Your Guide to Law Firm Business Development

Photo of an increasing bar chart with a briefcase in front of it

Relationships. Pressing the flesh. Developing new revenue streams. Cross-selling. This is the language of business development, and, much like marketing terminology, it is not familiar territory for most lawyers. As much as I’m prone to preaching about the place for marketing in every firm’s toolkit, biz dev is the other side of the coin.

So, let’s talk biz dev.

Business development means pursuing strategic opportunities for your law firm through building relationships and identifying new revenue streams, such as cross-selling existing clients or adding new practice areas to your firm. It might involve geographic expansion, or setting up procedures for your intake team to follow up with potential clients.

After reading this article, you will have a good idea of what business development strategies look like for law firms, and some practical tips for making business development a part of your job as a lawyer and a business owner.

Marketing vs. Business Development

One of the reasons I love marketing is that you are creating new business seemingly out of the blue. And depending on the advertising channel, the results can be utterly instantaneous, such as turning on pay per click (PPC) ads. John Grisham writes books about the rainmaker, and that is precisely what a good marketing person is—a rainmaker.

Business development is a lot like that. You are still making it rain, but instead of turning on instantaneous waterfalls of one-time transactions, you build bridges, relationships, and revenue streams that are longer and more sustainable. Business development almost never pays off immediately. Instead, you demonstrate authority and make connections and relationships that serve you for the next few decades.

Marketing is about selling your firm by matching your brand to your clients’ anticipated needs. Business development is about defining and developing revenue streams and encouraging repeat customers and referrals.

One might say that marketing is the here and now, putting your firm in front of those who need your services and securing retainers. Business development is about the long game—adding markets, practice areas, and relationships that build your law firm over time.

What does business development mean for lawyers?

Business development for lawyers essentially means anything you do in a systematic way to expand your firm’s revenue streams. That may sound very general, and it is, so it might be helpful to think of business development as a strategic approach that takes into account the big picture rather than one-time transactional decisions.

I know what you’re thinking: “Okay, so what does this mean to me, a sole practitioner (or lawyer at a small firm)?”

Here are a few of the most common strategies lawyers use to build their book of business:

Building strong client relationships

chart from the 2017 legal trends report

The best sources of new clients are old clients. Survey after survey, including the Legal Trends Report, has revealed what we all know to be common sense: People looking for a lawyer will trust the word of their friends and family first, and if that’s not available, they tend to start with online reviews from past clients.

To ensure that past clients lead to more new clients, a law firm needs to become client-centered and develop strong client relationships, both during and after the case. There are many ways to do this, but it largely boils down to making the client experience exceptional. Communicating consistently, billing clearly, and seeking feedback regularly on your firm’s performance are all ways to make sure your clients feel that they are your top priority.

4 quadrants of being client centered

To keep it simple, focus on these four key aspects of running a client-centered law firm:

  • See things from your client’s perspective. Creating a better client journey and overall client experience at your law firm means truly seeing things from your client’s perspective. Don’t make assumptions: Stay engaged with your clients, and look for opportunities to get insight into their experiences.
  • Care for your clients and consider their needs. Your clients don’t just come to you to get legal issues resolved: They come to you for peace of mind, reassurance, emotional support, advice, and more—even if they’re business clients. Lean into this, and you could help your firm stand out in a big way.
  • Think client-first. When your law firm makes a decision, evaluates a new tool, or tries a new process, do you think about how it will impact your clients and their experiences? Thinking of your clients first in all things is the first critical step towards running a more client-centered practice.
  • Communicate clearly and often. For client-centered law firms, communication means more than just providing updates on clients’ cases: It’s about being proactive so that clients feel informed, and taking the time to ensure clients truly understand everything that is going on. This is important throughout the entire client journey, from intake to invoice.
Ensuring you have happy clients

On that same wavelength is the idea that you have to ensure that your clients are happy while they are still clients. (You won’t change their minds after they have paid the final bill and moved on.)  The way to do this is through the aforementioned strong client relationships, and you should consider measuring client satisfaction as you go. Remember the old adage: “What gets measured gets managed.”

One very common way to do this is through measuring your Net Promoter Score (NPS), a way of measuring which clients are likely to spread the good word about your excellent service to others through reviews and referrals. You’ll also want to be proactive about managing your online reputation—responding to negative reviews and asking current and former clients for feedback and positive reviews.

Networking

networking picture

Truthfully, I didn’t become comfortable with networking until many years into my career, when I felt like I had something to give others, rather than being a recent law school graduate who was merely desperate for a lead on a job.

