Some basics for personal development to become a successful business developer

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In law school they do not teach you that a large percentage of the job is business development. No one is trained in this area and you have to learn on the job.” (40-49-year-old female non-equity partner, Law360 Pulse Satisfaction Survey, “What attorneys really think about their profession”)

Introduction

How true! In Germany (and many other countries), too, this can only be emphasized. Neither at university, law school or in legal traineeships nor in most law firms do you learn effective, efficient and ultimately successful business development. There are many reasons for this. Often it is simply because partners do not train their young colleagues in this area and there is no real “culture on business development” neither in teams nor in law firms. Business development is also often equated with marketing and social media activities. However, business development is much more, goes much deeper, and is much more comprehensive than it is commonly understood or perceived. A successful business developer has special qualities – but they don’t have to be innate, they can all be learned, so that we can all become successful in the field of business development, all the way to becoming real rainmakers.

Business development has many different meanings in practice. To give two typical examples: Any law firm event to which all clients and contacts are invited is generally considered business development. To the extent that this results in new work, this is certainly correct. In general, however, it only reaches existing or potential clients with whom contact already exists. Cross-selling within a law firm is also referred to as business development. Of course, it requires initiative, effort and possibly stamina to “sell” a partner or an entire team in another area of law or for another industry sector, and it is of course an important tool for generating new business. The only thing is: it does not win a new client on the market. Various business development measures can therefore certainly generate new work, but they do not usually help to sustainably increase the volume of self-generated business. However, the latter is necessary below the partner level for one’s own business (partner) case and indispensable, at least for the young partners, in order to expand the business and become “successful partners” in the medium term.

My understanding of successful business development is broader and aims at becoming successful in the market with regard to the acquisition of new high-yield clients and ideally to become rainmakers. For me, this is the gold standard for successful business development and, in my opinion and experience, achievable for everyone.

In practical terms, there is plenty of advice and recommendations for developing new business. Taken on their own, however, many of these tips fall short. Anyone who wants to become a successful business developer or even a rainmaker needs more than just a few general hints and suggestions.

In my view, best practice for successful business development first requires a clear vision for one’s own future (new) business or for the future focus of the intended own work. From this vision, a clear strategy must be derived. Best practice also includes being active, determined and focused – “intentional” in other words. If necessary, obstacles in the law firm or in one’s own person or personality must be overcome.

Vision and Strategy

Vision

“No wind favors he who has no destined port.” (Michel de Montaigne)

The vision is highly personal and describes an inner image of the future, which I already have or am creating as a result of relevant considerations. It is the idea of how my business, my team, my network and ultimately my life should develop. The vision is at the same time inspiration, motivation and challenge. It defines the result of what I strive for or work towards. This result must have enough value and glow for me to pursue it continuously and consistently over a longer period of time and to invest time, energy and, if necessary, also money. The vision also establishes the emotional connection to my commitment and lets me continue to pursue the vision even if I encounter resistance, if there does not seem to be enough time, the successes do not come quickly enough, or the work-life balance is (possibly even more) out of balance.

Relevant criteria for the development of a vision can be:

  • What excites me enough as an industry, area of law or niche to want to work and invest myself in it permanently?
  • Will the chosen field generate affordable work? I.e. is there a market for my focus/specialization?
  • Does my vision fit into my law firm? (If not, a change of law firm may also need to be considered.)
  • Is my vision realizable, and with reasonable effort?
  • How familiar am I already with the object of my vision?

We must not be afraid of the size of the vision. If you are at the beginning of a career or a new career stage (e.g. after becoming a partner), you do not have to develop the entire vision up to the time of retirement. The vision – like the business as a whole – can evolve and grow or be written forth over time. To give an example: At my former firm, I built a market-leading legal team consisting of several partners and many counsels and associates to advise automotive suppliers on supply chain issues. However, it all started about 25 years earlier when, after a positive experience with one automotive supplier, I developed the vision of wanting to work for many automotive suppliers because I liked the type of work (complex contracts and expert opinions on recalls and field actions), the industry was commercially interesting and I got on well with the people in it. It was only much later that the broader and larger vision of building the market-leading team with a pyramid-like partner structure at all of my firm’s offices in Germany emerged – as it became reality (albeit more slowly and nowhere near as straightforwardly as I had envisioned). But the original vision gave me the initial inner drive to “chase after” a larger portfolio of automotive suppliers as clients.

