Legal Business Development: The what and how of staying visible to your audience

While I will be the first to sympathise with you when you say you didn’t enter the law to become a salesperson, by the same token I am not going to shy away from the fact that- whether you like it or loathe it- business development will play a massive part in your career.

The legal market is becoming more crowded, more competitive and, by extension, more commercially driven than ever before and this is only going to increase. That means that in order for your career to kick on, you will need to demonstrate the ability to win work as well as the ability to do the work. Yes, there will always be a part for the more ‘monastic’ lawyer to play in the background but when it comes to choosing the partners of tomorrow, firms want good businesspeople as much as they want good lawyers.

However, sometimes it can be a bit confusing when a partner suddenly asks you to ‘do’ some business development. What does business development actually mean? Is business development actually the term your firm uses? Maybe they refer to marketing or BD or (shudder/shiver) they may even use the ‘s’ word … selling? Whatever your firm calls business development, the truth of the matter is what you are actually being asked to do really just boils down to one thing, visibility.

Good business development is simply knowing how to get visibility and stay visible to the audience most likely to deliver fee income for you.

Irrespective of what your firm calls it, you should never consider business development to be anything other (or more complicated) than that. Now that we have that out in the open, what I’d like to do is make it even more straightforward by breaking down that definition to look at:

  1. Who makes up that audience that will deliver the fee income
  2. The different ways to get and stay visible to your audience
  1. Who do you need to be visible to?

There are only 3 potential sources of new work:

  • You can get more work from the clients you have
  • You can get referrals from your professional, industry or local contacts
  • You can win brand new clients

For some reason, law firms are obsessed with the third group. They invest heavily in trying to find and pursue new targets, they only discuss new client acquisition initiatives in departmental meetings and only reward fee earners from bringing in brand new clients. To me this is wrong.

The easiest, quickest and most cost-effective routes to new work are your current clients and your contacts. These are the people who, in the case of your clients, have already chosen to use you and your firm and are already in the habit of paying you for your advice. In the case of your contacts, these are people who have already chosen to work with your firm and are comfortable referring their clients and contacts to you.

From your own point of view, it also has to be more comfortable to ‘do’ your business development with people you already know. You don’t have to start from scratch, you know your emails/calls/invites won’t be parked and you’ll have some sort of history and, therefore, something to talk about when you do meet.

If you are in a more senior position and have some responsibility for the personal development of your team, current clients and contacts offer the perfect training environment for less experienced lawyers, giving them the opportunity to practice small talk, meeting planning and (most importantly) follow-up.

So how do you make the most of your clients and contacts? In a word, focus.

With regards to clients in almost every practice, the 80/20 rule works. If you haven’t heard of the 80/20 in this context it means that 80% of your fees will come from 20% of your clients. Identify that 20% (unlikely to be a list of more than 5 or 6) and schedule 3 or 4 meetings per year with them. And these should be meetings that will allow you to have a proper chat rather than meetings that have been called to progress or conclude a specific matter.

When I’m helping clients to find a reason for these meetings (and the general rule is that an invitation for a meeting accompanied with a reason is more likely to be accepted than just an invitation to meet) I always suggest that they try and mix up the formal (an annual review, a team-on-team meeting in your offices, a discussion about training or secondment) with the informal (coffee, breakfast, lunch, a beer, bowling, golf, etc.).

The reason for this- it will create a more rounded working relationship. The formal will allow you to underline your technical legal abilities and the informal will allow you to build the personal side of the relationship. That personal element is absolutely crucial. It is the bit that will ensure your client feels totally at ease asking you complicated questions here and there (which will lead to new work) and comfortable to introduce you to their own contacts (which will lead to new work).

The remaining 80% can be managed either with one meeting per year or, even more time-efficiently, through your firm’s BD events, your seminar programme or as and when corporate hospitality opportunities arise.

Managing your contacts effectively is a very similar process. If you were to take a quiet 10 minutes to list out your professional contacts, it is easy to identify your most productive, the more sporadic introducers and those who you need to keep in with but probably won’t generate much in terms of return.

Obviously, all of these contacts should be invited to the firm’s seminars and socials which will allow you to see them throughout the year but there are clear strategies you can use to employ a more personal approach to ensure you maximise the referral opportunities each offers:

  • The first group should be managed in a similar way to the top 20% of your clients
  • The second group can be seen once a year 1on1 but, if you are going to the local or industry events most relevant to your practice, you’ll probably bump into the majority at regular intervals
  • The third group can be added to your marketing database so they receive your emails, updates and links to any new blogs or articles

Well, that’s all very well, I hear you say, but I am tasked with/expected to bring in some new clients too. I understand that but I am willing to bet that if you stay close to your clients and contacts in the way I’ve explained, you will be invited to events at which you will meet new prospects. I am also willing to bet that as your personal relationships with your clients or contacts develop, they will start to introduce you to “someone you just have to meet” and these introductions will also generate new prospects for you to nurture.

However, if you would like to be more proactive, all of the initiatives I am about to introduce in part 2 are equally as applicable to winning new clients as they are to helping you stay visible to your clients and contacts.

  1. How do you get visible and stay visible to your audience

When it comes to business development, the legal sector’s immediate default is that business development has to mean networking which in turn has to mean formal networking. This is nonsense.

Yes, networking events can play a significant part in your business development plan… but only if you are one of those people who is totally comfortable with formal networking events. Our ethos is that people are much more successful with their business development if their plan is based on the things they actually like doing. For simplicity’s sake we split those things up into 4 groups:

i. Networking

I always split networking down into two groups– formal and informal.

Formal networking has been a mainstay of legal marketing for longer than I can remember. If you choose the right events they will give you the opportunity to meet a raft of potentially relevant/useful new people. The main thing to remember when it comes to formal networking is just meeting people doesn’t win work; it is the follow-up that wins work. If you are going to invest your time in attending the event, make sure you follow-up on interesting new contacts with an invitation to meet 1on1 for a coffee or a drink.

Informal networking is when you just get a few people together that you know will get on and could potentially be of interest to each other business-wise. Pick your group, pick a venue, pick a time and date and send out the invites. This approach is now a fundamental part of our own BD and is something we know our clients and contacts really appreciate… and we now have indefatigable proof it works as a new law firm was born at one of our Nottingham evenings!

ii. Writing

While the world is arguably awash with content, there is always a place for punchy, practical blogs and articles that give the reader clear direction and straightforward advice.

With regards to what you can write, it is often best to start by looking at internal opportunities. You could produce blogs or FAQs for your website or e-marketing or post articles on LinkedIn. However, if you want to reach a wider audience, you should look at the trade publications and websites that serve your particular sector.

iii. Speaking

If you think about a networking event, there may be 50 people there and, with the best will in the world, you will probably only get to speak to 5. If you are the keynote speaker you get to speak to everyone and, better still, the majority will come up to you afterwards to give you their cards so you can send them your slides.

Public speaking is not for everyone (and I very much count myself in that number) but if you are good at it– or are willing to get good at it– it is an extremely productive BD tool.

iv. Research

If you are not a natural front of house person, you can still make a very valuable contribution to your team or firm’s BD by helping with the desk research required to find where the networkers should be networking, where your speakers should be speaking (and what they should be speaking about) and where your writers should be writing (and what they should be writing about).

So the next time you are asked to ‘do’ BD, there’s no need to be worried. All you’re being asked to do is get visible to the audience most likely to generate new opportunities for you. And how do you do that? In the way that suits you best!

This post has been written by Douglas McPherson. If you would like a copy of his ‘coffee plan’ template and/or BD calendar templates to help you get organised, please e-mail Douglas at


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.