Swimming Lessons for Baby Sharks: Practical Advice for New Lawyers

This is part two of my answer to this question on business development for Associates:

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: Last month, I covered some fundamentals that are essential for developing business such as honing your legal skills and dazzling existing clients. This month, I dive deeper into specifics and ways to make business development a habit.

In a recent post on LinkedIn, Heather Townsend, an author and business development expert based in the U.K., had this to say:

If you are going to be good at business development, then you need to be able to do this one thing. It's not being a good listener (but this is important.) It's not being positive and optimist (but this is important) It's not about building a strong personal brand (but this is important) It's about making time for business development every single day.

But making business development a habit can be daunting. The activities you should pursue are not obvious. The payoff is not immediate. And the whole process may seem distasteful. It can be easier to bill hours. At least doing work has a clear benefit – and doesn’t come packaged with the potential for rejection.

But to advance in your career, you need to build business. Here are the tips to help make the process more palatable – and maybe even enjoyable:

  1. Find a business development mentor. Try to find someone who is a few years ahead of you who has succeeded in developing business. That person probably faced many of the same challenges you are facing. It can be helpful to brainstorm about the most effective approaches and when to make changes. And a business development mentor can provide needed encouragement or perspective if your efforts don’t seem fruitful.
  2. Find an accountability buddy. Decide on the business development activities that you will complete each week. Then make a commitment to someone to complete those activities. The person could be your business development mentor – or someone else. But you need to find someone who is willing to hold you accountable and someone you don’t want to let down. You can raise the stakes by committing to do something (such as buying dinner) if you don’t follow through.
  3. Use “forcing mechanisms.” A “forcing mechanism” is a related way to ensure accountability. These are commitments that are difficult to blow off. For example, if you schedule a lunch or coffee, you aren’t likely to cancel. If you agree to give a speech to an industry group, you are likely to show up. Your reputation would be tarnished if you bailed.
  4.  Schedule at the same time every day. You are more likely to build a habit if you do an activity at the same time every day. Pick an activity and a time, and put it on your calendar. Start out with modest goals, such as one or two emails per day. Once you are consistent, you can set more ambitious goals.
  5. Let your success fuel you. Use success to fuel your efforts. It can take years to land a client. If you fixate only on that measure, you can get demoralized quickly. Instead, focus on the progress you have made. Have you given a speech to a group of potential clients? Do you have more LinkedIn connections than you did at this time last year? Have you been consistent about a business development activity that has languished in the past? Focus on your wins and keep up the good work.
  6. Shift your mindset. If business development seems uncomfortable, two strategies may make it easier. First, use the discomfort as a sign that this is an area in which you need to grow. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor enrolled in swimming classes because she was afraid of the water. If business development makes you uneasy, dive in. It will get easier every time. Second, think about treating your business development activities as an experiment. Take the pressure off yourself, do the work, and see what happens over time. The results may not be immediate, but with persistence, they will come.

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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