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!

Reflections: Lessons from the last 7 years

So, my first proper piece on this site is going to be on my reflections of my 7 years in practice. I officially completed 7 years of legal practice in June. I’m now in my 8th year. How time flies! The Movement Control Order (“MCO”) has allowed me a lot of time to think and reflect on this journey I have been on.

My litigation practice has not always been a smooth sailing experience. There were very challenging days and there were rewarding days. I don’t know who needs this but I found it therapeutic to reflect on the last 7 years and this serves as a reminder to myself of how far I’ve come.

So, here’s my attempt to summarise a few lessons I learnt from the last 7 years.

#1 Pick your battles wisely

There is something about being a young, overly eager and fiery litigator when we’re starting out. When I started out, I had this somewhat misplaced drive and passion where I just wanted to win every little thing there is to win. Often, this translates to being a difficult opponent. Other times, I have treated every other lawyer on the other side as a foe.

To rise above your clients’ battles and not turn your clients’ battles into personal battles with opposing lawyers is something I learnt over time. Real life legal practice is nothing like Suits. We don’t really have to hate everyone on the other side.

Something I learnt along the way from being called out and observing more senior practitioners is that I don’t have to win every single battle. It is a delicate balance when you’re young and passionate. The balance between advancing your client’s interest and your own personal interest of wanting a long, happy career at the Bar.

I’ve come to learn that what makes practice at the Bar enjoyable is the camaraderie with members of the Bar. It is being able to fight tooth and nail in court against each other (of course, within the bounds of the law & ethical rules) and no matter what the outcome, we can still remain friendly with each other, which makes practice enjoyable. At the end of the day, there is so much that we can learn from each other.

Your clients – many of them come and go. They’ll move on and so will you once the case is over. But your peers, they may be around for a much longer time. Hopefully, for as long as you are around. As Taylor Swift sings it, it’s nice to have a friend. (I would add “at the Bar”).

#2 Business development: Start as early as possible

I genuinely think this requires a whole post on its own and I hope to, at some point, dedicate a post to this topic particularly from the standpoint of a young female lawyer. More on this another day!

Business development was something I resented a lot at the start of my legal practice because it was something our managing partner made us do even as associates.

When you’re starting out, it’s easy to fall into the trap of the employee mindset. The employee mindset will have you feeling like the partners are making you do their jobs and you think you’re not paid enough to be taking on the roles of a law firm partner, in so far as business development is concerned. At least this was how I felt initially. I don’t think this is a surprising reaction for any young lawyer made to take business development seriously at the early stages of their careers. After all, when I was starting out, it was almost unheard of for a law firm to encourage their associates to take on business development seriously.

You might also think that you’re too young to be able to bring in any work so what good will it be for you to be doing any form of business development. The truth is, at least for the firm I am with, there was little expectation that you will be bringing in work for the firm. The idea is that you learn while you’re young so you do not struggle when you become partners and feel that you are suddenly expected to generate work overnight. Of course, the firm does benefit along the way if all 20 lawyers at the firm are visible and are doing some form of business development for the firm.

When I spoke at the Selangor Bar alongside more established practitioners, Lee Shih and Foong Cheng Leong on “Business Development for Young Lawyers”, I had on my 1st slide “Start as early as possible” as my number 1 advice to young lawyers on business development. Trust me when I say that I say this with a little regret and a lot of hindsight.

With superstars Foong Cheng Leong and Lee Shih (L-R) last year

In another slide, I set out the following questions. They are questions I wished someone had asked me to ask myself early on in practice.

(a) Do I want to be a partner at this firm?

(b) Do I intend to stay in practice for long?

(c) What area(s) of law do I want to specialise in?

(d) Who are my “ideal” clients?

(e) What type of legal work do I want to do or see myself doing? (e.g. counsel work vs. solicitor work as a litigation lawyer in Malaysia)

Your answers may change over the years as you see more of practice but I feel that the answers to these questions (in hindsight) may help you identify what your business development goals and strategy would be. For example, if you intend to make partner at the firm you’re currently working for, your business development goals and strategy may be different from if you intend to some day set up your own practice.

The point is, it’s almost silly to not think about building your own professional brand as early as possible, especially if you can leverage on your firm’s reputation. In short, by embracing business development early on and developing such skills early, you give yourself options and the confidence to act on these options later on in practice. I learnt this a little later in my career and wished I did so much earlier.