Without a vision, you will perish in the long run. Without a vision for an industry sector, a practice area or a legal or industrial niche that you want to serve, and the corresponding specialization, successful business development is, in my opinion, unlikely. I have often had to observe that despite the lack of a vision, colleagues “worked through” the recommended business development measures; however, this was never as well received by potential clients as when colleagues were able to express their enthusiasm for an industry sector, their passion for a field of law or their joy in the niche with authenticity.

Strategy

It is advisable to develop a strategy based on the vision. The simplest case of a strategy is to deliberately build up a large network of contacts in the expectation that sooner or later this will result in new business. This includes not only activities on LinkedIn and other social media, but also, among other things, “spreading” one’s own business cards or “collecting” as many business cards as possible from potential clients, especially at conferences or other events. However, it also includes maintaining all contacts, developing genuine relationships, understanding and trust in each other.

For practice areas where sector specialization may be less relevant (for example, M&A), this may well be sufficient, although the general trend here is also towards ever greater specialization. Therefore, as a rule, a well thought-out and detailed, precise strategy is needed. This is all the more true, because the more strategically business development is planned, the more efficient it will be.

The following questions can be helpful in developing a more sophisticated strategy:

  • How do I get (deeper) into an industry sector?
  • Where and how do I meet potential clients who are interested in my chosen industry sector and/or area of law?
  • How do I develop a network of potential clients?
  • How do I position myself in the market in such a way that I am initially perceived as focused and later as specialized (thus becoming a “brand”)?

Strategy also includes considering whether to position yourself for a particular group of potential clients in an industry sector or a particular legal field. For example, I chose automotive suppliers rather than manufacturers (OEMs) from the outset: because the latter saw my originally primarily contract law advice as their core competence and I could only hope for little business from them; because there were (and are) many more suppliers than OEMs; and because I did not have to fear any major conflicts of interest if I did not have OEMs as clients.

In addition, the strategy must also fit into the law firm’s environment. If a large number of OEMs had already been clients of the law firm, the criterion of lack of conflicts of interest (and possibly the entire strategy) would have been obsolete.

When developing a strategy, it is also advisable to consider the following: How can I acquire as quickly and comprehensively as possible clearly identifiable specializations and experience (“street credibility”)? How can I position myself effectively in the market? To this end, it can be helpful to be known in your own law firm as being focused on one area and to ask to handle all cases arising in one area of law or in a certain industry segment. The firm’s management can also support such a goal, you can advertise this in the partner meetings as well as in direct personal conversations within the firm.

Important aspects for the successful implementation of the strategy

How does a vision become reality? How is the strategy implemented? What goals can I set? What measures can I take? What steps are necessary to positively change one’s own behavior? How does someone who has never, only occasionally or at best opportunistically done business development become someone who does business development continuously, consistently, actively and with pleasure? Here are some suggestions that have worked well for me and many others:

Continuous business development

It is crucial that business development takes place continuously. Successful business development results from continuous activities in the implementation of the chosen strategy and the planned (and ideally written down) weekly goals and activities. Even “defeats” should not be allowed to deter you. If you continuously do business development, you will be successful and your turnover and team will grow.

If, for example, you only start with business development again after completing large instructions or cases that may last months or years (e.g. in transactions or litigation), you should not be surprised if the pipeline is empty and does not fill up within days or even a few weeks.
In my opinion, anyone who plans to intensify business development (or to do it all) once business is just a little bit quieter, is adhering to a misconception: Ideally, i.e. in a successful team, there should never be such “pauses”. Conversely when it is quieter, because (most) work has been discharged, the strategic mistake of not doing business development continuously becomes all the more apparent.

Goals for each week

For me, it has always worked well to write an agenda, a step plan or simply a list of goals and measures for each week (or the next 2-3 weeks) and also to check off at the end of each week what I have done and what is still open. In this way, I can keep track of what has been done and was achieved; or alternatively, what has not worked and what needs to be re-considered.

Efficient business development

All business development activities should be aligned to maximize efficiency.

If, for example, one succeeds in placing a presentation with PowerPoint slides at a conference, one can easily use it to write a learned legal article (i.e. with many footnotes etc.), place an announcement or summary in an industry-related trade journal as well as on LinkedIn etc., place a video with a summary of the essential topics or results on the internet, as well as, if possible, the (shortened) PowerPoint presentation. Ultimately, the aim is to reach as many target groups as possible with what you have developed. The time investment and the effort required for a presentation or speaking engagement or the organization of an event are too high and too valuable in relation to the free time that has to be sacrificed for this not to get the most out of the same topic with only a little additional effort.

