by Joel A. Rose

     As a law firm grows, the business development strategies and efforts which may work for a smaller firm become less effective. Responsibility is defused. Lawyers can be working at cross purposes. Many lawyers dislike the idea of practice development or are unwilling to put forth the necessary effort. As a consequence, in a midsize or larger firm there is the risk that too many lawyers will assume that someone else is performing the business development function.

     In today's legal marketplace, no firm can safely assume that simply doing a good job for its existing clients is sufficient, although that factor is critical to successful business development. For example, within the past few years national and international law firms from the West Coast, Mid-West, South and New England have established new offices in Manhattan. In this competitive environment, partners in law firms of all sizes and types need periodically to remind themselves that every good existing client they have is a potential new client for some other law firm.

     To be successful, partners in law firms must devote quality time to planning for business development. Preparing a business development plan should involve as many lawyers as possible since the plan is complex and everyone should have a role in its implementation.

     A business development plan is usually structured into two broad classifications: (1) general business development objectives; and (2) specific business development objectives and means of achieving them.

General Business Development Objectives:

     It is important for a law firm to identify at the outset the overall general objectives of its partners. Unless this is done, surprising differences about a firm's "collective will" may surface later on. Also, taking the time to identify and articulate general goals makes it significantly easier to undertake the subsequent step of identifying and implementing specific means of achieving the goals. For example, does it make sense to pursue a particular type of client or area of work without determining whether doing so makes sense in terms of the partner's overall objectives.

Following our illustrations of general business development plan objectives:
  1. To serve well, efficiently, economically and fully the firm's existing clients (this objective, properly implemented, is probably the most important).
  2. Growth: Does the firm wish to grow? For a variety of reasons, not all firms do wish to grow. In any event, an objective of most business development plans is to increase the number of quality clients served by the firm.
  3. To identify and market whatever strengths or unique services the particular law firm may have to offer including, for example:
    1. The firm's expertise in one or more substantive areas of the law;
    2. The firm's ability to handle complex and multi-dimensional problems;
    3. For a firm with branch offices, the ability to better serve clients through one or more offices.
  4. To increase the firm's exposure in the marketplace.
  5. To enhance the firm's reputation in the communities where it practices.
  6. To develop and maintain relations with potential sources of referral.
  7. To ensure through pro bono and other civic work that the firm is in fact perceived as being a "good citizen."

Specific Objectives:

     Once the general objectives have been agreed upon, specific objectives and goals should be determined. In addition, a timetable for achieving the objectives and goals should be set. The timetable can later be used to measure the progress. It is also important to assign specific lawyers the responsibility for carrying out some of the objectives listed. If this is not done, it is all too easy for the business development plan to become another piece of paper, talked about and sometimes praised, but never really implemented.

Suggested specific objectives for the short term could include:
  1. Agreeing upon and implementing a marketing plan.
  2. Analyzing the market or markets where the firm practices.
  3. Identifying substantive areas of practice where the firm is weak or understaffed and quickly act to correct the situation.
  4. Determining which of the firm's strengths should be brought to the attention of existing and perspective clients in the markets where the firm practices.
  5. Identifying a specific number of perspective new clients and assigning responsibility to specific lawyers to deal with the prospects directly or indirectly.
  6. Meeting with each major existing client and determining:
    1. Whether the client is satisfied with the firm's representation;
    2. How the firm might improve from the client's perspective;
    3. What other services might be performed (in this regard, we have developed for some firms, client evaluation questionnaires).
  7. Analyzing the mailing list for firm announcements and determining whether it should be expanded or modified.
  8. Identifying a specific number of potential referral sources and informing them about the firm.
  9. Identifying seminars (including CLE, Trade Association and client seminars) in which the firm's attorneys should participate and/or which the firm should sponsor.
  10. Developing and making effective use of a firm resume (in this regard, many firms employ a general firm resume, together with resumes for its individual lawyers, its specialty groups and its branch offices, the use of which is tailored to the perceived interest or needs of a particular client or perspective client).
  11. Identifying and encouraging participation in appropriate service, political, social, alumni and similar organizations, where individual lawyer participation would be beneficial.
  12. Developing internal programs to keep the lawyers in the firm informed about business development activities.
  13. Publishing informational memoranda and pamphlets on new areas of the law.

