In this very competitive legal marketplace where law firms increasingly are run like businesses, lawyers need to have a plan. When experienced attorneys wish to find new employment opportunities in private practice, one of the first things a prospective employer inquires about is that attorney’s client base. How much business will move with that lawyer? How will the addition of this attorney improve our market position? What is the bottom line? Even junior attorneys should give serious thought to their business plans in order to better position themselves for the future. Having your own client base is an essential element to taking control of your destiny. A big book of business means being able to call your own shots: having the widest possible selection of job offers, starting your own firm, or negotiating a better position in your current firm. Writing a business plan requires you to take stock of what you are doing now, and set out specific steps to build your client base in the future.
When putting together a business plan, start with your current clients. For each client you either originated or are servicing, ask yourself the following questions: What type of business are they in? Who is your contact there, and what is his/her position? What kinds of matters do you handle for that client now? In the past? In the foreseeable future? What other kinds of legal matters could possibly arise for that client? What have your billings been for that client in the past? Now? For the foreseeable future? Are you the main contact for that client at your firm? Who else at your firm works on those matters? What other law firms handle work for that client, and could you or attorneys at your firm handle that work? What is the probability that the client would follow you to a new firm? (IMPORTANT NOTE: It is unethical for you to solicit clients, either directly or indirectly, before notifying your current firm of your intention to leave.)
The next step is to look at your past clients, who can be an excellent source of future business if they were happy with your work. List past clients, and ask yourself the above questions regarding each. If you determine that any of your past clients are potential future clients, decide what steps you need to take to reconnect with those clients and position yourself to receive additional legal work.
For both past and current clients, examine whether there is any potential to cross-sell legal services. In other words, are there clients for whom you have done a particular type of work, but who have other legal matters which could be handled by attorneys at your present or intended firm with other areas of expertise? For example, if you specialize in real estate or business transactions, could some of your clients use tax advice, or litigation services provided by other members of your firm, and for which you would get origination credit? Similarly, are there attorneys in your firm who have clients for whom you could provide legal services, and for which you could get service credit?
Once you have mined all prospects for business development from current and past clients that you and others in your firm service, it is time to explore new prospects. Start with the strategies that have been successful for you in the past. Common avenues of business development include writing for professional publications, public speaking, and active membership in professional organizations. Your business plan should include a listing of the professional, service, and civic organizations to which you belong, past and present involvement, and the activities you plan to undertake in order to increase your visibility. Also list any prior published articles and presentations you have given, plus ideas for future articles and speeches, and the publications and organizations to which you hope to present them. Networking with professionals in allied fields (such as bankers, accountants, brokers, etc.) could also yield client referrals, so your business plan should include a list of those contacts, along with a plan for cultivating business from them.
If your business plan is being written for the benefit of a potential new employer, take into consideration how this new combination could create “synergy”. Include in your plan additional areas of expertise offered by the potential employer firm for cross-selling with your clients, and the memberships and activities of your potential new colleagues as additional avenues for your new business development. Give specific examples of how your joining the firm would increase their ability to service their existing clients through cross-selling your services, as well. Show how your combined efforts could generate more business than you or the firm could have done separately.
As the saying goes, “It takes money to make money”. And, business development activities are no different. For each of the activities outlined in your plan, estimate the costs involved in terms of lost billing time, travel, dues, fees, meals, entertainment, etc. Note especially if there are extraordinary expenses such as long-distance or international travel to attend conferences or visit current or potential clients. If similar expenditures have reaped results in the past, those results should be mentioned and quantified to the extent possible in your plan. When presenting your business plan to your current or prospective employer, it is important to get approval not only for the activities you have proposed, but also for the budget that goes along with them.
Even if you have no intention of making any career moves in the near future, and even if you are in the early stages of your career, it is a good exercise to draft a business plan. A good plan will clarify what steps you need to take to maximize your business development potential, and set out a roadmap for you to take control of your future.