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Joining the Dots: How ‘Designer Firms’ are creating better business development outcomes for firms

Updated: May 3, 2023

I have always loved the concept of joining the dots, creatively and in the business context. I’m motivated to leverage opportunities to bring together what, at first, might seem to be unrelated people, organisations or things. There’s a feeling of satisfaction when you have helped to move something forward or, even better, the excitement of seeing it succeed for all involved. And, of course, dealing with failure by taking in the lessons learned and mapping out a new plan of action. That’s why I do what I do.

Business Development is about joining the dots and achieving successful outcomes for clients and their lawyers. A new breed of firm (let’s call them Designer Firms) are using a powerful combination of approaches to successfully join the dots for themselves and their clients in a way that’s very different to traditional firms.

The legal profession has seen its fair share of disruption over the last decade including NewLaw business models, an appetite to be innovative and creative, and an ever increasing wave of technology tools and platforms to provide greater efficiencies. Somehow though, many firms are failing to join the dots on this front to bring it all together from a business development perspective.

Designer Firms have taken the opportunity to re-design and re-calibrate themselves by clearly framing their purpose, identity and culture. These Designer Firms are recognisable by their implementation of concepts which haven’t always been embraced by the legal profession in the past including:

  • a clear sense of purpose

  • empathy

  • collaboration

  • multi-disciplinary skills

  • innovation

  • Design Thinking

All of these concepts are key to building and implementing successful business development programs which enhance clients’ experiences and build aligned client relationships.

Purpose – Why?

Designer Firms have taken the time to understand why they do what they do. They have then ‘purpose built’ their firms to achieve what they want to do. The business model of a Designer Firm reflects its purpose. Some firms have created cloud based working environments to provide all staff with the ability to work whenever or wherever they like so their staff can enjoy greater work / life integration. A happy team is more likely to provide a better client experience. They are ditching the billable hour and turning to value and fixed pricing to ensure that clients are receiving the value and level of servicing that they actually want. Others are investing in technology to create better work flow and matter management with clients. This strong sense of purpose, and the practical application of it, provides an authentic basis for their business development.

Empathy – Who?

Designer firms have empathy for those they work for and with. They know what matters to them. At its heart, the practice of law is very human – the application of human thought and energy to decidedly human problems. Firms cannot simply tick the empathy box by having programs that include client listening, matter debriefs and soundings. These programs are all well and good, but they do not amount to real empathy. Often they are fact finding missions to see how a firm is tracking against its competitors and/ or how they can improve against internal KPIs which often have little to do with clients’ needs. Real empathy is understanding what it is like to stand in your client’s shoes, to appreciate their measures of success, their frustrations, discuss them, have a real understanding of the outcomes they want and collaborate to achieve them. This provides real alignment in incentives and a strong basis for client / firm relationships.

Collaboration - How?

The best way to join the dots to achieve great outcomes is to collaborate, and collaborate on many fronts. Outdated business models and pricing approaches are the enemy of internal collaboration in many law firms and the graveyard for many lost business development initiatives which may have benefitted both the firm and the client. Designer Firms tend to have flatter hierarchies, no silos and a shared purpose - meaning that they are more likely to collaborate across the firm to produce truly client centred outcomes.

Perhaps because Designer Firms are part of a tribe (of disruptors in this case), there is also a real sense of collaboration between many Designer Firms. It includes the sharing of ideas and collaborating with other firms to the benefit of their clients. Many use a network of firms and organisations to allow them to pull together a wider team which can deliver on more complex client outcomes.

Most importantly, Designer Firms are collaborating with clients by working with them right from the start to determine the best way to deliver what they need. This may involve bringing in other resources, working with their existing resources, looking at creative and innovative ways to work together and/or technology based solutions.

Multi-disciplinary skills – Look beyond legal

Can we finally acknowledge that lawyers don’t have every skill necessary to solve a client’s legal problem? I truly hope so. The legal profession is now made up of many extremely talented professionals with broad ranging skills including technologists, project managers, HR professionals, innovators, business strategists, resource and knowledge managers and, of course, BD professionals. Designer Firms have a deep respect and appreciation for the skills this range of professionals can bring to their clients and they are leveraging off those skills in their BD programs and client offerings. This approach also means that Designer Firms have a strong alignment between business development and their overall strategic direction.

Innovation - How to do it better

Recently I asked a group of innovative legal professionals what they thought innovation was. I was surprised at the number of different views and the vigour of the debate. To me it means ‘finding a better way’. Perhaps that’s too simple - but it works for me. There are many reasons why firms want to be innovative: they want to be more efficient, they want to use the latest legal tech and their clients want innovative solutions. But innovation shouldn’t be done just to tick a box. Designer Firms have innovation as part of their DNA and they use all of the concepts that I have written about here to make it happen. They are clear on why they are innovating and for whom, they collaborate with those who have the skills (including multidisciplinary skills other than legal) and, for business development related initiatives, they are client focussed. These include new client offerings, bespoke process solutions, technology based solutions or a referral to someone better able to assist.

Design Thinking and creativity – how you get started and keep going

Some light bulb moments stay with you forever and, for me, one of those was hearing about Design Thinking for the first time; its evolution from graphic design, to architecture, to products and, eventually, to services. It’s hardly surprising now that I was so excited to use this human centred design framework to identify and progress business development initiatives given that its core concepts are empathy, collaboration, experimentation. It makes sense that Designer Firms should be using Design Thinking and Hive Legal has developed HiveThink P to come up with, develop, assess and implement, innovative ideas. The P stands for the power of purpose which in Hive’s case is to be ‘a truly contemporary and innovative provider of legal solutions which improves the experience for our clients and our team’. We’ve used HiveThink P to develop and implement a number of business development initiatives including HiveGC+, a new service offering which provides clients with tailored outsourced legal services for their business-as-usual needs. For firms willing to embrace a Designer Firm approach, Design Thinking is the ‘go to framework’ to make it all happen.


Sure, there are firms out there doing a combination of some of the concepts I have covered above, but it’s only the Designer Firms that are joining the dots and doing them all in terms of business development and they (and their clients) are benefitting from a new way of thinking, working together and delivering legal solutions.


About the author:

Melissa Lyon is a Business Development specialist committed to assisting law firms and professional services providers develop and utilise client focussed business development skills to build strategic client bases and strong professional profiles. To do this she draws on many years of experience in legal practice, including as a partner of a law firm.

She has also held senior business development roles, including managing BD teams and leading numerous projects and programs at a top tier legal firm. Melissa now works with Hive Legal, an innovative New Law firm which has disupted the legal profession by introducing value pricing, truly flexible work practices and technology based solutions for its clients.

Working in this innovative environment has inspired Melissa to develop a very different approach to BD and innovation programs based on a design thinking framework and the power of purpose (HiveThink P). Her innovative approach was recently recognised when she was named Business Development Professional of the Year 2017 at the Australian Law Awards.

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