     The firm should identify whether there are specific goals which can be targeted for accomplishment over a longer period, for example; three, four or five years. At a minimum, periodic reviews of the effectiveness of the business development plan should be scheduled and the plan should be revised in the light of experience.

Implementing the Plan:

     A business development plan can be implemented either through: (1) a business development committee; (2) the firm's existing organizational structure; or (3) a combination of the two. Many larger firms with branch offices have opted to implement the plan through their various substantive departments and their branch offices with lawyers from each department and office specifically assigned a business development responsibility. In mid-size firms, the management or executive committee may oversee the business development activities or a special business development committee supported by lawyers in the various substantive departments.

     Regardless of the size of the firm, it remains essential that lawyers interested in business development monitor how the plan is being implemented and take necessary steps to ensure that assigned tasks are carried out.

Tips for Success:

     There are certain elements to a business development plan which most perspective clients find especially effective. First, there should be personal contact between the lawyers in the firm and the perspective client.

     Partners in many firms are invaluable in effecting personal contacts. Another interesting source of personal contact are seminars presented by law firms for potential clients. Seminars allow potential clients to meet and evaluate the lawyers presenting the program. However, seminars can only be effective if the attorneys make an effort to meet the potential client personally, determining what needs he/she has and then following up as appropriate.

     One observation on seminars suggested by the general counsel of a major energy corporation which might seem self evident but which may frequently be overlooked; First, put on people who really know what they are talking about and who are good speakers. Don't put on an associate or partner no matter how informed he/she is, if that lawyer is going to mumble into his/her water glass during the presentation. Conversely, don't put on an associate who may be bright, but is not experienced enough to adequately field questions. Second, most sophisticated potential clients hire individual lawyers, not law firms as such and are interest in hearing about individuals with outstanding abilities or expertise in particular areas of the law. Third, attorneys must convince potential clients that as good an individual lawyer as he/she may be, they are cost effective. A fully allocated cost comparison, prepared by the legal department of a publicly held corporation reported that inside counsel were on the average between 35 percent to 45 percent less costly to use than outside counsel. What this general counsel frequently finds missing in practice development efforts by many major law firms today, is a program designed to communicate with firm's sensitivity to costs and the steps they intend to take to contain them.

     Once the law firm has decided who and what to market, there is one final aspect to consider; to whom in the perspective client's organization should the business development efforts be directed. In corporations which have a legal department, marketing to the Chief Executive Officer or other operating management is of limited benefit. Usually, the legal department has responsibility for the retention and supervision of all outside counsel. This is not to say, of course, that a Chief Operating Officer's strong recommendation would be rejected out of hand.

     The general counsel is obviously a prime target. However, not always the best one. Many general counsel have enough on their plates that they don't have the time or the inclination to assess the relative merits of many outside counsel who are to be retained in narrow areas of the law. These decisions may be left to legal managers and line attorneys.

     The second, major aspect of law firm business development is designed to retain the corporations as a client once the firm has succeeded in being retained. Advice offered by a general counsel in a consumer service corporation is, "Don't be complacent and think that we are married for life as the result of one encounter." Clearly, the outside counsel who is retained must continue to demonstrate his/her particular abilities and sensitivity to providing services in a timely and high quality manner and to containing costs.


     There are certain essential elements which outside counsel should keep in mind in their marketing approach if they want to represent and maintain business from potential clients. They must make personal contact with the appropriate person in the legal department. The individual lawyer, not the firm, must be presented as answering a specific need of the client. It is important to reach those in the potential client's organization who have the specific need for outside legal services. Additional expertise of a lawyer in the firm can be promoted once the firm has been retained. Finally, outside counsel must convince the potential client and keep the client convinced that the firm runs a cost sensitive and cost effective operation.
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