Happiness in Law is Your Own Book of Business

As attorneys move up the ranks in their law firms, the rules change. Technical proficiency becomes only one of a number of factors by which they are evaluated. Their ability to generate work to keep themselves and others busy becomes ever more important. It is the key to the law firm profitability. Law may still be a profession, but it has also become a big business. The economics are simple: law firms cannot generate million dollar plus profits per partner without leverage. Someone has to bring in the business that supports that leverage. Those attorneys own the law firm. They make the rules. They decide who stays, who goes and why.

Law firm economics are a zero sum game: the revenue necessary to compensate an attorney who services clients must be generated by an attorney who originates clients. Life becomes ever so much easier when an attorney is regarded as a source of income rather than an expense by his or her peers and supervisors.

Any attorney planning to make a career in a private law firms setting who wants to manage – rather than be managed by – his or her own environment should think about developing their own book of business.

This article focuses on what attorneys should be thinking about during the initial stages of becoming a business generator.

Myth vs. Reality

The first question attorneys generally ask themselves when they start to think about generating business is whether they have the aptitude for it. Many of them think they do not. In my experience, some attorneys have a greater aptitude for it than others, but everyone can learn to develop business to some degree. So you can do it!

The rule of thumb is to be yourself. There are all kinds of business generators: male, female, senior, junior, festive, reserved, Ivy League-educated, regionally-educated, etc. The most important concept is that whatever clients are looking for, if you are genuine, then you will be attractive to a certain segment of those clients. You do not have to appeal to everyone. If you tried, you would fail.

For some of you, your stellar credentials are important, but alone are not enough in this hypercompetitive legal market to attract marquee clients. Most clients assume that you (or your firm) possess the knowledge, qualifications, and experience, except in a few niche areas of practice, to perform the job. Even being incredibly responsive to your client’s needs is not enough; they expect that. So what is important to clients?

Progress in Work, a career management firm for the legal profession, conducted a survey of corporate consumers who buy legal services and asked them that very question. The results in no particular order of priority: 1) trustworthiness and credibility, 2) friendship and easy interaction, 3) access, 4) emotional support, 5) ability to improve a situation, 6) knowing the issue and having the specific expertise, 7) bench strength, 8) past positive history, and 9) cost effectiveness. So, ask your client what is important to them.

Knowing Your Value Proposition

Why should a client buy legal services from you? You have to be able to answer that question to be an effective business developer. You may want to try answering these questions for yourself:

  • What am I selling?
  • What specific problem can I or my firm solve?
  • Is there anything unique about my or my firm’s services?
  • What type of client or situation is a good fit for what I or my firm wants to provide?
  • What type of client or situation is not a good fit for what I or my firm wants to provide?

You can also conduct a SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats) analysis, which is a very basic marketing model that helps you to assess what you and your firm can do as well as its potential opportunities and threats. A SWOT analysis is an effective way to make sure your marketing activities align with your business strategy.

When you do a SWOT analysis, you want to consider the following:

  • Strengths (What are the positive attributes of your and your firm’s services?)
  • Weaknesses (What are the negative attributes of your and your firm’s services?)
  • Opportunities (Where are the market opportunities for your and your firm’s services?)
  • Threats (What are the main threats to you and your firm?)

The SWOT analysis can help you find a way to use strengths to take advantage of market opportunities and identify and work on weaknesses that might inhibit your ability to take advantage of those opportunities.

Creating a Positioning or Branding Statement

A positioning or branding statement is a succinct statement about the positioning you hope to achieve in the minds of the consumer or in your case your target market(s). And since every business plan has a defined vision/mission, you will want to develop one for yourself. You are a business within a larger business, which is your firm. Try answering the following question: “What do you want to be known for?” This statement focuses on tomorrow. It is inspirational and reflects what you want to achieve. Moreover, it is timeless and provides for clear, decision making criteria. Your branding statement should not be too long. Business development coaches and sales professionals often call this positioning or branding statement an elevator speech because the idea is that you want to be able to communicate your value and benefits to a client or potential client in the span of an elevator ride from the lobby of a building to let’s say the 30th floor.

Who Do You Know?

According to consultant Harry Mills, the author of The Rainmaker Toolkit, the chances of selling to (i) an existing client are better than one in two; (ii) the chances of selling to a former client are one in three; and (iii) the chances of successfully selling to a fresh prospect are one in eight. If you are very junior, you probably do not have existing clients that you have originated. If you are more senior, there is a better chance that you do. Start to take stock of people you know who are consumers of legal services or who know consumers of legal services of the type you provide. Create a networking list, which you can divide into three categories:

Prospect – A prospect is any person who can or will buy your legal services now or in the relatively near future because they have a problem that needs to be solved. Prospects provide most of the opportunities and should be visited and contacted most often.

Connector – A connector is any person who can or will buy legal services now or at some point in the near future. They are any person who knows other people in your target market and whom you are prospecting. Connectors are visited less often than prospects and provide average size opportunities.

Alliance Partner – An alliance partner is any person who sells complementary services or offerings and who shares your target focus. Smaller opportunities exist with alliance partners.

In conclusion, developing a book of business can take a long time to master. But the good news is no matter how junior or senior you are, it is never too late to learn.

Written by Sheryl Odentz president of Progress in Work LLC, a career management firm for attorneys.  She can be reached at sodentz@progressinwork.com or www.progressinwork.com. This articles was published in the November 2010 issue of The New York City Bar’s — The Lawyers Connect E-Newsletter.