Resolve to Throw Out Your Business Development Plan Today | International Lawyers Network

I’m not big on resolutions. Some years, I have some, other years I don’t, but…

I’m not big on resolutions.

Some years, I have some, other years I don’t, but they’re generally things I’d like to add more of to my life (like the year I decided I would try to learn how to knit – I’ve been crocheting since I was about five – yes, these are two different things).

Do I always have a business development plan? Yes.

So what am I advocating here? Sheer anarchy??

Uh, no. Don’t worry.

Now you’re wondering whether I’ve totally lost the plot, dear reader. But I haven’t – bear with me a moment.

It can be awfully tempting when you begin your planning for the year to start with what you had the previous year. And hopefully, you’ve already put together your business development & marketing plan for 2022 (you have, right?).

But, while it’s important and valuable to build on the previous year’s success and progress, it can often be quite informative to start with a clean slate, particularly given what we’ve been facing the last couple of years.

So I’m encouraging you to start with a clean slate – pull out a blank sheet of paper, wipe off your white-board, mentally erase your brain of any of the plans you’ve already made, and start fresh. Throw out the plan you’ve already developed for 2022.

Yes, it’s scary and intimidating, but sometimes we can get caught up in what we’re doing and miss the forest for the trees. I don’t advocate anything I haven’t done myself and this is something I’ve done in the past too. Why and how does it work?

Start over and act like you’re entirely new to your practice – I recognize that for some of you, this may feel really silly, given where you are in your careers, but I promise, this is important.

Ask yourself – and not just mentally, but write these answers down:

  • Who are my top five to ten clients?
  • What industry/ies are they in and what work do I do for them?
  • How did I meet them?
  • Who are my favorite five clients? (Do they overlap?)
  • What industry/ies are they in and what work do I do for them?
  • How did I meet them? (Hopefully, these clients and answers are overlapping)
  • What one to three things do my clients REALLY want? You may actually have to ask your clients these things and you should do that – if they’re your top clients, they want to keep that relationship going too, and it’s great to check in periodically to ensure that you know what it is they really want so that you’re giving that to them, especially as it may change year to year. Do they want to look good to their boss? Do they need to get some work off their plate? Do they need to find a way to cut some more costs? Do they need quicker answers in a more digestible way? Do they need an associate seconded to them this year? A chat is a great way to figure this out – remember to make this chat non-billable.
  • How can I add value? This is a slightly different question to the above because the wants are non-negotiable (in terms of the client relationship). That’s what you’re going to do regardless to keep your clients. The value is the way you’re going to go above and beyond. There are two ways to add this – first, listen for the things they’re NOT saying. What can you pick up from your conversations that would be helpful, but they may not be asking for directly? Lawyers are trained to be good listeners and to identify the issues their clients are having before they have them, so use this for client management as well as legal issue spotting. Secondly, you have already been adding value to all of these relationships throughout their lifespan, so identify what has been working already and what may continue to work. Here again, you may have to ask your clients. Do they find it valuable to get your firm’s newsletters on relevant topics? Are timely webinars useful? Do they listen to the podcast that your firm does for their industry? Find out from them what may be the “nice-to-haves” that you’re not yet providing and would be in your wheelhouse.

You’ll notice here that I’ve only mentioned current clients, but we’re talking about a business development plan – that’s not an accident. Once you have this in place (more on that in a moment), you’ll take these transferrable client relationship management tools and leverage them for business development. The idea is to replicate what is working successfully with the clients that you like and are successful with you in the places where you found them to find other clients that you will like and will be successful for you. Rinse and repeat.

Once you have your list of clients (also known as your target audience), the things they really want, and the ways you can add value, you can create a plan that identifies some specific goals first – do you want to get more work from these clients? Do you want to get more clients of a specific type (perhaps you’d like more clients of the kind that you like versus your top clients, for example)? Do you want to break into a different market or move into a different niche? Do you want to increase your reputation among potential clients that are similar to clients you already have?

Using your goals, you can then take the ideas that you’ve developed based on your existing clients’ wants and value-adds to show how you can reach those goals. Then, break these down further again with descriptions for how and why those ideas will get you to those goals – at that point, revisit your previous plan to see what may be useful to continue incorporating and what will no longer serve you in pursuit of your goals.

Ultimately, you’ll come up with a streamlined plan, which you can review quarterly and set up individual task lists and deadlines to meet. It will be much simpler and stronger overall, allowing you the creativity to come up with new ideas to meet your goals, which you may never have had the flexibility to come up with if you stay with your previous plan. You also have a clear audience to begin with and you know where you have previously looked for clients – and you don’t have to limit yourself to those places either. While many lawyers will have gotten clients through word of mouth (still a valuable and valid way to get business), identify where else your ideal client is to find out where you should be too – online networking events? Social media? Industry conferences? Trade magazines? Again, if you’re not sure, talk to your clients to find out where they are and what they’re interested in for a snapshot that will help you to get more engaged.

Why bother to draft a plan at all? I get it, you’re a busy lawyer and this seems like a big time investment for someone who could just keep doing what they’ve been doing all along, while also bringing in clients. First, I love the phrase “Failing to plan is planning to fail,” in part, because I’m a Capricorn and type A, so planning is just in my nature. But in all seriousness, there are a lot of great reasons to do this:

  • During the planning process, you’ll notice that I mentioned speaking with your current clients. There’s never a bad time to manage the client relationship. I assume you already have regular client check-ins built into your top client relationships, but a temperature check with your best clients, especially one where you find out what they want and need as part of your relationship on a yearly basis is an opportunity to find out what you’re doing right and what you could be doing better, and building that into your plan for the year. Can it be uncomfortable? Sure. But not as uncomfortable as losing your top clients.
  • You spend FAR less time sitting down to write up a plan and reviewing it on a monthly basis to jot down a few activities and check-ins and actually DOING those activities and check-ins than you do ad hoc business development. With no plan, you have to take time to evaluate every single opportunity that comes in as valuable or not, you will spend too much time at networking events that may or may not pan out, and you will likely spend time doing a bunch of activities that won’t work together in a cohesive whole. With a plan, any activity that comes in is immediately evaluated against the plan, and if it’s not part of it, it’s tossed out (unless it sounds like fun, and then just do it). The plan works for you, and not the other way around.
  • I’m a marathoner (you know this, unless you’re new here). I don’t just arrive at the starting line with my fingers crossed and my hopes and dreams. I come with a base of training (like your education) and then I train for 16-20 weeks (like the business development plan). You can be the best lawyer, but if you don’t know what you want (i.e. your goals), things are only going to work out if you’re extremely lucky. Do some people run marathons without training? Sure. But it hurts. And I don’t want to be one of them. Can you develop business without a plan? Sure, but it may not be sustainable, and at what cost? Who knows. Be in it for the long haul and develop a plan. It’s like strength work for runners – we hate it, but we need it.

Sometimes, when we’re rushing to get the plan out of the way so that we can get back to the business at hand, it seems faster to build on the past. But when we throw out everything we know to start fresh, we may end up developing a more efficient and effective plan for the next year!

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