Associates Can Prioritize Biz Development Despite Pandemic
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Law360 (July 13, 2020, 5:18 PM EDT) —
I was fortunate to work closely with a partner, now retired, known as one of our firm’s best business developers. He repeatedly told me that the key to his success was not his personality, who he or his parents knew, or where he went to school, but instead always looking for opportunities to develop close, personal relationships.
This partner was not born with access to a great network. He grew up in a broken home in a rough Chicago neighborhood, went to a middle-of-the-road undergrad on a sports scholarship and attended a little-known law school.
Successful business development, he emphasized, comes from doing great work for clients whom you care about — and who care about you. He found ways to relate to people from all walks of life. He had lunch and dinner with clients for no particular reason, bringing his spouse and inviting theirs. He knew how old his clients’ kids were, what sports they played and where they were going to school. His clients were some of his closest friends, he told me. They even went on vacation together. This is old-school business development.
While many of these more traditional business development activities are on hold due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the core strategy — developing relationships — has not changed. Large law firms’ expectations, largely resulting from the Great Recession, that associates begin at least thinking about developing business early in their careers also have not changed. Associates should seize the opportunities created by the pandemic to strengthen their current personal and professional relationships and develop new ones.
First, reach out to your best contacts, especially current, former and prospective clients, and offer to be a resource. No sales pitch. Check in on how they are and tell them one thing you might be able to help with. Email is good, but a phone call is better.
During March and April, many new laws were enacted, workplaces were shutting down or trying to continue to operate safely, and clients were downsizing. Our clients, particularly in-house employment counsel and human resources executives, felt like they were drowning. A friendly, informal offer to help often was received like a life preserver. Since then, current clients expanded our scope of work, former clients returned and potential clients engaged us.
Second, refocus on keeping in touch with undergraduate and law school classmates, former colleagues, and other personal and professional contacts. These relationships should be caring and genuine. Again, no sales pitch. Instead, be a real person and say, “Hey, I hope you and your family are staying safe. Let me know if you ever need anything.”
At the beginning of the pandemic, I reached out to almost everyone I knew like this. So many people responded, thanked me and wished my family the same. I rekindled a lot of relationships. Some folks even asked a random legal question.
Third, happily give your contacts free legal advice without asking for an engagement. It is common for lawyers, especially young ones, to give a lot of free advice without ever being formally engaged. This is understandably frustrating, but, for some perspective, ask a partner how much free advice they have given in their career.
Successful business developers will tell you that it takes years of consistent effort to pay off. To solidify a relationship, offer to take on a specific project for a particularly attractive prospect free of charge. In my practice — employment law — that could be reviewing an employee handbook or conducting anti-harassment training.
These relatively small projects often can lead to deeper relationships. These projects also give you an opportunity to work closely with and get to know clients on a personal level. Of course, get approval from partners before offering services for free, but nothing gets you in the good graces of a decision maker like saving them money and making them look good.
Fourth, increase your online visibility. Before the pandemic, I spent a lot of time at face-to-face industry or organization events. In March, I began actively sharing and producing content on LinkedIn. I even resurrected my Twitter handle, which I had not used since college. While I hope all the industry and organization events come back soon, I am amazed by how many more people I am meeting and interacting with now than I ever was before.
Many of the folks I meet now never had the time or desire to attend in-person events. Also, many of us, myself included, do not feel we have the type of personality to go to a networking event, work the entire room and leave with a pocket full of business cards. Online interactions, to which associates are particularly well-oriented, take a lot of the awkwardness out of meeting people and developing relationships.
Fifth, collaborate with your colleagues and contacts to get useful information out. A few years back, a former client completely changed careers. As our client, he was the vice president of a government contractor. Now, he is a commercial insurance executive with a sales focus.
When the pandemic struck, he and I worked together on a number of webinars where we answered our clients’ most frequently asked questions about COVID-19 and the workplace. Despite only self-advertising the webinars on social media, we averaged 75-100 attendees at each, and the webinars have resulted in numerous engagements and many more new prospects.
Finally, help people. At the beginning of the pandemic, I reached out to the executive director of my children’s school and offered our services pro bono. I did the same for a client that operates a nonprofit medical clinic in an underserved community near me. Pro bono work is both professionally enriching and personally fulfilling. We all know a nonprofit that could use legal assistance. Nonprofits also often need board members and being on a board is a great way to build relationships with like-minded individuals from diverse backgrounds.
So, while the pandemic has put more traditional business development activities on hold, associates should focus on strategies that will allow them to strengthen their existing relationships and cultivate new ones. This core competency of business development will never go out of style.
The opinions expressed are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the firm, its clients or Portfolio Media Inc., or any of its or their respective affiliates. This article is for general information purposes and is not intended to be and should not be taken as legal advice.
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