining myself as the life of the party, handing out business cards in the skybox at the Cowboys game.

That, of course, is a cliché. Anyone who has studied the topic even a little knows you don’t have to be the life of the party, or even an extrovert at all, to get good at business development. Referrals are most likely to come to you because you develop both expertise in a particular subject matter and genuine relationships with people (more about that later). It’s not so much about schmoozing. 

And that’s a good thing for introverts, because by the time you graduate from law school and pass the bar, you’re pretty much hard wired one way or the other.

Plotting their business development strategy?

Once I realized I did not have to transform myself into an extrovert (as if that were possible), I progressed to phase two. Honestly, it was kind of a relief. Then I could relax and focus on my business development strategy.

The strategy, in short, was to grow both my network and my expertise, and you don’t have to be a self-promoting “Sales Gary” to do that.

But after a while, I realized there was a problem with my introvert-friendly business development strategy. The problem is that growing your network and your expertise isn’t going to result in getting business if your network doesn’t know about your expertise. And usually, they’re not going to know about it unless you tell them.

That’s when I learned the wisdom of phase three: you don’t need to be an extrovert to be good at business development, but you do have to get comfortable with self-promotion. That can be hard. But while I don’t think it’s possible to make yourself an extrovert, it is possible to get more comfortable with promoting yourself.

Ok, but what if you’re an extrovert? How do the phases apply to you?

Let’s look at another business development cliché.

2. Are close personal relationships the key to business development?

I’ve already touched on the cliché people start off believing here. When you’re starting out, you tend to think that “business development” is about superficial relationships with a bunch of people you don’t really care about. You just want their business. It’s like selling on a used car lot.

But then if you spend any time reading about business development, or talking to lawyers who have successfully done it, you realize that superficial relationships don’t cut it.

Take my earlier example. I guarantee you the in-house lawyers at that big accounting firm are constantly bombarded by schmoozers trying to get their business. They see through that. When it comes time to select counsel for an assignment, they are more likely to think of the people they consider their friends.

Once you realize that, you have progressed to phase two.

Now you know your job is to develop close personal friendships with as many decision makers as possible, and then they will send you their legal work.

For a while this was my mentality. I thought I had to spend as much time as possible with as many people as possible. “Always be developing relationships!”

The problem is obvious. You only have so much time and energy. You’re only going to develop genuine friendships with a small number of people. So if your goal is to develop close personal relationships with one or two key clients, that may work for you. But if you have a practice like mine, where you have dozens of clients at a time and you usually don’t get much repeat business, that’s not going to work.

Once I accepted this reality, I reached phase three. So did I go back to the superficial approach?

No. I think the lesson of phase three is the importance of being genuine in your interactions with all kinds of people in your network. You don’t need to have a close personal friendship with someone to make them want to refer clients to you. But you can’t be fake.

I get referrals from all kinds of people. Sometimes personal friends, sometimes professional acquaintances, sometimes total strangers who saw my blog post, or my video, or talked to someone who knows me. I don’t try to pretend that all of those people are my best friends.

I guess the lesson of phase three is that you don’t have to be everybody’s best friend, but you do need to keep it real.

And being genuine means genuinely caring about helping other people, not just helping yourself. Which leads me to question three.

3. Is it more important to give referrals or get referrals?

The cliché here is the “always be closing” mentality mentioned earlier. This mindset focuses on getting leads out of every networking opportunity and then converting the leads into clients. So, for example, if you go to a CLE seminar, the goal is to meet other lawyers there who will send you referrals.

And sure, that probably works for some people. But for most people, that kind of selfish mentality doesn’t pay off.

Spend some time talking to people who are really good at business development, and you will quickly see they have the opposite mentality. They go into any networking opportunity with the mindset of “how can I help the people I meet here.”

This is a sort of “enlightened self-interest.” When you help people, they are more likely to want to help you. So if you want to get referrals, you need to give referrals. It’s not a one-way street.

I remember learning that lesson years ago. I had reached phase two.

And to this day, I look for opportunities to refer clients to other lawyers, especially now that my practice has become more specialized. When I first went solo, I would take just about any kind of client matter, as long as I had the competence to handle it. Now, when I’m already super busy with matters in my specialty, if it’s not right up my alley, I’m more likely to send it to another lawyer.

But I’ve also learned there’s a problem with the “give referrals to get referrals” approach.

Just like you can only be close personal friends with so many people, you’ve only got so many referrals to give. I mean, I look for opportunities to send business to people I know, but they just don’t happen all the time.

It’s all butterflies and rainbows until you have to leave the firm

I’ve also noticed that I often get referrals from people I’ve never sent business to, even repeatedly. Why do these people refer potential clients to me when I’ve never sent them any? They must think I’m some kind of ingrate.

No, I think it comes down to trust. The one thing my diverse referral sources have in common is that they trust I know how to handle the type of matter they are sending me. If you have their trust, they will send you business, even if you never send them any.

When that sinks in, you’ve hit phase three. And now you’re ready for the most treacherous business development question.

4. Is doing good work for existing clients the best kind of business development?

The cliché is that you’ve got to bring in business. That’s what business development is all about. If you want to be a rainmaker, you need to get new clients in the door. That’s phase one.

But it’s not really true. I learned that early in my career, when a senior partner explained to me “we don’t have to get new clients for the firm to be successful, we just need to keep the clients we already have.” Understanding that point is phase two.

That was a big relief, especially for an introvert (see above). I could relax and not worry about traditional “business development” activities. The important thing was good lawyering. Learn your craft. Do good work. Take care of the clients, and they will keep coming back.

That’s the best kind of business development, many successful law firm partners will tell you. And that kind of business development is especially effective when applied to more sophisticated clients that have recurring business. Those clients usually aren’t looking for new lawyers, because they already have them. So the key is for the firm to keep their business, the partners will tell the associates. Just like the partners kept the accounting firm client in my earlier example.

But here’s what they don’t tell you. Those clients are their clients, not your clients.

It’s all butterflies and rainbows if you stay at that firm forever and inherit the client relationships. But how often does that happen, especially these days? When you find yourself looking for a new job because you never see your kids, is it going to do you any good that you put in those all those extra hours doing excellent work so the firm could keep its clients?

And that’s only one problem with the “just keep the clients we have” approach. There are others. Suppose the client gets a new general counsel who moves all their business to the law firm where his best friend works. Suppose you have a practice area like mine where there isn’t a lot of repeat business, so you need to constantly replenish.

So yeah, keeping the clients you have is a great business development approach—when it works. But there are so many things that can go wrong with that approach.

We’re back to selection bias. What worked for that senior partner years ago may not work for you. So sure, do good work for your firm’s clients, but also go out and get your own clients.

That’s phase three.

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Zach Wolfe (zach@zachwolfelaw.com) is a Texas trial lawyer who handles non-compete and trade secret litigation at Zach Wolfe Law Firm. Thomson Reuters named him a Texas “Super Lawyer”® for Business Litigation in 2020 and 2021.

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