Business Development for Lawyers – much more than just the bottom line

In a post-pandemic legal landscape, lawyers find value in business development that doesn’t always have a financial motivation. Discover why non-billable time matters for satisfaction and success.

Promoted by Naiman Clarke 01 December 2023 Big Law
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Amid the global pandemic, Thomson Reuters conducted its "Stellar Performance Skills & Progression - Mid-Year Survey" and unveiled some unexpected findings. While the survey was America-centric, the data revealed that lawyers were increasingly inclined to invest their non-billable time in business-building activities and cultivating client relationships. Anecdotally, it has become evident that the opportunity for lawyers to engage in impactful non-billable work is just as crucial to job satisfaction as their salaries and benefits. Given that hiring and retaining top legal talent remains a focal point for law firms in 2024, leveraging a firm's culture as a selling point by demonstrating a genuine commitment to providing meaningful opportunities for lawyers' preferred activities is likely to yield significant dividends for forward-thinking firms.

Anecdotally a good proportion of senior lawyers on the partnership path find their firm’s lack of interest or support in their client relationship building and development of BD skills is one of the main reasons they seek a move.

Undoubtedly, billable time is of paramount importance. It serves as the primary metric for setting salaries and bonuses, comparing lawyers, and managing productivity across the majority of law firms.

Nonetheless, non-billable time represents an investment in an individual's career. While it may lack the immediacy of billable hours, non-billable time is where lawyers engage in essential activities such as marketing, client relationship building, personal and staff training, staying updated on legal developments, experimenting with new procedures, and other endeavours that contribute to the creation of long-term, valuable assets. In essence, it is an investment in what is likely to shape one's future and set their career apart.

If the aforementioned survey accurately reflects lawyers' aspirations to engage in high-value business development and client relationship building, law firms should not only provide valuable business development skills and training but also assist their lawyers in finding the time to develop and nurture current and future connections. This approach could lead to a win-win situation, benefiting both the bottom line and lawyer engagement and retention.

Many lawyers work long hours, typically ranging from 10 to 12 hours a day, with 6 to 7.5 hours being billable. When factoring in breaks and personal time, this translates to approximately 850 non-billable hours a year. A substantial portion of this time often goes into administrative tasks, such as billing, collections, and file management, stealing precious hours that could otherwise be spent on fulfilling and valuable pursuits—both within and outside of work. By aligning non-billable hours with lawyers' passions and managing them strategically, firms can make the most of this time.

From an anecdotal perspective, the need to meticulously record time in six-minute intervals remains a significant time drain. While some firms have adopted alternative billing practices, there is still progress to be made in streamlining administrative tasks, data entry, and document management.

Despite potential salary increases, benefits, and flexible working arrangements, anecdotal and empirical evidence suggests that lawyers are increasingly changing jobs within the industry. ALPMA’s recent survey indicates that turnover rates in law firms averaged 21% for fee earners in the last 12 months, highlighting that the nature of the work and its pace are also critical factors influencing career decisions.

To address these challenges, lawyers should actively manage and measure their non-billable time, seeking a balance between administrative tasks and personal growth. They should try to have more meaningful and result oriented conversations with their partners about what they need from the firm/partner to fulfill their desired career trajectory. Law firms, in turn, should gauge their lawyers' non-billable hours and strive to align their firm culture with lawyers' preferences, so in this vein providing business development opportunities to those that don’t enjoy or want this is equally counter-intuitive. By nurturing what lawyers are actually passionate about and fostering excitement about both billable and non-billable time, firms can attract new talent, keep their lawyers engaged as well as increase revenue, gradually erasing the perception that non-billable time is synonymous with non-profitable time.

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