Noneless, networking is something you have to do. My advice would be to forget about your hangups, force yourself to get out there, and just talk to people without a motive or professional objective in mind. Be yourself and create relationships. Once you’re more comfortable, you can think about getting more out of your networking, but for now, just showing up is a good start. And if you’re the type to drop social events the moment you get busy at work, using the conversation list strategy to maintain your relationships is a great way to stay social.

And remember: Networking doesn’t just mean going to bar events. Think hard about your desired practice area: will most of your clients come from other lawyers? Or will they come from other professionals?

  • I know an attorney who built an entire book of business through referrals by rubbing elbows in professional organizations such as BNI and by being active in her local bar and practice area section. In fact, at the firm we worked at, she brought in more than three times her salary in billable hours through referrals.
  • I know another attorney, who like me, does QDROs. Because our business comes primarily from referrals from divorce attorneys,  being active in the local bar and being a constantly present face to stay top-of-mind is imperative. For him, better networking led to him doubling his revenue every other year until last year—when, as a solo, he brought in over half a million in revenue.

Both attorneys’ websites would make most marketing pros shudder. Neither knows what SEO stands for, nor do they run pay per click ads. But … they’re both making a comfortable living these days off of networking and biz dev. (Hint: Marketing and biz dev go hand-in-hand, and while networking can take years to pay dividends, marketing can “turn the faucet on” now, so to speak. Do both for maximum effectiveness.)

Asking for referrals

Many attorneys are afraid to ask for anything. A simple client review? That is beneath them. Referrals? They aren’t begging for work.

The thing is, if you value yourself as an attorney, you know that you can provide superior services to anyone who is referred to your office. Asking for work isn’t asking for charity, it is asking for opportunities to help human beings. And who better than you to help them?

Referral agreements and services are an interesting concept that must be treated with caution. For example, when I was a regular divorce attorney, most divorce attorneys I knew had a QDRO attorney. For every divorce case, once they finished the settlement or trial and had a judgment in hand, they would refer all of their cases to the same QDRO attorney to process the retirement account division.

Is that allowable under the ABA Model Rules? It depends. Rule 7.2 and its comments set forth the following:

  • No paying for referrals (though token gifts are okay).
  • No exclusive reciprocal referral agreements (and referral agreements must be disclosed to the client).
  • Referral services and lead generation services are allowed, but they cannot vouch for a lawyer’s quality and the service’s advertising cannot be misleading.

Returning to the QDRO example, such a referral practice would be allowed so long as the QDRO attorney did not pay for the referrals and if the referrals were reciprocal, it could not be exclusive and the clients would have to be kept in the loop.

How to create a law firm business development plan

business development plan drawing

Between a business plan, a budget, and a marketing plan, you might think that your firm is all planned out. Maybe, but it is important to think of your legal practice as a business, and the most successful businesses are the ones that take both marketing and business development seriously.

How do you make a business development plan? It’s simpler than you’d think:

  1. Start with listing your business goals for the year: Do you want to start a new practice area? Become “the person” for an existing practice?
  2. Then, because business development is not quite as concrete as, say, setting aside a budget for ads, brainstorm a list of strategies that will help get you to those goals.
  3. Then, prioritize those strategies and write down the top two or three (or however many you have the time and budget to commit to) roughly outlining how you’re actually going to make it happen. Which networking events will you attend? What will a cross-selling process look like at your firm?
  4. Revisit this plan every quarter or so, or when your business changes drastically (e.g., you move locations, your firm grows, and/or you take on a new practice area). Be critical about what’s working and what isn’t, but also remember that biz dev is a long game, so you make be looking at indicators of long-term success rather than immediate results. You may not have gotten a referral from that criminal defense lawyer you met at last month’s bar event yet, but making the connection and starting to build a relationship is still progress.

6 law firm business development strategies to try

Here are a few strategies you may want to include as part of your law firm business development plan. For even more ideas, check out this list of tips from BigLaw rainmakers.

1. Resolve to attend a certain number of networking events per year.

Goals are easier to achieve if they are concrete. Commit to, say, two events per month. At those events, go there without an agenda in mind and ask others about themselves. Have some fun and build some relationships.

2. Write or speak to demonstrate authority.

Are you an expert in your field? Prove it by committing to writing a few articles this year or committing to speak at a bar conference or other legal conference (or even a conference outside of the legal industry, assuming it is relevant and will lead to more business referrals from non-lawyers).

3. Hire additional associates and take on a higher case load

If you are lucky enough to be turning down cases, should you be? Track the cases you’ve turned down recently, and if it comes close to the salary of an associate, consider expanding your workforce.

