If you’re a mid-level or senior associate with aspirations to remain in private practice long term, you already know that business development will be a factor in your ability to advance in the profession. The early associate years are primarily about acquiring the core legal skills that enable you to practice competently and with relative independence. But as you approach the window for promotion to counsel — and, ultimately, partner — a solid legal toolkit is not enough. Your firm must have confidence that you can make a material contribution to generating new business.
The good news is that business development doesn’t have to be intimidating. If you lay the right foundation, it’s something that will start to happen naturally. But the foundation is critical, and it requires a proactive investment on your part. Business development planning is an iterative process, so the sooner you give it serious attention, the better placed you will be when your firm is considering you for promotion. Do not wait until you are up for Counsel or Partner to get started. To that end, here are some helpful tips.
Write a business plan and update it regularly.
Even as a mid-level associate, you need a business plan. This is a living document that you should update at least annually. Don’t wait until you are in the promotion window to do this!
A solid business plan will include details on what you have achieved to date, prospects you are actively working on, and your goals for the future. List and quantify any matters you have originated, noting which business or client relationships would likely be portable in the event you switched firms. List your business contacts, distinguishing between those to whom you are actively marketing and others in your broader network. You should also make a list of attorneys who may be sources of referrals.
If you’re writing a business plan for the first time, you may have little to say about your (still nonexistent) book of business. That’s totally fine! Focus instead on spelling out the things you are doing to build your professional profile and lay the groundwork for future business development. What organizations are you involved in? Which articles have you published? What about speaking opportunities? If you don’t yet have experience in each of these categories, commit to building some in the next six months.
Foster a strong network, both in person and online.
It’s never too early to get serious about networking. Relationships compound over time, often in unexpected ways, so there is substantial benefit to putting yourself out there early and maintaining an ongoing presence in the various communities with which you’re affiliated. The range of opportunities for effective networking is wider than ever, both in person and online. Remember that networking is about meeting and talking to people, without an immediate expectation of any concrete payoff. So try to relax and be human about it!
One easy place to network is LinkedIn. You can do it from anywhere, whenever you have a free moment. LinkedIn is a great platform for marketing yourself as an expert in your field and making connections with prospective clients. Low-effort ways to get started include sharing news about your firm and commenting on your connections’ posts. As you grow more comfortable on the platform, start sharing your own insights relevant to your area of expertise. In the process, you’ll find yourself staying in better touch with existing contacts, as well as expanding your network with new contacts.
And don’t forget about “internal networking” within your own law firm. Getting to know attorneys outside of your practice group is key. By gaining exposure to different practice areas, you lay the groundwork for future cross-selling. A colleague who knows and trusts you is more likely to introduce you to clients and invite you on pitches.
If the concept of networking gives you anxiety, set yourself some small, achievable goals to help get more comfortable. For example, if you go to a happy hour event, commit to making three new contacts and to making one LinkedIn post about the event. And then vow to follow up with them. The most important thing is to get started!
Leverage your mentors and learn from their experience.
If you’re a mid-level or senior associate, you likely have at least one or two mentors whom you trust to provide career advice. (If you don’t, you should consider a lateral move to a firm more committed to mentorship!) Business development is a great topic to explore with your mentors. Ask about their experience generating revenue and the strategies that have worked best for them. Share your business plan and ask for feedback. Ask your mentors to include you in business development activities and pitches, where possible. If you show that you’re committed to the business side of the firm, most partners will be happy to help you build the skills needed to become a revenue generator.
In addition to a mentor within your firm, assembling a group of other advisors who know the legal market and the profession is never a bad idea. Forming a relationship with an experienced recruiter (even if you aren’t looking to lateral at this time), who knows the market, and will check in with you every six months or so to update you and provide advice, can only help you. A good recruiter can provide you with solid business development tips, a business plan template, and can even offer edits to your plan.
Commit to stepping out of your comfort zone.
Many associates find business development intimidating because it is new and requires you to put yourself out there and risk rejection. However, please rest assured that these are learnable skills, provided you have the right mindset. Start by acknowledging that you must step out of your comfort zone to achieve success and move forward. And keep in mind that building a book of business doesn’t happen overnight. Good luck and remember that there are many experts eager to help you put yourself out there!
Ed. note: This is the latest installment in a series of posts from Lateral Link’s team of expert contributors. Lauren Smith specializes in Partner representation in the lateral market on a National level. She also has extensive experience placing Associates with AmLaw, regional, and high-end boutique law firms as well as in house counsel with corporations of all sizes.
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