Is Your Business Development Plan Drowning in Data?

Time, relationships, and knowledge are a lawyer’s three most precious resources— without them, few lawyers can succeed. Wasting one or more of the three resources is a recipe for underperformance. Lawyers’ education (both law school and CLE) has traditionally emphasized the acquisition of legal knowledge, with little attention given to the other two resources.  As a result, many lawyers struggle with business development and practice management.

A few attorneys are fortunate enough to have mentors or firm-wide development programs, and others may have mastered these skills before beginning their legal career, but most lawyers must learn for themselves how to develop relationships and manage their time. Many lawyers ignore relationship building altogether and only focus on their immediate projects and cases, which is often all that is asked of them in their first years of practice as they deepen their knowledge of the law. Although they may also learn how to manage their time, few learn the strategic importance of investing it in relationship building, business development, and practice management. Knowledge and skills in these three areas are often absent or poor.

As a lawyer’s practice grows and matures, available time becomes increasingly scarce. Many lawyers can talk at length about the difficulties they face in finding the time for marketing activities and the reasons why those activities repeatedly get put on the back burner. Part of the problem is that they think about “finding” time rather than “making” it. Business development activities should not be thought of as something to fill in the white spaces of a lawyer’s calendar. Lawyers should instead schedule time each week exclusively dedicated to business development activities.

Making time is one-half of the challenge of business development; learning how to make the best use of that time is the other. Poorly designed business development plans are difficult to follow and inefficient. Well-designed plans save lawyers time and energy by being systematic, actionable, and strategic.

Systematic plans create a sense of discipline and order that make it easier for lawyers to market. Templates and processes are established so time is not wasted trying to reinvent the wheel or figure out what should be done first and what should be done next. Information on clients, industries, and trends is acquired, organized, and stored for quick and easy access. Savvy lawyers often use a client relationship management system (CRM) to support their marketing efforts. Some firms create their own CRMs, while others use commercially available products that reside on their computers or in the Cloud. The more sophisticated CRMs let lawyers make notes, calendar future reminders, track their progress with a specific contact, and coordinate their efforts with others. Although CRMs require an initial investment of time and money, they usually end up saving both over the long run.

Actionable plans are realistic. The most elegant business plan is of little value if it is so complicated or expensive that it can’t be executed. Sometimes law firms waste time and money crafting plans that are too ambitious and impractical. As Winston Churchill said, “However beautiful the strategy, you should occasionally look at the results.”

Strategic plans keep lawyers from taking a shotgun approach to marketing where everyone and anyone seem to be a possible contact or prospective client. By helping lawyers focus on specific industries and legal niches, strategic plans allow lawyers to tailor their marketing message and value proposition to a select audience. The precious resource of lawyers’ time is invested where it will potentially yield the greatest returns.

Business development plans that are both strategic and systematic rely on data, and that is where a problem often arises. Lawyers need to know about trends in their practice area and industry, and what is being said about their clients, prospective clients, and competitors. With this knowledge, they can identify client opportunities and quickly respond to emerging challenges and threats. This competitive knowledge can also be used to benchmark a firm’s efforts against what other firms are doing. To be an effective marketer, lawyers must be well informed. Sending a prospective client a timely and information-filled article of great relevance is far more effective than the slew of generic emails that clients often receive.

The good news is that the internet is an incredible source of competitive intelligence; the bad news is that it can be hard to sift through all the data to find that which is truly useful. Good business plans can grind to a halt when lawyers are overwhelmed by data. Many lawyers read trade and legal journals (either print or online) to keep abreast of recent developments in their practice area and industry. More technologically savvy lawyers may use search features like Google Alerts to track the latest news about clients, prospective clients, and their own firm. Regardless of which method they use, they face the challenge of finding useful information without spending an undue amount of time. The sheer volume of available information makes it all the more difficult to discover relevant competitive information.

Emerging technologies now offer lawyers a way out of this conundrum. Subscription internet services let lawyers create profiles at the firm, practice group, and personal level that specify the kind of information they need. These services will “listen” for this information from a  wide range of sources and then forward it to lawyers though daily or weekly emails, RSS feeds, detailed customized reports, or the hands-on use of their online platforms.

Using these subscription internet services means that lawyers and staff no longer have to dedicate huge amounts of time to monotonous searching. Since it’s being performed for them, they have more available time to execute their business development plans and respond much faster to client needs, competitive concerns, and substantive legal issues that are important to their practice.

[This post also appeared as the March 2013 blog post of Threshold Advisors.]


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