Edge International

Building and Leveraging Relationships: The True Essence of Business Development

Bithika Anand

The concept of ‘business development’ is often over-rated when it comes to law firms. The phrase may resonate with such metrics as ‘financial targets,’ ‘meeting new contacts,’ ‘cold-calling,’ ‘attending events at relevant forums,’ ‘undertaking activities that contribute to the revenues and profitability of the firm,’ etc. Most firms like their partners to be ‘rainmakers’, the ones with the right personality type to go out, speak to the clients and ensure a perennial flow of work.

However, how we define ‘business development’ is undergoing a change with time. This article aims to focus upon what constitutes the true essence of business development.

Sector-specific Awareness and Commercial Viability

Law firms are increasingly aware of the importance of the longevity of relationships, and they are encouraging their partners to get into the deeper realms of what makes a difference to their clients. Most partners today are choosing to become well versed with the sector-specific challenges their clients’ industries may be going through. With in-house general counsels also playing larger roles in shaping businesses, law firms are extending the horizon of their advice to include commercial viability, rather just confining themselves to legal issues at hand.

Consistency and an Innovative Approach

Most successful partners today are guided by a commitment to making a difference in the lives of their clients or business prospects. If you are able to convince a prospective business contact about your ability to turn their life around, there is a fair degree of chance that work will make its way towards you. This principle, however, does not diminish the fact that business development requires patience, and there will always be a gestation period before your contacts turn into work for your firm. During this gestation period, your essential virtue is ‘consistency’. One needs constantly to take the initiative to stay in touch with prospects and clients. Instead of leaving the ground when there is no response from your prospective contact, figure out ways to connect with them on non-work issues as well.

Forward-thinking partners these days create well-articulated business-development strategies whereby they keep professional relationships warm by circulating legal updates or disseminating knowledge and awareness about the latest developments in laws and court matters, etc. Some take an even more personal touch, congratulating their contacts on their personal achievements and the achievements of their organizations. You may devise your own innovative measures, such as offering to conduct a training session, hold a help-desk, or undertake similar initiatives for the team or employees of your prospect or client.

Partner with Clients on Business Vision

Connecting with your clients to keep the professional tie warm and generate work from them is still a micro-level step. Partners also need to reflect on how many times they connect with their clients at a macro level – for example, holding discussions with respect to clients’ larger business visions. Are you being included/consulted at the time of major business decisions, such as a client’s decision to open an office in a new city, to launch a new product or service line, or to undertake organizational re-structuring? A successful business-development effort will lead you to become deeply entrenched in your clients’ businesses. This will not only help you in evaluating your own service offerings to them, but will also make you more aligned with their business vision, rendering your advice more relevant and commercially sound.

Knowledge Dissemination and Thought Leadership

The ecosystem to which lawyers belong is person-oriented. Any service sector that undertakes the role of a consultancy thrives on relationships and ties, as the relationships once built usually tend to be long-lasting (unless other factors like performance and costs are impactful enough to permeate and disrupt the attorney-client relationship!). With pressure mounting on in-house legal departments to play a larger role in growing an organization (while keeping the costs at bay), businesses are also much more informed about the facets of legal work today than they were a few years ago. While they seek value for money, money isn’t always the sole criterion in the selection or rejection of a law firm if the value proposition is robust.

Law firms, as well as their partners, must understand the potential of investing in professional relationships, and must move from being merely ‘lawyers’ to also being ‘thought leaders’ or ‘visionaries’. Your firm’s partners must utilize various available platforms to extensively disseminate knowledge and write about the fields in which they practice. This should be done not only to spread awareness of issues among your clients, but also to ensure that they know how and when to seek your assistance in moving towards suitable legal recourse.

The Journey from ‘Contacts’ to ‘Conversion’

Disseminating information is especially important in economies where the regulatory environment is constantly changing, and new developments occur frequently. For firms that are moving into new and emerging areas, partners must strive to make in-roads to participate in macro factors affecting the industry as a whole: policy-making, for example, and engaging with relevant forums/organizations pertaining to their areas of practice. While your ‘brand’ may be your ability to be reckoned as a ‘specialist’ or ‘thought leader’, the way to ensure a steady flow of work is to invest time and energy in establishing and leveraging your professional relationships. Establishing a connection on its own will be of no use until it reaches the stage of conversion into client mandates. The journey from ‘contacts’ to ‘conversion’ requires promptness in submitting proposals and fee quotes, and consistent follow-up. The rate of conversion from contacts to clients may be low, but efforts need to be sustained. Once your contact becomes a client, partners need to work towards successful closure of the new mandate by delivering quality service.

