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Legal Practice Management

3 ways law firms can support associates to be better business developers

Sandra Montanino  Founder and Principal / Navig8 PD

· 5 minute read

Sandra Montanino  Founder and Principal / Navig8 PD

· 5 minute read

There are ways that law firms can help instill critical business development skills in their younger associates that will help them with their career trajectory

As law firm associates climb the ranks toward partnership, they naturally turn their minds to business development (BD) and the firm’s expectations of them. To that end, some firms start offering training programs to develop networking and presentation skills to better support senior associates with their BD skills. Other firms may do nothing, thinking, “You’re either a rainmaker or you’re not!”

Complicating matters, associates are learning, observing, and practicing their skills in remote, in-person, and hybrid workplaces, so more support than ever is needed. Leaving BD skills to organically develop or providing a few sessions to inspire BD, likely won’t be enough to effectively or fully tap the potential of your firm’s associates to build and sustain thriving practices.

For law firms that want to offer more than aspirational platitudes, here are three strategies firms can undertake to better set up their associates for BD success:

1. Revisit learning & development (L&D) programs

Business development skills are akin to training for a marathon — you don’t run 26 miles without training on shorter distances beforehand. Similarly, law firms should be offering stage-specific learning & development training in business development from day one that should include normalizing BD training as early as possible. Even if associates aren’t expected to generate clients until much later in their careers, gradual introduction of BD concepts, service skills, and communication& interpersonal skills will allow associates to learn, practice, and work on these skills internally before turning their attention outward.

Firms should also build BD elements into non-BD sessions, which helps draw connections to the business of the firm and allows more voices to be heard. During a training session on mergers & acquisitions, for example, the presenter should share specific examples of how these transactions come to the firm, the key relationship aspects, and what factors aside from the legal work are important to clients.

It’s important for firms to use examples and stories in this way to bring the nuances of BD to life, while ensuring diverse perspectives (because BD isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach). Encourage associates to be creative and connect in ways that are authentic to them.

Other L&D methods include:

      • emphasizing the small, consistent, daily BD skills. One-off grandiose efforts rarely win the race.
      • dispelling the extroversion bias. BD isn’t solely the domain of extroverts — in fact, some would suggest that introverts are often more successful with BD.
      • discussing what BD success looks like in all work environments and recognizing that just because some activities benefit from in-person interaction, doesn’t mean ignoring how BD can be done remotely.

2. Invest in firm systems beyond L&D

L&D programs aren’t the only source of support firms can offer. By using existing mentorship and sponsorship programs, firms can empower mentors and sponsors to strategize with associates on BD skills, provide access to networks, and guidance on approaches. This will help decode the unwritten rules around BD efforts that are most valued by the firm, as well as how these efforts are to be undertaken.

Mentors and sponsors should discuss how to build visibility, credibility, brand, and relationships in both remote and in-person settings. Indeed, sharing, strategizing, and supporting BD skill development is not always achieved through formal programs, unfortunately, and rather is often passed through informal channels. Firms need to be alert to this reality and encourage partners to pay closer attention to who benefits from informal mentorships and sponsorships and who doesn’t.

Too often, affinity bias plays a role in sharing critical development feedback and BD advice. Firm leaders should encourage a broader culture of BD sharing by all partners, For example, the fimr should encourage lawyers to schedule five-minute BD chats after meetings to review the relationship and BD aspects or opportunities with associates.

Mentors and sponsors should also be alert to the BD value of all firm and client opportunities and help advocate for their mentees and protégés. Access is just as important as skill development.

3. Build BD into formal and informal performance and career development conversations

Firms need to be explicit with associates about the expectation to do great work and to develop the foundational BD skills starting now. And this should include nurturing relationships, seizing stretch opportunities, attending networking events, developing client service skills, and more.

Telling junior associates to focus only on doing great work may disproportionately disadvantage marginalized groups. Those with access to networks and mentors will be investing in their relationships and BD skills, and those who didn’t know the unwritten rules and took the firm at its word will look up years later only to discover they’re behind their peers.

Firms need to build BD conversations into all performance and career development conversations while providing transparency and clarity around expectations. Help associates think about their unique strengths and how those might serve BD purposes. Development conversations should focus on actionable advice and hold people accountable for following up.

Firms should remember that remote environments may require more intention and structure — such as regularly scheduled meetings, for example — because there may be less opportunity for serendipitous interactions and informal run-ins with higher-level colleagues.

BD skills for associates should be fostered, developed, and supported from day one. As the legal industry adjusts to remote and hybrid environments, it’s a perfect time for law firms to revisit their BD skills training as well as explore how other firm systems can support associates.

Early, frequent, and intentional BD support has the added benefit of helping associates feel connected to the interests and goals of the firm, which could have associates feeling the firm is more fully invested in them and is seeing them  for their strengths and skills — all of which results in a deeper sense of job satisfaction.