Winning work is essential to long-term success as a solicitor, yet, unfortunately, many lawyers shy away from a critical contributor to the process of acquiring work—business development.
While the concept may seem somewhat amorphous, at its core, business development is about identifying strategic opportunities and converting them into relationships and new revenue streams. This could mean cross-selling existing clients or adding new practice areas to your firm, geographic expansion, or setting up procedures for your intake team to follow up with potential clients.
Law firm business development takes work, but with time, effort, and planning, the benefits—like more clients, business, and revenue—are worth it.
Below, we will explore how to approach better business development for solicitors, offering strategies and tips that you can apply as part of your job as a lawyer and as a business owner.
Marketing or business development?
Before you consider your firm’s plan for business development, it’s important to make a distinction between concepts that are often used interchangeably—but aren’t: marketing and business development. While both fields strive to win your firm work, they yield different results at different times—and thus require different strategies.
Why lawyers need marketing
One might say that marketing is the here and now, putting your firm in front of those who need your services and securing retainers. It’s about selling your firm by matching your brand to your clients’ anticipated needs.
Marketing enables you to create new business. Depending on the advertising channel, the results of marketing can be utterly instantaneous, such as turning on pay per click (PPC) ads.
How business development is different
For lawyers, business development refers to anything you do in a systematic way to expand your firm’s revenue streams. Think of business development as a strategic approach that considers the big picture rather than one-time transactional decisions.
Business development is about the long game—adding markets, practice areas, and relationships that build your law firm over time. It’s about defining and developing revenue streams and encouraging repeat customers and referrals. While it almost never pays off immediately, strategic business development can offer more significant, enduring results
Business development fundamentals for lawyers
When it comes to business development, there are many avenues solicitors can take. Here are a few of the most common practices lawyers use to develop their business:
Building strong client relationships
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 turn to 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 achieve this, but making the client experience exceptional is generally the clearest path.
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.
To keep it simple, focus on these four key aspects of running a client-centered law firm:
- Consider 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 come to you for more than legal advice: They may need you to provide peace of mind, reassurance, emotional support, advice, and more—even if they’re business clients. Take full account of this, and you could help your firm stand out in a tremendous way.
- Think about your clients 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. Client-centered 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
Similarly, it’s crucial 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 aforementioned strong client relationships can help with this, and you should also consider measuring client satisfaction as you go.
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 is, frankly, essential for business development. While it may feel somewhat uncomfortable initially, disregard your hang-ups, force yourself to get out there, and converse with 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, initially, simply showing up is a good start.
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?
Consider networking and building referrals through participating in professional organisations such as BNI and by being active in local bar and practice area sections.
Ask for referrals and reviews
Many solicitors are reluctant 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 a lawyer, 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?
Make reviews part of your routine
When it comes to clients, become utterly relentless on requesting reviews. One way to ensure you’re consistent? Build feedback requests into your workflows: When each case is done, ask for a review before the final bill is sent out, and follow up.
Use referrals, when appropriate
Referral agreements and services are an interesting concept that must be treated with caution. While referrals can be valuable, it’s also your responsibility to ensure you maintain ethics. Refer to the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) Code of Conduct for guidelines on referrals of business from and to third parties, as well as their guidelines for fee sharing and referrals.
Creating a law firm business development plan
Between a business plan, a budget, and a marketing plan, you likely already have several schemes in motion when it comes to your law firm. However, your legal practice as a business, and the most successful businesses take both marketing and business development seriously—so it’s a smart idea to also create a business development plan for your firm.
Here’s how to start:
- Determine your goals. Begin by listing your business goals for the year. Do you want to start a new practice area? Become “the person” for an existing practice area?
- Brainstorm. Create a list of strategies that will help you achieve those business goals (more on this in the next section).
- Prioritise. Write down the top two or three strategies (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?
- Revisit. Re-examine 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).
When assessing your business development plan, be critical about what’s working and what isn’t, but also remember that business development is a long game—so look 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 specific strategies you may want to include as part of your law firm business development plan.
1. Resolve to attend a certain number of networking events per year
Goals are easier to achieve if they are concrete. Commit to a number of networking events you’ll attend—say, two events per month. Go to those events without an agenda in mind and ask others about themselves. Have a bit of fun and build some relationships.
2. Write or speak to demonstrate authority
Are you an expert in your field? Prove it by writing a few articles this year or committing to speak at a legal association conference or other industry 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 new cases, should you be? Track the cases you’ve turned down as of late, and if the lost revenue comes close to the salary of another solicitor, 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 client, she might be interested in add-on services like a pet trust. Three years from now, she might need to declare bankruptcy. If you do bankruptcy law, you’ve just earned your firm new business.
5. Expand to a new geographic market
In order to reach potential clients that live outside of your immediate area, 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.
6. Generate new referral sources
Provide a discount to a local community group. Befriend other lawyers with complementary practice areas—a family law practitioner might need a criminal defense lawyer to refer certain cases to.
Use tools to help with law firm business development
Once you’ve put together your plan, look for opportunities to use technology at your law firm to help you reach your business development goals. Here are just a couple of examples:
Email and calendars
I know, this is a rudimentary suggestion, but keep this in mind: Announcements for local conferences or calls for articles are often sent via legal society newsletters or listservs. Many local legal associations or community organisations will also maintain an online calendar of upcoming events, which is a lot handier than scanning your inbox every day.
A customer relationship management system
A legal customer relationship management (CRM) system is your contact relationship manager. It is basically the modern rolodex, with logs of communications included. 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 invest in business development.
An example of a great CRM option is Lawmatics. And yes, it integrates with Clio.
Prioritise business development for your firm
While your legal work is the core of your practice, if you want to be truly successful, it cannot be your sole focus. Your law practice is a business—so unless you are independently wealthy, and your income is irrelevant—you must consider the bottom line, which means that business development is important.
To review: If you’re stuck on where to start with your law firm business development, make a 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. Don’t be afraid to try a few different strategies.
By creating a business development plan, you’ll not only build bridges, relationships, and sustainable revenue streams—you’ll also demonstrate authority and make connections that will serve you well for decades to come.
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