More than ‘Networking’

‘Business development’ is often used synonymously with the word ‘networking’, which has, in fact, far more raw and commercial connotations. The essential difference between ‘business development’ and ‘networking’ is the spirit of building relationships. Conducting business meetings to obtain immediate work or short-term professional fulfilment, for example, represents a myopic view of business development. However, such events also offer opportunities that partners may miss out on by ignoring the ‘human’ element to these meetings and contacts. One may meet people who may not be immediately inclined to give you work, but meeting them with a long-term view could benefit your firm when you cross paths with them again someday. Besides the direct commercial benefit (immediate or otherwise), each meeting or contact can give lawyers a different perspective about a prospective client’s life, their management style, their driving force, their success mantra and many other aspects of their personality.

To sum up, business development is much more than the ‘procedural’ or ‘operational’ aspects of writing e-mails, connecting over professional networks and following-up. Fostering deep-rooted relationships, with a genuine intent to partner with clients at the macro level and to contribute to the growth of the economy, will actually set a strong foundation on which one can sustain business development efforts far into the future.

Build Conversational Momentum to Set the Table for the Pitch

Mike White

To their credit, lawyers are results-oriented professionals. When we practice our craft, we think in terms of objectives, and the activities necessary along the way to achieve those goals. Clients pay for results and lawyers want to deliver on those expected results. Generally speaking, this is a great bias to have as a professional services provider – and as a lawyer. However, such a bias can muck up the business-development process.

I often find that many of my clients think very “digitally” about relationship-cultivating conversations: the discussion toggles between personal-rapport building (“So, how are the spouse and kids?”) and the ultimate “ask” (“So, how about giving me a shot at working on one of your matters; try me out . . . you’ll like it!”).

Relationship cultivation is not a process that operates at two ends of a continuum but rather is iterative, cumulative, and permission-based. It requires one to manage toward a series of tactical conversational and (often information-gathering) goals that fall well short of the ultimate goal of getting retained to do work; it is a process that – if done right – sets the table for the culminating “retention ask” without making that “ask” while you are setting that table.

In developing relationships, it takes time to get to a point where you can pitch prospects on why they should hire you. When you do get to that point, the message is pretty simple: Articulate your value proposition – i.e., answer these questions: “Why are you good? ” “Why are you different? ” “What problem will you help me solve?”  “Why will we get unique business value from working with you?” However, setting the table for that discussion during the relationship-building and information-gathering phase requires you to use a different form of conversational currency; the “value proposition” isn’t relevant yet.

There are lots of reasons why persons of consequence might want to spend time in meeting with you while you’re gathering your intelligence, building a history and establishing a relationship. Below is a list of some reasons you can use to secure the next meeting:

  • Mentoring – business peers love to serve as mentors; you can say to them, “As an outside lawyer I’m trying to get smarter about how sophisticated law departments manage the legal function and corporate risk; you’re smart about those issues and I’d love to pick your brain over coffee to get the benefit of your managerial knowledge . . “;
  • Information – prospects are usually quite willing to offer up information on their company if you’re genuinely interested in the business; this is a good conversational space to occupy as you build the relationship before you ask for sponsorship into others or to affect a retention decision;
  • Networking – all professionals think about how they should build out their network; whole conversations can be consumed with a discussion about mutual relationship brokerage;
  • Humility – people love to spend time with humble professionals. You get a lot of credit for not puffing about your capabilities. Stick to the limited mission (information, mentoring, learning about the prospect’s company, taking a market survey of the in-house law department function, etc.);
  • Therapeutic/cathartic/”me-ism” – sometimes people just want to get something off their chests, and they relish the opportunity to sit in front of someone and eat up all of the airtime talking about the good, the bad . . . Give these people that experience and they will reward you with future meetings as you ask for information, for sponsorship into others, and perhaps ultimately, to be hired;
  • Sweat equity – referral sources will start to think of you differently if they see you helping them advance their own agendas. Put together a set of joint activities that will help you get in front of prospects of interest to both of you – that’s an equity builder. Connectors who are beneficiaries of your thinking, planning, and sweat equity to make your collaboration mutually fruitful will reciprocate and extend themselves for you; they will open their own relationship base of introductions up to you;
  • Respect for the introducer – prospects who meet you through a warm introduction generally want to make the introducer happy – they generally will take the first meeting on that basis alone, even if the meeting’s purpose is relatively non-specific.

Use the above concepts to link together your interactions over time and generate conversational momentum. This momentum sets the table for your pivot to “the pitch.”

Here is an example of multi-discussion sequence with a new prospect. Notice how every conversation builds from the other, thereby creating the desired momentum:

Conversation #1 – Rapport build; establish connection; gain general industry or functional knowledge

Conversation #2 – Anecdotal survey about industry or function; benchmarking and best practices discussion

Conversation #3 – Areas of responsibility – matter types, etc.; professional pain points and areas of movement; learn about relationship-brokerage opportunities

Conversation #4 – Propose introductions; deliver value add; pre-close proposition

Conversation #5 – Pre-close and share expectations