Even if one makes an effort to acquire new clients at the market, this is often done with too much of an effort in relation to the return. If I plan to have lunch with a potential client once a week, I might manage 45 appointments a year. These require an immense amount of organization and time. So, the question is how to reach the same 45 people “in one go” (and this possibly several times a year).

Efficiency also includes holding only as many meetings as necessary with the same target company during the acquisition phase and critically checking before each further meeting whether there is actually a prospect of winning work from them.

Conversely, you should also always weigh up how often a contact can be approached without your reaching out or following up being perceived as unpleasant or even harassing.

For some, management tools such as balanced score cards and time management tools may also increase efficiency. Everyone has to find out for themselves whether such tools can be of help. I myself have not used them.

Build personal relationships

Instructing you on a case, transaction or day to day advice requires trust. Trust, in turn, requires a relationship. For this, it is usually not enough to get to know each other superficially at a law firm event, a conference, a fireside chat or on social media. All this can leave positive impressions, but the function of the trusted advisor, the deal/transaction facilitator, problem solver, or the trusted person who helps the client sleep well at night again also requires the right personal chemistry, the conviction that the street credibility is not only claimed in the pitch document or on the website, but exists in reality and that a qualified team is available. As in private life, all this requires time, interest, commitment to the potential client as well as active and conscious listening to find out what is on his mind or what bothers him. So, you have to invest, e.g. in personal conversations (also at conferences, seminars, meetings); video conferences; telephone calls; non-committal workshops in the offices of the future client.

Build specialization and become a brand

In order to stand out in the mass of competitors on the market (and, if applicable, in the law firm for partnership), a clear profile as a specialist for an industry sector, an area of law or a niche is helpful. This can and should show what you are known for in the market, what you “stand for”, so that new clients will eventually contact you on their own accord due to your market reputation. By then, at the latest, you have become your own brand.

This specialization ultimately derives from the vision. It should not cover more than one or two industry sectors or areas of law. It is hardly possible to credibly present more than that on the market.

Presentations or speeches at events etc. in particular serve to establish yourself as an expert, specialist and even thought leader and will help to build up your reputation on the market. This also includes identifying new topics early on and placing them on the market. All of this also positions you ahead of the competition.

Successful business development through team empowerment

One of the biggest challenges is the time, energy and effort required to implement the planned business development activities efficiently and effectively. As an associate or counsel, this is often easier to achieve on top of the billable work than as a partner. Partners have a multitude of internal tasks and obligations, are involved in the management of the team and the whole issue of invoicing clients is an additional challenge to the actual client work; therefore, there is often hardly any time and energy (not only physically but also intellectually) left for business development.

Partners who think that business development is the prerogative of partners and not a task for team members, deprive themselves of further growth of their business. Successful business development at partner level includes the ability to empower team members to do their own business development and to create a corresponding culture. Empowerment for these purposes is the ability to delegate tasks to the team members, motivate and advise them, but ultimately let them run on their own and merely be available to answer their questions. Those who are motivated and empowered by a partner at an early stage learn business development naturally, gain self-confidence for it, see the fruits and successes for themselves and the team and lay the foundation for their own successful business development.

Empowering team members can only be done by those who are powerful themselves. In contrast, powerless is someone who wants to retain complete control, does not trust others or does not trust them with business development, is not willing to invest in their team, fears the further development of team members into partners due to successful business development or even sees themselves in competition with them.

If team members are successful in business development, a triple-win situation is created for them, the partner and the whole team:

  • the partner benefits financially from the success of associates or counsels until they become partners;
  • associates/counsels strengthen their own business case through self-acquired revenue growth (not to mention the sense of achievement when a new client is won); and
  • the team as a whole learns to appreciate collaborative behavior rather than a silo working mentality and the team spirit grows.

Empowerment of the team is not necessarily easy, but can be developed into a personal leadership strength – if necessary with the help of experienced colleagues or external coaches.

Being “intentional”

In order to make the vision a reality, it is necessary to pursue business development actively, consciously, purposefully and with the will not to be distracted (e.g. by client work or law firm matters). Being intentional is also different from casual and opportunistic business development – the occasional, casual, irregular business development or opportunistic exploitation of opportunities that are brought to one’s attention but not actively sought and pursued.
In this sense, to be intentional means, to focus on the object or goals of the vision; conversely it also means to be limited to them. And it comprises the permanent active and creative search for (new) opportunities to sell oneself and the team. Furthermore, it requires to invest in the implementation of the vision and to also make sacrifices for this purpose (e.g. with regard to family, leisure time and friends).