4. Cross-sell current clients on other services

For example: A divorcee may need a new estate plan, and once she is a planning client, she might be interested in add-on services like a pet trust or gun trust. Three years from now, she might need to declare bankruptcy. If you do bankruptcy law, great. If not, can you refer the case out for a fee split, or refer the case for free to build your relationship with co-counsel?

5. Expand to a new geographic market

A 2017 survey by iLawyerMarketing found that 75% of consumers won’t travel more than 30 miles to an attorney, so consider adding a satellite office in a nearby town. If you are in an area with high traffic or commute times, that geographic distance may be shorter—at least anecdotally, it seems that in New York City, for example, most consumers won’t travel outside of their own borough.

6. Brainstorm new referral sources

Provide a discount to a local union or your church’s members. Befriend other lawyers with complementary practice areas—a family law lawyer might need a criminal defense lawyer to refer certain cases to, or a QDRO guy, or an estate plan person.

What worked for me? Client reviews

To date, the best move I’ve made has been to become utterly relentless on client reviews. When each case is done, I ask for a review before the final bill is sent out. I follow up if they forget.

When I moved to New York from California, I asked a few old clients who I was still in touch with to update their reviews for my new office. Reviews are a business procedure around here. I’m still ramping up my new office (a cross-country move, plus a shift in practice focus, means a slower start), but I get approximately a dozen calls per week off of my reviews on Google Maps alone.

Personally, my plan for this year includes:

  • Establishing my NY and NJ practice;
  • Getting to know my local bar (I’m new in town).
  • Expanding into underserved markets by year-end, including Iowa, Missouri, Kansas, and North Dakota;
  • Speaking at multiple bar conferences (three are scheduled, so far);
  • Publishing at least one article on Qualified Domestic Relations Orders;

Tools to help with law firm business development

Email and calendar

I know, this is a rudimentary suggestion, but keep this in mind: Bar associations and many other seasoned professionals operate in the dark ages. Announcements for local bar conferences or calls for articles are often sent via bar newsletters or listservs. Many local bars or community organizations will also maintain an online calendar of upcoming events, which is a lot handier than scanning your inbox every day.

A great CRM

Screenshot of Clio Grow

A legal CRM is a contact relationship manager. It is basically the modern rolodex, with logs of communications included. Clio Grow is an obvious choice here for Clio Manage users—the two fit together seamlessly—but Clio Grow also works really well as a stand-alone solution. Email and workflow automation takes a lot of the work out of staying in touch with contacts, while the ability to track where your leads and referrals originate will visually reinforce why you do all this biz dev stuff anyway.

Another great CRM, one that I use personally, is Lawmatics. And yes, it integrates with Clio Manage.

Case Status

Screenshot of case status

Case Status is an app that I’ve demoed, and looks promising, but may be beyond the average solo’s budget. It automates status updates on a client’s case and asks them for a review when the case concludes. The client downloads an app at the start of the case, and the lawyer can move the case through custom stages set up for your firm and practice area, with each change resulting in a push notification to the user. The upside is obvious: It goes a long way toward addressing the top complaint about lawyers (poor communication) and it takes some of the pain out of asking for reviews.

Mailchimp (or any other drip email service)

Law firm newsletters are a lot of work. And honestly, I don’t know any firm that does them well. In fact, you probably should not send a boring newsletter stuffed with tidbits about your firm’s new staff members and sales pitches.

But one feature Mailchimp has that is invaluable is the ability to send drip campaigns. Drip campaigns are where you send a series of emails (like drips of water) to a certain type of contact. For example, if a potential new client emails you about an Estate Plan, you might send a few drip emails addressing why they need to plan, the benefits of your firm, and the costs of planning. (If this sounds like marketing, you are right. The idea of implementing this at your firm is business development.) You can also do this using Clio Grow.

Invest in business development for your firm

It is easy to get plugged into your legal work and forget about business development and marketing. But remember, your law practice is a business. Unless you are independently wealthy, and do not care about making a living, you have to keep an eye on the bottom line.

Make a biz dev plan. Outline your goals for the year. Brainstorm strategies to get you there. Commit to networking, demonstrate your authority, and double-down on your existing clients through repeat business, cross-sales, reviews, and referrals.

In this article, I’ve shared what has worked for me in the past. But what works for me may not work for everyone. My QDRO buddy, who I mentioned before, has an entirely referral-based practice built through years of networking, speaking at conferences, and writing articles. My estate planning friend built her book through business and bar associations, handshakes, and cocktails.

There is no “one size fits all” for business development or marketing—set your goals, think about where your referrals might come from (attorneys, other professionals, social organizations or churches, etc.), build authority and expertise, and don’t be afraid to try a few different strategies. Remember: biz dev is a long game of relationships and trust, and the effects of your activities today may not pay off for years.

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