Having written about the struggles and lessons I learnt on business development as a young lawyer, I now move on to sharing some tips which helped me through my early years of practice.
These are of course tips I see as helping you get into the mindset of getting used to the idea of business development as a young lawyer. I believe that your strategies and the activities which you decide to undertake will come easier once you have the right mindset. I do not discuss business development activities like whether your should write or speak on your particular area of practice because I think these are activities you will be able to decide on easily once you have the right mindset.
1. Find your own style or approach
I find business development to be something quite subjective and nothing is really set in stone when it comes to your style or approach. The difficulty I had early on was in identifying what my style or approach would be. It can be a little difficult in the early years when the firm you work for dictates what you do. But with time and confidence, you may (God willing) be able to dictate and determine your own style and approach.
I believe that the starting point for an effective business development approach as a young lawyer is one which incorporates your interests, hobbies and things you are comfortable with doing. But to be successful, I also believe that I have to be prepared to be uncomfortable. Business development is not always easy for everyone. For example, giving talks / seminars did not come easily to me. I grapple with impostor syndrome on a daily basis. This makes putting myself out there professionally a huge challenge on most days. With time and consistency, the things you fear doing the most will almost feel like second nature to you.
For employers who want to encourage their young lawyers to learn and start business development initiatives, perhaps it is wiser to understand that each young lawyer is different. What works for one person, might not work for another. Having every single lawyer in the firm do the exact same things may set you back more than you think.
2. Make it a learning experience
One way I learnt to deal with my discomfort with the idea of business development was to see most of the things I do for business development as a learning experience. Giving a talk or seminar for example, can help you learn even more about the area you are speaking on. It serves as a motivation to go deeper into a particular subject matter. It is also an opportunity for you to learn about your own presentation style, how do you read the audience, etc. It can be somewhat of a self-discovery process and eventually, you’ll get the hang of things.
The same goes with meeting new people at conferences or networking events. The difficulty an over-thinker like me face in such situations is that I tend to think “How do I sell myself here?”. There’s a considerable amount of pressure I put on myself when I was thinking along those lines simply because as a young lawyer, it was hard for me not to think that I don’t have much to sell to begin with.
Things changed significantly for me in these settings when I made a mental shift to simply just be curious about others. You will find people who enjoy talking about themselves and tt some point, they’d know that it’s common courtesy to also ask you about yourself. And, this worked particularly well when meeting people from other industries. I always think with this mindset, I don’t just walk away with a new contact. I walk away a little more enlightened than before.
3. Start with people you already know
It is my view that as a young lawyer starting out, there is no expectation that you can or should be bringing in your own clients for the firm. The whole point about thinking of business development early on in your career is to set you up for success in the later years of your practice.
So, who can you market to or build a continuing working relationship with as a young lawyer? I started with this list:
- The firm’s existing clients (especially satisfied clients);
- The firm’s existing referral sources;
- Fellow lawyers practising in different areas;
- Former colleagues (e.g. those who have gone in-house);
- Non-lawyer friends.
A little caveat on marketing or building a continuing working relationship with the firm’s existing clients and existing referral sources. I have been fortunate to be in a firm where the partners have taken the initiative to cultivate business development habits and practices early on in my practice (although, my gratitude came much later in practice). The firm was never too afraid of allowing us to have direct contact with existing or former clients. If you are at a place which gives you such opportunities, be sure to make full use of it.
4. Specialise or be a generalist with a niche area of specialisation
There is much debate about whether it is better to be a generalist or a specialist. At the “Business Development for Young Lawyers” talk last year, my tip #3 was “Specialise as early as possible”. I took this view because “specialising early”was an expectation the firm had of me.
With much reading and reflection, I think this requires a little clarification on my part. Despite holding the firm’s Contentious Probate portfolio, I am still very much a general litigator in the firm’s Corporate and Commercial litigation team and essentially, corporate and commercial disputes are my main “bread and butter”. Quite frankly, despite the firm’s tune that we should all specialise early, I like to think that we now agree that being a 100% Contentious Probate specialist in a dispute resolution only firm in the early years of practice is not going to help me hit those Billings & Collections targets (this topic needs a post of its own too!).
So, I generally like to say that Contentious Probate is my “niche area of specialisation” on top of being a Corporate and Commercial litigator.
I stumbled upon my “niche area of specialisation” by chance. I did not know what I wanted to specialise in going into practice. I chose to be in the firm’s Corporate and Commercial Litigation team based on the subjects I took in law school and during the Bar. I was initially assigned the Insolvency portfolio in my first year of practice with the expectation that I will one day be a specialist in this area. It was a practice area I did alright in but it was not something I personally enjoyed. I was fortunate that the Managing Partner and my supervising partner recognised this.
It was simply by chance that I was assigned the Contentious Probate portfolio when a colleague left the firm. Even then, I did not really start out with doing actual contentious matters. I started off with very mundane, simple non-contentious probate work. This paid off because you can’t really say you’re a specialist if you don’t know your basics well. It takes a good number of years to build those skills and hopefully, when you make partner, you will be able to generate a good amount of work in your particular areas of practice.
5. Develop commercial awareness
I think this is one of the stumbling blocks for young lawyers in the first few years of practice. We tend to see things in a very legal sense and we lack understanding of what clients truly want. Most clients are not concerned with the nitty gritty details of the law or the processes. They are mostly concerned with the end game that they’re trying to achieve.
Why do I think being commercially aware is tied to developing the right mindset for business development? Simply because you can’t appeal to your lay clients without understanding their wants and needs beyond just obtaining a paper judgment. At some point in our careers, we will be advising businesses or private individuals who are business owners.
Commercial awareness is said to be a skill. It takes time to build and it takes dedication to not only read extensively but to develop a genuine interest in learning about the world your clients and future clients operate in. It is not something that happens overnight. So, it is wise to start cultivating the habit from the early day of practice.
I am in agreement with the view that “awareness” should not be confused with “knowledge”. You can have knowledge of a lot of trends or events in the industries your client operates in. But having knowledge does not necessarily mean that you know or understand the effects of such trends or events to their businesses (or even lives). Nothing beats reading and learning with the intention to form your own views and understanding of things from the perspective of a client.
These are some of the lessons I have learnt in the early days of practice which helped me through business development as a young lawyer. I hope it will be useful to some of you.