Teaching Young Attorneys to Build a Book of Business

Law school graduates may be trained in torts, but they’re not schooled in building a book of business. No one ever taught them how to market, and that leaves them without the tools they need to generate business when they make partner or otherwise ensure job security. A growing number are turning to third-party advisory services to help.

As a strategic planning and business development coach for attorneys and other professionals, for example, I recently worked with a young litigation associate in a mid-sized firm. Let’s call him John Jones. Two years ago, he was bringing in about $50,000 of his own matters and spending most of his time working on other partners’ matters.

By the end of this year, John’s book of business is expected to exceed $400,000. He was also made a partner in the firm and now has other associates working on his projects. His story offers valuable lessons for attorneys of any age.

Defining the “Sell”

I first met John when his firm hired me to help drive new revenues by assisting a number of their attorneys in marketing themselves. At the time, he had been with the firm for five years, had developed a reputation as a skilled commercial litigator, and was on a partner track. The firm itself handled a broad spectrum of business law, from intellectual property to labor and employment and beyond. John was a generalist, fielding whatever requests came his way, but needed guidance to originate business himself.

Initially, when we were discussing his background and attempting to define a specialty area that would play to his strengths, John expressed interest in an industry in which he had little experience but a personal skill set that he thought he could leverage in the courtroom and beyond. I knew he had the legal and intellectual chops to pursue and excel in the specialty of his choice, so he and I attended a conference to explore opportunities in this area.

Ultimately, however, we rejected that option because he was beginning to have significant success in commercial and industrial real estate matters and enjoyed handling them. He didn’t yet have a long list of real estate clients who could vouch for his expertise in the area, but he had a handful to start, enthusiasm for the subject matter, and few colleagues in the firm competing for the same business. Indeed, other associates and partners had begun turning real estate matters over to him.

Narrowing John’s focus to real estate law accomplished two things. It put him in a specific practice category that would make it easier to build a market identity, and it gave him an easily definable target market to pursue. Coupling his personal positioning with the strengths and expertise of his firm gave him a solid message to convey as he spoke to potential new clients.

Hitting the Targets

The next step was to chart a course for building the relationships that are the coin of the realm in securing any professional services engagement. People buy people, after all. Developing a network is job number one in making that happen.

First, we identified the various segments of the market, including commercial, industrial, development and multi-family, and established strategies for pursuing each of them. I got the ball rolling by setting up a lunch appointment with a prominent local commercial and industrial real estate broker in my own network. I accompanied John to the meeting to make introductions as well as to teach him how to go beyond having a pleasant conversation about mutual acquaintances and interests in order to get down to business. (More on that in a minute.) I also provided several other contacts that he pursued himself.

Simultaneously, John began putting the word out to his own clients and contacts as well as asking them who else he should be meeting. He picked his colleagues’ brains to find existing clients of his firm who might need assistance in resolving real estate disputes or handling other matters in the sector. He also attended networking events of organizations like the local chapter of NAIOP, the Commercial Real Estate Development Association, and raised his activity level in other ways in order to gain visibility.

These are common strategies, but many attorneys either fail to execute them or don’t know how to translate them into new business or referrals. That’s where soft skills come in.

Talking the Talk

Like most attorneys who have had no experience in client acquisition, John didn’t know what to say or how to say it in a business development situation despite his outgoing personality and aggressive courtroom demeanor. He needed techniques for finding affinities, identifying pain points that could be eased with legal assistance, asking for business or referrals, and otherwise unearthing business opportunities as he networked to avoid the common mistake that most people make: walking away with a good feeling and nothing else.

He also needed to learn to give as well as receive, offering himself as a resource in order to establish the trust and rapport that can allow a business relationship to flourish. (“By the way, how else can I help you? Are you looking for a new business bank? Do you need a new leasing agent? If I don’t know someone, my colleagues in my firm have a broad network and I can ask around for suggestions”).

We practiced these skills together in role-playing sessions at our meetings every other week as well as at the initial lunch meetings with my contacts. The words didn’t come naturally to John at first so he resisted putting the techniques into practice, but gradually he began incorporating them into his meetings with potential clients and referral sources and discovering that they worked. Today, they are second nature and playing a pivotal role in helping John move conversations from “Let’s talk sports” to “Let’s talk shop.”

Bottom Line

Every individual and scenario is different, of course—that’s why an eight- or ten-point “sales model” doesn’t work—but the basic principles are the same. It starts with a commitment to the effort it takes to learning how to build a book of business. No one is born with this ability; it takes education, willingness to follow advice, and a certain amount of brio.

But in today’s environment, it’s a necessity that professional practitioners learn to bring in their own business. Starting young can give you a leg up in meeting the challenge.

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