Obstacles and how to overcome them

As in all areas of life and work, obstacles often have to be overcome in business development:

On the one hand, there are external obstacles, which are often essentially rooted in the law firm such as no release of budgets for business development purposes, conflicts of interest, other partners who do not or not reliably participate or even oppose your business development efforts. On the other hand, there are internal, i.e. personal, obstacles. This is often the most challenging issue – no matter what seniority level you are at. Not everyone faces internal obstacles, but it is also not uncommon that one does not find business development natural and easy. Ultimately, these internal obstacles can always be overcome, if you are prepared to face and deal with them alone, with the help of family or good friends, or with external support, e.g. a coach.

I am thinking here of the following challenges or obstacles that I have often experienced in practice:

Lack of self-confidence

Most things you do for the first time come with a certain amount of uncertainty. Giving your first presentation in front of an audience of 200 people without a certain amount of “trembling and trepidation” is certainly unusual. But the lack of practice in business development in general or specifically in individual activities must not lead to (self-) blockage. Self-confidence comes from doing (and not from fleeing into passivity).

Mental blocks

Negative or limiting life attitudes or “beliefs” about your own work, personal chances of success, etc. can prevent you from venturing into business development at all (for instance, as you feel much more comfortable as “back office”). The fear of rejection which is associated with or results from not being awarded new work or losing a pitch can also cause a mental block.

Dealing with such limiting belief systems takes time and energy, requires perhaps even external help, but is extremely worthwhile: because the simple truth is that these blockages only hinder the true capabilities for successful business development.

Identity issues

Going deeper, there is often a lack of an identity as a salesperson of one’s own skills, the team or the law firm. Those who join a renowned law firm with good exam grades from law school and/or their legal traineeship (and possibly an LL.M.) often believe that their success in their professional life is certain; and this belief is often created or supported by law firms during the recruitment phase. But it is not enough to be a brilliant lawyer with excellent exam grades and high intelligence, to have good manners and a friendly and engaging nature. You also have to understand and accept that you are a salesperson, except you are not selling a product but a professional service.

The most fundamental and pressing need of human beings is the question of identity. Identity answers the question of existence and its purpose (why or for what purpose do I live?), of one’s own value (do I have value/am I valuable?) as well as of one’s own significance (am I relevant – and for whom?). All these questions and the answers to them make up a person’s personality and shape their general identity. They result from the circumstances of growing up and the parental home, the experiences (especially also injuries) in childhood and youth, the influence of friends and relatives, but also first experiences in education and professional life.

In addition to this general identity, there is the professional identity as an outstanding lawyer and adviser, but also the identity as a salesperson.

Unfortunately, I have seen many promising lawyers fail to make the step into partnership because of a lack of this third component, the identity as a salesperson and thus the ability to develop a successful business case through efficient and effective business development.

Those who are sure of all three types of their identity,

  • are authentic (and do not pretend anything);
  • have healthy self-confidence (without being arrogant);
  • are credible as a trusted advisor personality;
  • enjoy what he or she does – and that also includes business development.

Excuses

If, despite vision, strategy and with or without concrete weekly objectives, one simply does not pursue business development and always finds excuses for this – usually: “I have too much work” in several variations – then this can be an expression of the fact that one or more of the obstacles described are present.

Overcoming obstacles

Since I have recognized these internal obstacles – especially the lack of identity as a salesperson – and have been able to address them, I have also made the experience and gained the deep conviction that every colleague has the potential to become not only a successful business developer but also a rainmaker.

You can learn a lot, you may have to work on yourself regarding some issues or challenges, and you may need support for some things – which is available. But it is still rather unusual for lawyers to look for a mentor or sparring partner or to be coached. What is already common practice in industry and sometimes even obligatory, has not yet found its way into law firms. In times of increasing salary explosions for legal staff, increasing pressure on hourly rates and the trend towards alternative remuneration models, as well as a tendency to include performance-related bonus components in the salary structure, even for salaried lawyers, the pressure on the performance of the individual is growing. This is where coaching offers ideal support for lawyers in law firms.

Conclusion

Whoever takes the above principles and recommendations to heart and activates his or her potential may, in my experience of over three decades, be sure of success in business development, right up to the chance of becoming a rainmaker.
And those who need help should make use of it. Counselling, coaching, mentoring, etc. no longer have negative connotations, not even in law firms. On the contrary, those who make use of it are wise. Solomon already said: Plans fail for lack of advice, but with many advisors comes success.

In this sense: Let’s realize your full potential!

info@christiankessel.com

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