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INSIGHT: Never Too Soon—Business Development Strategies for Junior Associates

Aug. 6, 2019, 8:00 AM

The conceit that some attorneys “just have what it takes” when it comes to business development, seemingly able to attract loyal clients solely based on a je ne sais quoi comprised of equal parts charisma, capability, likeability and luck, is folly.

Successful business development depends on the mastery of a skill set available to all, the dogged perseverance required to implement those skills, and the courage to overcome the natural (and ubiquitous) fear of failure. The rainmakers of today are made, not born.

For the ranks of junior BigLaw associates, many of whom are consistently billing 2,000 or more hours annually, the work may appear endless. However, as anyone that practiced through the bursting of the dot-com bubble or the historic credit crisis can attest, client work can most certainly end, and quickly.

Almost two decades of practicing in and around large international law firms has taught me that the only thing more terrifying than having too much to do is not having enough. Remember, the law is a service industry, and marketing yourself and your colleagues is existential to the business of a law firm. Junior associates will reap long-term rewards by adopting habits of good business development hygiene as early in their careers as possible.

This brief article, intended for junior associates, provides easy-to-implement modern business development strategies that greatly increase the likelihood of developing the prized “Big Book” later in one’s career.

Know Thyself

Junior Big Law associates often overlook a primary component of successful business development—the ability to clearly and concisely relay your firm’s capabilities to a potential client with a value proposition you offer that your competitors cannot. This is the vaunted “elevator pitch.”

Developing an effective elevator pitch takes a significant measure of thought, research and practice. Good elevator pitches are brief, abundantly clear and closely honed to be as specific to your audience as possible.

Study your firm’s marketing materials and client pitch materials. Understand the headline deals and cases your firm has been engaged on, as well as the expertise of any specialty practices in your firm. A holistic grasp of what your firm can offer will open doors to cross-selling opportunities to generate new work for your firm’s other business lines.

Strive to be able to thoughtfully engage as wide a variety of potential clients as possible in a manner that presents a compelling reason for them to continue the conversation going forward. Critically, make sure your pitch clearly communicates your ultimate goal—to be hired. Don’t make the mistake of thinking it uncouth to ask for a client’s work.

Thought Leadership

Another core component of successful business development is thought leadership—being ahead of the curve in communicating developing market intelligence, industry trends and strategic innovations in real-time. Keep in mind our fast paced business culture values, above all, timeliness.

Voracious professional reading is paramount to this skill. Begin by reading what your clients read. Become fluent in the language (and lingo) of your target industry. Two decades into the information age, there are innumerable sources for business news of all types. The Wall Street Journal, the Financial Times, legal weeklies, trade publications, local business journals, cable networks (e.g. CNBC, Fox Business), Linkedin, blogs, YouTube, online teaching series, audio lectures, news aggregators and similar online resources (such as Bloomberg Law), Reddit, podcasts and audio books are just a handful of the literally thousands of valuable learning tools now available, quite literally, at your fingertips.

Email an article of particular interest to a contact together with an invitation to discuss the subject over lunch. Bringing current industry developments to potential clients’ attention demonstrates that you are fully informed as to the challenges facing your client base today. Become a thought leader in your industry and a trusted source of market intelligence for your clients and colleagues alike.

Profile Rising

Increase your visibility in your target industry. Begin by updating your professional biography that appears on your firm’s website. Make sure it accurately captures everything that you can do for potential clients and demonstrates a continuing engagement and participation in your industry.

Write an article on a recent case or market happening in your field. Partner with a senior lawyer to write a client update or similar marketing product sent to clients of your firm. Explore the ever expanding opportunities to be published. The proliferation of online content providers has made the distribution of content easier now than at any other time in history.

Send published pieces to contacts with a stake in the subject matter, again, with an invitation for further discussion. Internal presentations as part of your firm’s internal training program or similar initiative will sharpen your public speaking skills and prepare you for industry panels and other speaking engagements. Being interested and informed about the real-world hurdles your clients face rarely goes unnoticed.

A Numbers Game

A fundamental truth of the business generation game is that if it doesn’t hurt a little, you’re doing it wrong. Rejection is the rule, not the exception. As in baseball, succeeding three times out of 10 can land you in the Hall of Fame. Avoid becoming discouraged. Remember that each conference call, each online war room, each set of comments to be turned represents the best possible result of months and years of business development efforts by indefatigable members of your firm.

The work doesn’t develop itself. No matter your workload, be disciplined enough to set aside a regular, dedicated time each week, if not each day, to perform at least one task related to business development. Be tireless. Understand that only a tiny fraction of any attorney’s development efforts will result in being hired. Further, the competition among law firms for premiere work has never been more heated, and your competitors will be using many of these self-same techniques to build their own relationships with your clients.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. or its owners.

Author Information

Matthew Clark has almost two decades of legal practice encompassing a broad range of finance and real estate matters. Formerly a partner in the Finance and Real Estate Group of Dechert LLP, he is currently practicing in Boston.