Arrested development?

March 21, 2013

BD is good for your firm. But is it good for your career?

Photo: Shutterstock

Law firms are rubbish at business development (BD). Despite the proliferation of specialised BD managers over the past decade, as well as BD training for all levels of lawyer, law firms still seem to struggle to implement strong strategies to develop client relationships and create new or expand existing revenue lines.

And according to recent research by NatWest and BD specialist Huthwaite Legal, business development remains way down the list of law firm priorities, despite dwindling work levels.

Of delegates at NatWest’s 2012 series of legal conferences, only 31% claimed to be really motivated to commit time to business development, while 64% admitted that investment in BD was only reasonably effective.

There may be many reasons for the failure of BD in law firms. But at the core lies a massive conflict that stalls BD right from the start. And associates with a career to build may be the ones with the most to lose from the lack of resolution.

Conflict #1: Law firm vs. lawyer

The crux of the matter is that law firms don’t know what business development should mean.

In the most simple terms, it’s obviously about building more business. That might mean moving into new markets, expanding certain practice areas, or acquiring new practice or industry expertise to win new clients.

Firms vary wildly in their ability to do the above. But the real issue doesn’t lie in the tactics. It lies in the core strategy, or the objective of BD. Is it to develop business for the firm or for the lawyers? Law firms are trying to do both. And it doesn’t work.

Take, for instance, the partners. Business development at this level is about building a practice and getting a client following – which in turn supplies a (hopefully) strong revenue line for the firm.

If and when these partners want to move firms, they will use the strength of their client following to secure the best offer. Firms (implicitly or explicitly) support this trend because they’re only interested in laterally hiring partners who can bring clients – and revenue – with them.

At the same time though, firms want to institutionalise their clients, so that they can grow more effectively and stop partners leaving and taking critical client revenue with them. So BD here is about generating business for the firm, not individual lawyers.

How does law firm BD support both activities? Answer: it doesn’t.

Conflict #2: Lawyers vs. non-lawyers

Horrible though the term is, the fact that you still hear ‘non-lawyers’ bandied about says a lot about how far business support services in law firms haven’t come.

Yes, there are some seriously talented BD and marketing managers in law firms today, and some have made a huge difference to their firms. But they face the same problems detailed above.

The emphasis will undoubtedly be on the first, but they may well encounter resistance if they are seen to tread too close to a lawyer’s practice or clients. And don’t expect the law firm’s leadership to step in. They’ll be far too concerned to protect the interests (aka revenue) of their rainmakers.

More marketers are getting involved in client dealings, from helping to win bids to long-term relationship management. But don’t assume it’s on anything but the partners’ terms.

How do BD managers bring together lawyers and leadership in an integrated BD strategy that can deliver true, sustainable success? Answer: they don’t because they can’t.

Conflict #3: Law firm vs. associates

The above raises thorny issues for associates. As you rise the ladder towards partnership, you know that success will mean showing that you have the potential to create and build business. But that could mean either:

  1. Getting close to clients and partners and starting to build your own book of business. By getting in with a big hitter partner – preferably one nearing retirement – you’ll increase your chances of inheriting a practice that’ll ingratiate you with the firm and empower your potential career elsewhere.
  2. Getting in with the BD managers and becoming key to firm-wide business development activities – meaning brilliant at cross-selling, team-work and institutionalising clients  –may give you a strong position within the firm, but in the long-term a weak individual power base in which you ‘own’ very little.

The fact is that associates may not have much choice. More firms, for example, are making BD part of their associate career framework. Remuneration and promotion are increasingly tied into meeting milestones including the development of business development skills that are more likely to meet firm-wide, not individual objectives.

And that would be fine if it weren’t for the fact that firms make it consistently clear in their senior hiring policies that they want lawyers with their own client following.

It is a cruel truth that despite their legal credentials, magic circle lawyers often struggle to move elsewhere because their firms are some of the few that have been successful in using their brand to institutionalise clients. This may be good for the firm, but it deprives their lawyers of that all-critical book of business.

So how does a firm’s business development protect the interests of the firm and the advancement of the associate? Answer: it doesn’t.

Two steps forward, two steps back

So amid all this confusion, there is only one message that is coming through loud and clear: law firms still don’t have a clue when it comes to BD. Until they resolve the issue of whether the lawyer or the law firm comes first – and reflect that in their behaviour – they won’t find their answer either.

For partners this isn’t so bad. They’ve already made the grade. They’ll carry on doing what they do, because regardless of what the firm says, actions speak louder than words. And firms have proved time and again that they’ll accept any partner behaviour as long as it makes money.

But for associates, it’s something of a nightmare. They know they have to prove their BD credentials to advance, and firms are increasingly stipulating what that means through their career milestones.

Unfortunately, these stipulations may have some bearing on the actual reality of BD in law. And it’ll be the associates who have to untangle the mess to ensure their own career success. CP

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