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Fresh Approaches to Transform BD Effectiveness in Law Firms

There is no doubt that law firms have made significant improvements in BD. But there’s still a long way to go to match the sophisticated BD approaches used by large accounting and consulting firms.

It’s as if law firms have now reached an equilibrium and got a bit stuck. Let’s admit it, many senior income generators in law firms are still not fully committed to carrying out effective BD. Client work will typically come first, with BD moving towards the bottom of the to-do list. And let’s face it – most partners weren’t promoted because they were great marketeers! But is all this their fault? I don’t think so.

Senior management, heads of BD functions and heads of practice groups are partly responsible for this lacking. In this article I want to shed some light on the challenges faced by firms to build a commitment to BD and I propose some radically different approaches.

So What’s the Problem?

My proposition is that there’s what I call a knowing – doing gap. Broadly speaking I think the average partner in a law firm knows that:

  • They should focus their BD efforts on a limited number of key clients, rather than adopt a scattergun approach

  • They should introduce colleagues to their clients to broaden and deepen the client relationship

  • They should carry out regular client reviews to ensure they are hitting the sweet spots in terms of client service

But most partners don’t do all these things to the extent that their firms would like.

I think we can gain some valuable insights into the nature of the problem from our personal lives. For example, we know we should:

  • Eat less food (and healthier food) and drink less alcohol

  • Do more exercise

  • Have dental check-ups every 6 months

  • Call our parents every weekend

But most of us don’t do all these things regularly.

So what’s going on here? I put it down to ‘the dark angel’ syndrome. It’s as if there’s a dark angel whispering in our ear. A partner will probably not be conscious of the voice, but it might be saying something like ‘don’t introduce George to this client, they might mess things up’. Or an even stronger negative message might be, ‘the client will prefer George to me’. Speaking personally, I don’t go the dentist regularly because the dark angel has convinced me that it will be uncomfortable and they will carry out unnecessary work, which might lead to more problems in the future and that my teeth and gums are fine.

You get the point? We all know we should do lots of things, but we just don’t do them. That’s the knowing-doing gap!

So What’s the Solution? If there’s something in my proposition, then just repeating what the senior income generators should be doing with their business development isn’t addressing the problem. They already know these things. We need to counter the messages from the dark angels.

And how can we address these negative messages? In a nutshell there is the need for:

  • very different conversations to be had with partners by senior management, BD functions and heads of practice groups

  • a different approach to introducing new BD initiatives.

1. Radically Different 1-1 Conversations with Partners One of the challenges with BD is that the effort needs to go in now, for a potential reward in the future. It’s a bit like going on an exercise or dieting programme. It takes a routine and commitment, otherwise we fall by the wayside.

Then, to counter the effects of the whispers and temptations from dark angels, it helps if Management, Heads of BD and Practice Group Heads fully support partners adopt this approach to their business development:

Find their passion – whether it’s writing a technical treatise, speaking at seminars, getting more involved in industry networks, generating knowhow, finding efficiencies using technology etc. Without this passion the negative messages may win out.

Aim to tackle foothills rather than climb Everest – partners obviously feel better if they achieve their goals, so it’s more motivating. Too often partners attempt tough challenges and become demoralised when they feel they fail.

Have a personal BD plan – that is congruent with the practice group plan. This will keep them on track and get BD activities into their calendar.

Avoid being critical if the BD initiative doesn’t work – or if the partners ‘falls off the wagon’. As the saying goes, ‘there’s no such thing as failure – only learning!’

Motivation is key. Management in most firms tends to be too critical in my view and not supportive enough. For partners to invest more time in effective BD, we need to provide more carrot and less stick!

Perhaps the best time to start this conversation is at the partner review meeting. Ask where their passion is? Help them set realistic deadlines that they can achieve (good for motivation!). Then follow up to enquire about progress. This makes clear that BD progress is important. Offer support. A more senior partner can sometimes open more doors to unblock progress.

2. Different Approaches to BD Initatives Top-down, imposed BD initiatives such as key account programmes are destined to be frustrating projects. There just won’t be enough ownership and commitment from partners if projects are approached in this way. So I recommend consulting more widely before BD projects are initiated. This approach is what the Japanese call ‘nemawashi’. It’s hard to translate this word, but literally means ‘digging around the roots’. In consultant-speak it might be termed consulting and involving.

But even if partners are consulted, management needs to recognise that when partners say ‘yes’ but in an unenthusiastic way, it probably means there’s not enough commitment. If there’s a 10 point scale for this, you need at least 9/10. It’s back to my point about the need for passion.

I recommend starting with a compelling vision to gain people’s initial engagement. Then I use a 4-phased approach to implement major projects successfully, as follows:

Phase 0 – Set up

  • Appoint a project team (including some influential partners) and steering group which acts as an internal client)

  • Agree a project plan with clear responsibilities, roles and critical success factors

Phase 1 – Data gathering

  • Gather the information you need (including stats and the views of key stakeholders)

  • Present your recommendations to the steering group

Phase 2 – Implementation

  • Pilot the project with a select group (perhaps a keen and representative practice area) to show it works and then roll out across the firm

  • BD function and management team to provide the necessary support

Phase 3 – Consolidation

  • To ensure ongoing commitment, gather and share success stories to encourage others

  • Management may need to demonstrate intolerance to partners not adhering to the new BD approaches sought by the firm

This more rigorous and phased approach takes longer but it works and the change you are looking for tends to stick.

Effective leaders need the skills of creating a compelling vision of the future, of deep engagement with partners and of creating a passion going out there to create a better book of business.

Boy did I learn this in my time working as a BD Director in a large law firm!


About the Author

Tony Reiss has more than 20 years’ experience in professional services, as a fee earner, business support professional, consultant and coach. His clients include audit firms, international law firms, management consulting practices, patent attorneys and the internal legal and accounting functions of one of the world’s largest oil companies. He has worked with firms across Europe, North and South America and South East Asia.

A large part of his work is with law firm partners, senior associates and senior business support professionals in the areas of leadership and business development. He was part of the consulting team winning the LETG ‘Best Trainer’ award and two of his programmes have been shortlisted for The Law Society Excellence Awards.

He regularly designs and facilitates retreats and workshops for partnerships, practice groups or management teams on identifying strategic objectives and on tackling implementation issues, such as introducing new processes and systems (e.g. CRM programmes).

Find out more about Tony here.