Law Firm Business Development: The Untapped Middle

By: Arthur Levin

The vast majority of law firms have three levels of lawyer business development: the “Rainmakers” who bring in the majority of the firm’s new business; a group of partners who bring in no business and never will; and the remaining partners who represent the “Middle Tier,” who bring in occasional business and/or at least have the potential and the desire to generate business.

Most law firms pay little or no attention to the untapped potential of this Middle Tier of partners. In today’s economic environment a firm must use all of its resources to develop business, and the Middle Tier is probably the only remaining untapped resource for additional business.

The question has always been, how do you make these partners at least somewhat productive? This article will strive to give you an idea of how to answer that.

Partners in this Middle Tier are intelligent, socially adept people who tend to live in upper middle class or upper class communities and send their children to local schools. In fact, outside of other lawyers and their immediate family members, most of the lawyer’s friends consist of the parents of their children’s friends. Who are these parents? Where do they work? Are they a potential source of business or a good referral source? How do you make a productive business development contact? What do you say? What do you do?

Most lawyers are pretty good at putting themselves in situations that are potentially good for business development, but they seldom know what to do once they are there.

What should a firm do about this? I suggest that the first step, if you do not already have one, is the preparation and distribution of a comprehensive lawyer questionnaire that is sent to all lawyers in the firm. The questionnaire is designed to find out as much as possible about the lawyer’s background, family, associations and scope of contacts. This is a necessary first step in gathering the information that is required to establish an individual marketing strategic plan for each lawyer.

In order for this to be successful, the firm has to look at this incremental, non-traditional, business development as a cooperative firm-wide endeavor. This will require strong firm management backing and the backing of the existing Rainmakers. These firm Rainmakers have to realize that it is in their interest to spread the business development process among additional partners and that this is not a threat to their own firm power base but a further building of the firm’s business base. If nothing else, the recent economic downturn has shown that in order for a firm to survive and prosper it must have a diverse and profitable client base, and this requires the efforts of as many lawyers as possible. This process also encourages the development of a firm-wide business development culture where everyone who works for the firm has a part to play in the process and the additional monetary value produced inures to everyone’s benefit.

Once the questionnaires are completed (often after continuous management nagging), the pivotal point of this process begins. Lawyers who are proven to be adept at the strategic business development process and are willing to devote their time and effort to this firm-wide initiative must be selected and brought into this program. I call them “Strategic Marketing Coordinators.” Their job would be to review the answers to the questionnaire with each lawyer, to identify where business development potential lies, and to work out specific strategies for each of these potential opportunities. This creative strategy development process is crucial to the program, and the selection of the lawyer(s) to fill this role has to be non-political and carefully thought through. Also, the firm must have a plan in place to properly compensate the Strategic Marketing Coordinator for his/her contribution to this business development initiative.

In many cases, the Middle Tier lawyer has only limited talent and/or desire to develop business on their own, even if they have numerous potential business resources and contacts. Therefore, the strategy will require not only a review of the questionnaire by the Strategic Marketing Coordinator but perhaps personal intervention to work along with the Middle Tier lawyer to help take the best advantage of the specific business development opportunity. The strategies developed have to be specific to each opportunity identified, and planned so that the Middle Tier lawyer is comfortable and secure with the plan. Specific actionable opportunities should be limited to two or three opportunities per lawyer, or the task will become overwhelming and will not get done.

Many business development opportunities are non-traditional. A few examples of strategies that I have used: A real estate lawyer who happened to be an excellent baker now sends a small box of hand-baked cookies to each client at the conclusion of a matter, and as a result has increased “buzz” about her and doubled her business. Another lawyer also had a food connection, and by using his interest in food and knowledge of the food services business, we established a strategy for him to get involved in the improvement of the food service at his club, where he was socially comfortable. As a result of his increased visibility and with a little coaching, this brought in three significant pieces of business from fellow club members. Other lawyers have rekindled relationships with judges for whom they clerked and were able to significantly increase the number of potential business development referrals they were able to generate.

The possibilities for forming new business relationships are endless: family relationships, religious and civic associations, sport-related activities, hobbies, social contacts, etc. In many cases, just being able to identify real potential opportunities leads almost automatically to winning strategies. The strategies do not have to follow any historic business development methodology but require a creative mind and a clear understanding of how the lawyer can offer his/her skill set to those people who will benefit most. Business development should be viewed as a way to give of yourself and your expertise for the benefit of others, which will in turn create business for you.

As this is a firm-wide effort, it requires firm-wide control. For each of these opportunities, an outline of the strategy to be employed and an estimated time line of the planned activities should be developed and forwarded to a designated senior lawyer or senior administrative person in the firm whose job it is to monitor and to keep track of the progress of each agreed-upon business development activity and to encourage implementation of the plan. The financial value of the program also has to be tracked. An ongoing analysis of the return on investment of time and dollars has to be monitored, and modifications have to be made where necessary. Those strategies that are not working have to be terminated, and those that are working have to be expanded.

A series of monthly partner meetings should be established at which the progress of the various business development strategies is reviewed and discussed for possible strategy modification. Again, this program has to become an accepted firm-wide activity.

At first, implementation of the program will be somewhat arduous and time consuming. But success, and increased firm income, will bring long-term acceptance.

The Middle Tier of partners is in many firms the only remaining area for potential new business growth. To ignore this potential does not make good economic sense.

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