Relationship building. Pressing the flesh. Developing new revenue streams. Cross-selling. This is the language of business development, and, much like marketing terminology, it is not familiar territory for most lawyers. As much as I’m prone to preaching about the place for marketing in every law firm’s toolkit, business development for law firms is the other side of the coin.
After reading this article, you will have a good idea of what business development strategies look like for law firms, and some practical tips on how to integrate them into your job as a lawyer and business owner.
What is law firm business development?
Business development for law firms means pursuing strategic opportunities for your law firm. This includes building new relationships and identifying new revenue streams and sales opportunities. Examples are cross-selling to existing clients and adding new practice areas to your firm. It might involve geographic expansion, or setting up procedures for your client intake team to follow up with prospects.
Law firm business development vs. marketing
One of the reasons I love marketing is because you can seemingly create new business out of the blue. And depending on the advertising channel, the results can be instantaneous, through techniques such as turning on pay-per-click (PPC) ads and other forms of Google advertising. John Grisham writes books about the rainmaker, and that is precisely what a good marketing person is—a rainmaker.
In business development for lawyers, you’re still making it rain, but instead of the sales-focus one-time transactions of marketing, you build bridges, relationships, and revenue streams that are more sustainable and will serve you in the long run.
One might say that marketing is the here and now, putting your law firm in front of a client who needs your services and securing retainers. Unlike marketing, business development for law firms is about the long game—adding revenue and sales streams, practice areas, and relationships that build your practice over time.
What does law firm business development mean for lawyers?
Law firm business development essentially means anything you do, in a systematic way, that expands your firm’s revenue streams. It takes into account strategies to grow revenue from a big-picture perspective rather than one-time transactional decisions.
I know what you’re thinking: “Okay, so what does this mean to me, a sole practitioner (or lawyer at a small firm)?”
Top 3 strategies for law firm business development
Here are a few of the most common strategies lawyers of any size can use to grow new business:
1. Build strong client relationships
The best way to get a new client is through existing clients. The 2020 Legal Trends Report reveals that a client looking for a lawyer will trust recommendations from friends and family first as well as online reviews on Google, social media, legal directories, or from past clients.
To ensure that past clients lead to referrals for new clients, law firms need to become client-centered and develop strong client relationships, both during and after the case. There are many ways to do this, but it largely boils down to making the client experience exceptional.
Other findings from the 2019 Legal Trends Report show that communicating consistently and clearly, answering client inquiries, and being transparent with billing are all ways to make sure your clients feel they are getting the best possible experience and feel important.
To build strong relationships, focus on the five key aspects of running a client-centered law firm.
I. See things from your client’s perspective: Creating a better client journey and overall client experience at your law firm means truly seeing things from your client’s perspective. Don’t make assumptions. Stay engaged with your clients and look for opportunities to get insight into their experiences.
II. Care for your clients and consider their needs: Your clients don’t just come to you to get legal issues resolved. They come to you for peace of mind, reassurance, emotional support, advice, and more, during very stressful times in their lives. Lean into this with empathy and you could help your law firm stand out in a big way.
III. Be client-centric in your thinking: When your law firm makes a decision, evaluates a new tool, or tries a new process, do you think about how it will impact your clients and their experiences? Thinking of your clients first at every stage of the client journey is the first critical step toward running a more client-centered practice.
IV. Communicate clearly and often: For client-centered law firms, communication means more than just providing updates on clients’ cases. It’s about being proactive so that clients feel informed, and taking the time to ensure clients truly understand everything that is going on. This is important throughout the entire client journey, from intake to invoice.
V. Ask for feedback to continually improve the client experience:Don’t forget to ask for feedback from your clients. The best way to validate if your client experience is meeting expectations is to get feedback right from the source. Consider measuring client satisfaction as you go. Remember the old adage: “What gets measured gets managed.” One very common way to do this is by measuring your Net Promoter Score (NPS®). The NPS® is a way of measuring which clients are likely to spread the good word about your service to others through reviews and referrals. You’ll also want to be proactive about managing your online reputation. This includes responding to negative reviews and asking current and former clients for feedback and positive reviews.
Truthfully, I didn’t become comfortable with networking until many years into my career. I needed to feel like I had something to give others versus acting like a recent law school graduate who was desperate for a job.
Nonetheless, law firm networking is something you have to do. My advice would be to forget about your hang-ups, force yourself to get out there, and just talk to people without having a motive or professional objective such as marketing in mind. Be yourself and create relationships. Once you’re more comfortable, you can think about how to get more out of your networking. For now, just showing up is a good start. And if you’re the type to drop social events the moment you get busy at work, using the conversation list strategy for law firm business development to maintain your relationships is a great way to stay social.
Remember, networking doesn’t just mean going to bar events. Think hard about what makes most sense for your practice area. Will most of your clients come from other lawyers? Or will they come from other professionals?
I know an attorney who built an entire book of business through referrals by rubbing elbows in professional organizations and by being active in her local bar and practice area section. In fact, at the law firm we worked at, she brought in more than three times her salary in billable hours through referrals.
Another attorney did QDROs. Because new business came primarily through referrals from divorce attorneys, being active in the local bar and constantly present enabled him to stay top-of-mind. For him, this type of networking led to a doubling of revenue every other year. As a solo, he was bringing in over half a million in revenue.
The design of both attorney’s websites would make most marketing pros shudder. Neither knows what SEO stands for, nor do they run pay-per-click ads. But they play to their strengths. As a result, both are making a comfortable living these days off of networking and business development.
Marketing and business development for law firms go hand-in-hand. While networking can take years to pay off in dividends, marketing can “turn the faucet on” now, so to speak. The best approach is to do both for maximum effectiveness.
3. Asking for referrals
Many attorneys are afraid to ask for anything, even when it means free marketing. A simple client review? No way, that’s beneath them. Referrals? They aren’t begging for work.
The thing is, you know that you can provide superior services to anyone who is referred to your office. Asking for referrals isn’t asking for charity. It’s asking for opportunities to help human beings. And who better to help them than you?