Business Development – Part 1: The Struggle is Real

When I was first introduced to the idea of business development, I hated it a lot. Unlike people who understood early on in their careers what business development meant and why is it so important, I believed that all I had to do in the early years of practice was to work hard, have a good grasp of my technical skills and things will magically work out on their own. I do not think I am alone in this.

Business development is not something I was taught in law school and I do believe, very few law firms actually train their young lawyers early in business development. The result of such this is that we rarely how to market our services and brand ourselves in line with changing times.

We only need to look at the sudden increase in law firm visibility on social media brought about by the MCO to accept that business development is an essential part of legal practice.

I am not writing this piece as someone who is terribly good at business development. I am still very much learning every day. I am writing from the perspective of someone who has struggled earlier on but is now finding her footing with business development.

It is through these struggles that I learnt some important lessons.

1. Gender differences in business development are real

I used to watch my colleagues, particularly my male colleagues, with envy at the firm’s networking events. They seem to be able to work the room so effortlessly while it took every ounce in me to start a conversation with a complete stranger! I began to think that men are just better at it. Thankfully, I didn’t hold on to such beliefs for too long. I knew I could not afford to have that mindset if I wanted to progress in the firm.

As always, my first step to solving any problems in life is to Google it. If you’re a young female lawyer reading this, I encourage you to Google “woman lawyer hates business development“. What you will find is a plethora of resources specifically on “Women lawyers & business development” addressing the very struggles I faced early on. I only wished I came across these resources earlier so I would not feel so alone. The difficulty I had back then was that my peers in the profession were working at firms which did not have such expectations of them so I did not have people outside the firm who I could turn to for advice.

So, I read and read and read. Through my reading, I began to understand the concept of “business development” better and why as a young woman, I felt like I sucked at it. I also began to appreciate the firm’s efforts in trying to train us and most importantly, for making sure that everyone had equal platforms. I believe this was how I started making small mental shifts which eventually made business development bearable for me.

A common concern women have about business development is that we may feel less comfortable doing certain business development activities which men do not seem to have a problem with. For example, I often felt uncomfortable asking a male business prospect out.

Through my reading and many trials and errors, I learnt and have come to accept that I may approach business development quite differently from my male colleagues and that is okay. As experience has shown me, I did not lose out. The business development game is a long game, anyway. This is why the sooner you get a grasp of why it is important and what is it truly about, the better head-start you’ll have in your career.

Many organisations have in fact devoted much time and effort in addressing the issues faced by women lawyers in terms of business development. The following are some of the resources which I have come across and found helpful:

2. Business development is about creating authentic relationships

I think the problem I had with business development when I was starting out was that I thought I knew what it was simply because I identify with the common activities associated with the idea or concept of “business development”. For example, attending networking events, approaching someone and handing out your business card are just some of the activities people do as part of business development. But at the crux of it, what are we trying to achieve by doing these activities? Flowing from this question is whether such activities are in fact effective in generating revenue and helping you build your brand?

I have always had a real dislike of handing out business cards to any new person I meet as part of business development. The same goes for the call to treat every single new person I meet as a potential client. For me, there is something inauthentic and meaningless to this.

Thankfully, business development is not purely about closing sales and shameless self-promotion. I am grateful for the school of thought that business development is about building strong, authentic professional relationships over time. I am in agreement with the view that business development should not be seen as purely selling your expertise and services to potential clients.

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For me, having defined what business development meant to me helped me overcome most of my aversion and struggles with it. At the end of the day, people do business with people they like and trust. And, trust isn’t built overnight.

Of course, when you’re young and starting out, you do not always have the luxury of choosing who your clients are. I have come to accept that this is precisely why determining what business development means to you and finding a strategy which fits your personality, values and ideals of your future practice early on in your career is so crucial. In my practice, some of the clients who I enjoy working with the most are clients who I have known from when they were starting out in their careers / businesses at the same time I was and over the years, we grew together. I know for this, albeit small, group of clients, I will always be their first point of call when they find themselves in a legal pickle. This certainly did not happen overnight. It took years of building the trust and maintaining the professional relationships.

3. The trap of the “Employee Mindset”

I briefly touched on this issue in my last post and I think it deserves some clarification and an extended explanation. Why shouldn’t we think like employees when as a junior partner, I am also pretty much an employee? The simple answer to this in my view is that, law firm partnerships are ultimately about dollars and cents i.e. how much work and revenue can you bring in for the firm. Of course, other things like your values, personality, leadership, talents etc are factors taken into consideration by the firm when deciding to promote you to partner. But if most law firms were being honest, potential to generate revenue for the firm and ability to hit billings & collection targets will always rank highly in the list of considerations.

So, what is the “employee mindset”?

There are tons of resources about the this topic and what an “employee mindset” is. To me, it is simply this:
Your primary career goal is promotion within the firm or even maintaining status quo within the firm. You see your own personal brand as one and the same with the firm you work for.

The employee mindset is often compared to the “entrepreneurial mindset”. Of course, not all of us want to start our own firms and be our own bosses. But we’re also unlikely to succeed as a law firm partner without some entrepreneurial skills and of course, an entrepreneurial mindset. I think this can be a little controversial to say as I learnt that one of the best ways to insult a lawyer is to call him a “businessman” with regard to how he runs his firm and practice!

As professionals, we are told that we play by different sets of rules from business people. However, the reality is that not all of us are going to be able to sustain a practice by just having an office and hope for a constant stream of clients walking through our doors. Things like figuring out the value of our work, time, keeping firm costs low or manageable, pricing of our services, how do we stand out from a sea of lawyers offering the same services etc ultimately requires us to approach the practice like business people. So, developing an entrepreneurial mindset early on (within the bounds of our ethical & professional rules) in my opinion goes a long way.

I only wished I learnt this earlier on.

Final Thoughts

In Part 2, I hope to share some tips and more lessons I learnt in how to approach business development when you’re a young lawyer. I hope you’ve found this useful. Do share your thoughts on this!

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