Every year, I have the opportunity to meet new associates, either at networking events or when I present workshops at law firms or bar associations.  Not surprisingly, each new class of associates has similar questions about business development.  Even though many law firms provide some level of training on business development, many associates aren’t convinced that they have the necessary skills to succeed and they don’t have confidence that their peers will ever be able to send matters to them.  From my perspective, the fact that you completed law school and passed the bar indicates that you are perfectly capable of mastering the skills you need to build your own book of business.  Below are the most common questions I’m asked and brief answers to them.

I’m not like my firm’s managing partner.  Is it okay to be myself?

Yes.  In fact, it’s critically important for you to be fully yourself.  Clients and colleagues can tell when you are not being authentic.  Ultimately, clients hire you because they have a relationship with you and they trust you.  When you take the time to discover common interests with anyone you meet, you will have a much stronger connection, and a better long-term working relationship.

How can I find time for business development?

I’ll quote David Maister on this topic.  “What you do with your billable hours determines your current compensation, but what you do with your nonbillable time determines your future.”  It may be difficult to imagine that future if your only focus is making your hours.  It’s important to get out of your office, meet new people, and develop interests outside of work. I highly recommend that you find an association that is meaningful to you and become an active participant.  CMCP is a particularly good model for an association that sponsors relevant programs, provides opportunities for associates to join committees, and offers frequent networking events.

What’s the best use of my time as an associate?

First, become the best lawyer you can be. Ask for feedback and take advantage of whatever training your firm offers.  Second, understand that you can use the same business development skills internally that you will eventually use externally.  The partners in your firm are your potential clients right now.  Do your research and identify the partners who are doing the kind of work that interests you. Attend events at your firm or find a way to introduce yourself to those partners and express your interest in working for them.

I don’t know any clients who can hire me now.

Your current network probably consists of your college and law school friends, and associates who work for other law firms.  All of you are at the beginning of long careers that will be full of changes.  I can safely predict that you will be amazed to see where your friends end up ten or twenty years from now.  In order to connect with potential clients and referral sources, one of your priorities, now and throughout your career, should be to continually expand your network and maintain those relationships.

Are there any shortcuts to being successful at business development?

If only it were that simple.  Persistence and patience are both required, as well as a well thought out marketing plan.  It will take time for you to develop the relationships that will lead to work, and to build a network of contacts that can connect you to opportunities.  You will also need to increase your visibility in the communities that are important to your practice.

Practice, practice, practice

As with any skill, it takes a lot of practice to achieve a level of competence.  Whether you are learning to play tennis or play the piano, it is more effective to practice for 15 minutes a day, rather than three hours once a week.  You will be more likely to find time to schedule follow up calls or tasks if you only have to commit to 15 minutes at a time.