#3 Drop ego-driven goals

What I’ve found, after 7 years, is that ego-driven goals can only take you so far and keep you fulfilled only for so long. Ego-driven goals to me do more harm to your self-esteem than you realise, especially when through no fault of yours, you do not reach them. Ego-driven goals have also left me feeling unfulfilled and unsatisfied even as I reached them because they are simply not good indicators of success.

I am very sure I read this somewhere and this is definitely not an original idea of mine.

A good example of what I deem to be ego-driven goals is the cliche job interview answers you would give to cliche job interview questions like “Where do you see yourself in 5 years from now?” etc. In recent times, I have come to loathe these sort of questions so much so that I have made it a point to not ask such questions as an interviewer.

Why do I feel so strongly about ego-driven goals?

I’ll take one ego-driven goal as an example: “Make partner in X years”. Admission to partnership at a law firm is usually determined by a number of factors and traditionally, the bigger the firm, the harder it may be to make partner. Most firms have a lockstep system anyway and while there have been outliers, generally, your career trajectory in terms of promotion within a law firm is pretty much set in stone. Generally, my peers and I have achieved this milestone in our 6th – 7th year of practice.

So, when a young pupil or lawyer comes to an interview and says he hopes to make partner in 5 years, I can’t help but think that he is already setting himself up for failure. He thinks he’s demonstrating ambition. I think he merely has an ego-driven goal. Why so? Simply because I think the fewer number of years you take to make partner at a firm does not necessarily make you a better lawyer than your peer at another firm who may take longer to reach that career milestone.

When I made partner in January 2019, the excitement and sense of fulfillment were short-lived. Quite quickly, I found myself asking, “So, what? What now? Does this make me a well-respected lawyer within the profession? Do people regard me as anything other than just a partner at this law firm?”.

I’ve learnt that it is more useful and meaningful to take stock of how well you have improved your “tools of trade” i.e. your skills, expertise and the experience you gained through the work you do. I have come to accept that as long as I feel I’m still growing and learning, I am making progress. As long as I am challenging my status quo, I am better than I was yesterday and that is a far more realistic “success indicator” for me.

My influences for this line of thinking (and I encourage you to read them if you have not) are:
Cal Newport, So Good They Can’t Ignore You and Malcolm Gladwell, Outliers.

#4 Impostor syndrome is real but you can get over it

I first learnt of the term “impostor syndrome” and what it really is when I read Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In. As Sandberg wrote, “The phenomenon of capable people being plagued by self-doubt has a name – the impostor syndrome. Both men and women are susceptible to the impostor syndrome, but women tend to experience it more intensely and be more limited by it.”

I am a chronic sufferer of this syndrome, if I may say so myself. I often feel my confidence is fake and I often seek external validation to feel good about myself professionally. The problem with seeking external validation is that you don’t always get it from the people you expect it from and when you don’t get it, you tend to dive into a phase of serious self-doubt.

I have come to realise that I am definitely not alone in this. If you pay attention to the cringe-worthy, humble bragging social media posts of many lawyers, both men and women, you will come to realise that everyone is seeking some form of external validation. (And, don’t pretend. You thought the same when you saw those posts. I just said what’s on your mind!)

What I have also come to realise is that most of us are faking it anyway. Even Sheryl Sandberg admits to faking it when she doesn’t feel confident (see page 33 of Lean In).

The only effective way for me to get over my “impostor syndrome” is to continuously do the things I fear doing the most (because I think I’d be outed as a fraudster). A very good example is how I feel about conducting talks (or in recent times due to the MCO, Webinars). I’m often terrified that someone is going to ask a question I cannot answer and I’d be deemed to be incompetent and a fraud. But as experience has shown me, my worst fears never really came true. The more I did them, the more confident I got and I learnt ways to handle the difficult questions. Bottom line: it wasn’t the end of the world.

So, yes, “impostor syndrome” is real. It can hold you back in one way or another but only if you allow it to. It’s not easy to shake off the feelings of self-doubt and perhaps, I will never be like the confident people I so admire. But with self-awareness and experience, I know I am getting over my “impostor syndrome” one day at a time.

I hope this is of use to some of you younger folks out there. Stay safe, everyone!

Do let me know if you have any other topics you’d like me to touch on.