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Swimming Lessons for Baby Sharks: Practical Advice for New Lawyers

Q: I am a mid-level associate. I know I should be doing business development. But it is hard to know what activities will be the most effective. Any suggestions on what I should do?

A: Because the results from business development are not immediate, finding the most effective approaches can take trial and error. But you are probably already doing many activities that are important for business development. Here are some considerations for allocating your time.

  1. Hone your legal skills. To develop business, you have to be able to provide value and solve client problems. This means you need to continue to develop your technical legal skills. Perfecting your craft may not seem like a business development activity. But being an outstanding lawyer is an essential prerequisite for attracting clients.
  2. Specialize. Differentiate yourself by focusing on an industry or a specialized area of practice. That narrows the field when potential clients are looking for particular expertise. If you are a general litigator, you have lots of competition. Focusing on a niche will help you become recognized as an expert and automatically puts you on a potential client’s “short list.”
  3. Dazzle existing clients. Existing clients are likely to be your best sources for referrals or additional work. Wow them. Redouble your efforts to be responsive and to provide practical advice that helps your clients advance their business goals. Few things frustrate in-house lawyers more than advice that they cannot implement. For example, before you recommend filing a lawsuit, you must know if the lawsuit could foil a financing. Deepen your knowledge about your clients and their industries. And after a matter has concluded, consider doing a debrief to get feedback. Happy clients should be eager to recommend you or give you additional work.
  4. Raise your visibility. As with practicing law, people take different approaches to developing business. That can make the process seem arcane. But at its most basic level, business development involves being highly visible to people who could use your services or who know people who could use your services. You need to be visible in ways that work for you. As lawyer business development expert Karen B. Kahn notes in her book, Daunting to DOable: You CAN Make It Rain, business development is a numbers game: Your success will be driven by the size of your network and the number of times you are able to be in touch with any one member of your network. “You must get up to bat often,” Kahn notes.

The experience of one of my former law partners illustrates the point. He inadvertently generated a huge amount of business when he ran for public office. The partner decided to run for the Washington State Supreme Court. He went on a reduced schedule, and for several months he crisscrossed the state giving speeches to bar associations, civic organizations, and other groups. Ultimately, he lost the election. But he won the business development game. He was stunned by the amount of new business he generated that year. And he could trace it directly to his increased visibility from the campaign.

As a mid-level associate, you should focus most of your time on honing your legal skills, becoming a recognized expert, and redoubling your efforts to thrill your clients – including your internal clients. But also schedule regular time to raise your visibility. Most associates at large firms have business plans. That is a good place to start when considering your approach. You may also want to check with new partners for their input. Just try to be consistent with your efforts. And remember that doing almost anything to raise your visibility is better than doing nothing.

Good luck!

Join the conversation by submitting questions on Twitter @Babysharklaw or here. Get the new Second Edition of Swimming Lessons for Baby Sharks here.

Grover E. Cleveland is a Seattle lawyer, speaker and author of Swimming Lessons for Baby Sharks: The Essential Guide to Thriving as a New Lawyer (West 2d. 2016). Grover specializes in programs to help new lawyers successfully transition from law school to practice, helping them provide more value and avoid common mistakes. He is a former partner at Foster Pepper PLLC, one of the Northwest’s larger firms. His clients included the Seattle Seahawks and other entities owned by Microsoft co-founder, Paul Allen. Grover is a frequent presenter on lawyer career success and generational issues at leading law firms and schools nationwide. Many questions in this column come from those programs. Readers may submit questions here or follow him on Twitter @Babysharklaw. He is not related to the 22nd and 24th President of the United States.

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