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The business of building a successful practice

The business of building a successful practice

Business development is not a case of having "people skills" but a learnable - and astute - business practice, writes Steve Herzberg.As a profession, lawyers are often not good at business…

Business development is not a case of having "people skills" but a learnable - and astute - business practice, writes Steve Herzberg.

As a profession, lawyers are often not good at business development. This could partly be because traditionally it has not been part of their training.

Most lawyers will never have studied a single unit in business development or marketing while at law school. Consequently, many lawyers graduate with the mindset that this entire field of endeavour is someone else's responsibility. This is a huge mistake.

A common misconception is that lawyers need "people skills" in order to be good at business development. This is a myth. Being sociable and engaging is certainly helpful in any profession, but there are many lawyers who have such qualities and still struggle with understanding how to build their practice.

In fact, business development is a skill which can be learnt like any other. Lawyers who are reserved or not sociable by nature can learn to be good business developers by taking two basic steps - creating a logical, achievable plan and following it.

Such initiatives do not require an MBA or an expensive consultant.

By taking a relatively short time frame, such as the coming three to six months, any professional can create a simple schedule of planned activity in a range of categories - online presence, events to attend, associations to join or support, seminars to present and articles to write, coupled with methodical follow-up activity with new and existing contacts.

Systematically lifting activity levels according to a simple business development plan has a number of advantages. The most obvious is that it leads to new business and increased billings.

"Those who take business development seriously and are diligent and methodical about sticking to a plan will have more options regarding who they work for and the kind of work they do in the future"

Another benefit - perhaps less obvious but just as important - is that those who take business development seriously and are diligent and methodical about sticking to a plan will have more options regarding who they work for and the kind of work they do in the future.

Unfortunately, many lawyers are at their most comfortable when working with people they already know. To succeed at business development, a critical step is to overcome fear and be prepared to work beyondone's personal comfort zone in order to form relationships outside existing networks.

Another common weakness among lawyers is to be inconsistent and undisciplined in following up with new and existing contacts and potential clients. It is vital for firms that wish to expand their business to overcome this weakness by creating systems for managing client data and scheduling follow-up activity.

Generally the responsibility for creating and monitoring the use of such systems rests with the practice manager. However, it is unlikely that a great deal will be achieved unless the most senior people in the firm are also committed to the cause.

In my years of working with law firms I have come to recognise that a fraction of lawyers - perhaps about 20 per cent - continue to dismiss the concept of business development as irrelevant.

Typically such people will have no online presence, no referral process and minimal or zero attendance of events.

By and large they confine themselves to technical legal work. In the best case, such individuals will work within firms where others are good at bringing in clients. While such an arrangement may seem acceptable, being wholly reliant on others for client acquisition can be a recipe for disaster.

In the worst case, lawyers who refuse to make business development a priority can end up disillusioned, working in unfulfilling in-house roles or doing the sort of legal work they don't really want to do.

Every fee earner needs to accept that he or she has a part to play in the firm's business development. Those who are always too busy to attend events, write for publications or be active in professional associations are taking a very short-term view of their own career and their firm's prosperity.

What is most important is that everyone within the firm recognises that these efforts cannot be sporadic, but need to be firmly established as part of an ongoing process. Anyone who is a great business developer is always sowing seeds into well-nurtured soil.

Most lawyers will need some business development skills at some point in their professional lives. The most promising course for the future would be for lawyers to study marketing and business development at least to a basic level as a fundamental requirement of their law degree.

This would increase the options for law graduates, help them to steer the course of their professional career and better equip them for today's business world.

Steve Herzberg is the managing director of NRG Solutions. This is an edited version of a recent seminar he gave to the Australian Legal Practice Management Association

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