Building Business over Time

A lawyer’s approach to developing his or her practice should change and adapt over the course of a career

THE WAY THAT a lawyer approaches business development should change over the course of her or his career, and in this month’s column we examine some fundamental differences in how junior and senior lawyers should approach marketing.

The practices of most junior lawyers tend to be relatively general, and the markets that they serve are broad and diffuse. During the early stages of a lawyer’s career, when their practice is less specialized, many young lawyers devote all of their time and energy to the development of their technical legal skills and to maximizing their billable hours. They often believe that business development only begins to matter later on, when the substantive skills have been mastered and their firms begin to exert pressure on them to actively generate work. Senior lawyers commonly share that same view and they often counsel young associates to turn all of their attention to simply grinding through billable work.

Although both junior and senior lawyers tend to dismiss or underplay the importance of business development during the early stages of practice, juniors should nevertheless be diligent about devoting time and energy to building their basic marketing skills and to becoming actively involved in business development, regardless of whether or not their firm requires it. It is never too early to begin to generate visibility and a profile through such activities as writing, speaking, teaching, and joining professional associations and organizations, or to work on developing relationship management skills and building networks.

Junior lawyers can and should be supported in their business development efforts. It is the responsibility of firm management, through its professional development department or marketing department, to provide resources for developing basic marketing skills. That should include educating junior lawyers on the importance of business development and conducting training programs to help them to acquire and refine their marketing skills. General group training programs are appropriate and effective at this stage, and if group training programs are conducted by members of the firm, they will also prove to be a highly cost- effective form of training.

In addition to these formal training programs, junior lawyers should also be encouraged and supported in more informal ways by the firm’s senior lawyers, who can act as marketing mentors and guides, and who can provide juniors with business development opportunities that the juniors simply couldn’t access on their own. For example, senior partners can involve juniors in client relationship-building activities through having them attend client meetings and client entertainment events, they can include junior lawyers as team members in proposals and pitches, and they can create opportunities for juniors to give presentations and publish materials.

As a lawyer’s career continues to advance, he or she has likely started to develop marketing skills and, at the same time, his or her practice typically has become more focused and specialized. At this stage, a lawyer can identify and more narrowly define his or her target markets, and he or she can develop and communicate more meaningful, relevant messages to those markets.

Lawyers at this stage of practice can and should be much more deliberate and selective when it comes to marketing, focusing on those initiatives and activities that will allow them to directly access individuals in their chosen target markets. For a senior lawyer, it is no longer necessary, nor is it prudent, to take advantage of every marketing opportunity that comes along. Instead, senior lawyers should become increasingly discerning when deciding which opportunities and options to pursue. At this point in one’s career, it’s no longer a matter of doing more marketing, but rather of doing better and more productive marketing. In other words, it becomes a matter of setting marketing priorities.

For more senior lawyers, their firms can best support them by providing resources that are more specific to the objectives, action plans and skill levels of the given lawyer. Senior lawyers should be encouraged to develop their own individual business development plans that reflect exactly who they are and where they are going. They should be provided with opportunities to participate in forms of training that are more directly relevant to them: for example, one-on-one coaching. And importantly, they should be given budgets ample enough to enable them to implement the activities that they have planned.

Donna Wannop, LLB, MBA, is a practice development coach ( who has worked exclusively with the legal profession for 30 years. Reach her at [email protected].