A trainee perspective on business development
18 June 12
A trainee convinced of the benefits to be gained from an understanding of business development, suggests some ways in which those just entering the profession can develop their skills
There have been mixed reports in industry news lately of contractions in the legal market and increased opportunities for business. For many of the trainees and junior lawyers currently in practice, the economic turmoil of the last few years and its effects on the legal jobs market will still be fresh in their minds. Little is said about where trainees, aspiring trainees, and newly qualified lawyers sit in relation to business development and what is expected of them.
The aim of this article is to outline the basic aspects of business development. In this increasingly important aspect of legal practice, and when standing out from the crowd is so important, the benefits of increasing business development activity by trainees should not be underestimated.
What does business development entail?
Business development is often discussed as a self encompassing concept, one which some know about and the rest have to guess at. You might be forgiven for thinking it is a single skill or plan written down somewhere. However, business development is not a single discipline which can be taught in any quick one-off session or absorbed over lunch. It is instead a collection of various disciplines, skillsets and exercises which require regular practice.
The basic requirements for developing business are:
• market knowledge;
• industry knowledge;
• firm and department knowledge;
• knowledge of business practices and strategy;
• knowledge of, and interest in, activities or topics unrelated to work; and
• being comfortable with talking to prospective clients.
Networking is perhaps the best known part of the business development process, but is really an outcome achieved or put to best effect after having gained some degree of strength in the other knowledge and skillsets. There are a great deal of very valuable networking seminars available that will teach attendees the soft skills needed to enter a room of strangers, to approach a group, to open a closed group, to get talking to people. But what happens next? The key is to be a good conversationalist. A broad selection of possible topics to discuss at hand will always stand a business developer in good stead.
A good conversation
How do you build these knowledge bases up? The first important step is to check the national newspapers or online news sites regularly. Just reading one article a day will make a big difference and scanning the headlines will at least give you some oversight of what else is going on across various sectors. Websites such as the Scottish Courts, the Crown Office & Procurator Fiscal Service, Scottish Legal Aid Board and Faculty of Advocates all provide news and update services which can be quickly navigated through; but reading should be broader than just legal.
Junior lawyers should also think about attending events that showcase industry or lectures on areas of legal practice that interest them, not just those relevant to areas they practise but events that offer learning about issues arising in the media more generally. Being able to think outside of the box is an important skill in any lawyer, but is very difficult to develop without exposure to different ways of thinking or to different disciplines.
Trade journals are a rich source of information, and the benefit of finding one or two relevant publications to tap into now and again cannot be overstated. Magazines such as the Economist and New Scientist are convenient for giving some industry specific information in brief, but the topic or industry coverage will change from week to week.
Networkers with some understanding of a subject will often find less need to think about the topic and instead can focus in on what their conversation partner is saying. This comes from having listened to others on the subject or having read about it. It is important to attend industry events or events where there is the opportunity to meet people, and to listen and learn new things; more so than to talk. Having said that, one benefit of having read a little about a subject before is that business developers can form an opinion on the matter and if asked about it in conversation can contribute, being an active participant of the conversation rather than a passive one.
Departmental and legal knowledge
Lawyers cannot know every issue that might conceivably face their client, let alone those that might arise for a potential client. No one can claim to have the capacity to know the entirety of Scots, UK and international law. However, it is surprising how often a random piece of knowledge or extra reading will come in useful. Not only might such knowledge be of use, but in reading more of what other practice areas face, the greater the understanding of their disciplines, and the opportunities for cross-selling, will be. Discussion with colleagues, particularly when requesting their assistance or cross-selling, will be much easier with a good understanding of their practice.
Such discussions with colleagues from other practice areas or, if still at university, students focusing on other legal subjects, should be a regular affair. Asking what colleagues have been working on, what has shaken up that practice area recently and what they see on the horizon has great value. It gains you the knowledge required for cross-selling across departments and shows that you as a solicitor understand and are an integrated member of your firm. Candidates for a traineeship ought to be able to demonstrate a broad knowledge of legal subjects and commercial or market awareness. In short, take an interest.
The issues affecting a CEO, a director of a charity or a young entrepreneur within the corporate sector are likely to be quite different. Who are they? What do they do within their respective companies? What do their companies do and what concerns them going forwards? The answers to these questions will not be gained by reeling off everything known about directors’ duties.
It’s not all about work
Theatre, sports, books, popular culture and anything else that people are interested in are always good as conversation topics. The key is to make the prospective client feel at ease, to want to talk to the business developer. Some “prospects” will want to tell the developer all about their business straightaway, whereas others will prefer not to talk shop, at least initially. It will always depend on who is being approached and talked to, which is why such a broad array of subjects and interest in other things is good preparation.
By way of example, I attended a dinner with colleagues entertaining a delegation of miners. At dinner I found myself sitting next to a friendly director of an investment firm and we got chatting. Not once did we discuss business. I mentioned to him that I had some experience in “treading the boards” before embarking on a legal career, and he told me his son was an actor in London. From there we discussed all sorts of things not related to our respective professions. A week after this event I received an invitation from the same director to his firm’s Christmas cocktail party.
The network skill
The reading and discussing is all preparation for that network event. Networking in any context is just a conversation in which the developer retains a business focus. This is not to say that the conversation should necessarily be business focused, but that the developer should pick up on cues to take the conversation towards what the prospect sees as a difficulty or something the developer or his or her colleagues can assist with. If this is not possible then picking up knowledge of the prospect’s industry, company or business and the prospect themselves is a perfectly good outcome to such a meeting. Sales of legal services seldom happen on a first meeting. The “conversation” as described here might be over several occasions, and not always face to face.
Business strategy and critical thinking
Part of understanding a business is understanding why that business has selected to pursue one goal over another, to adopt one practice from options or why they feel they need to make a change. In the corporate and commercial field this is of particular importance, and a basic knowledge of what different corporate strategies look like will help developers appreciate the needs of their clients. However, an appreciation of business strategy ought to be acquired by trainees and young lawyers across all practice areas.
Whichever field of law one practises, in Scotland most lawyers will begin their practical training at a private practice. A fundamental truth of private practice is that firms can only pay out (in terms of salary) what comes through the door, so it is vital that young lawyers grasp that private practice is a business that requires to make money. This is not a concept that means the surrender of the traditions and ethics of the profession, but does require firms to acknowledge different marketing strategies within the legal market place and that if a firm is to be successful it must adopt a clear strategy for selling its services.
Firms are looking for candidates that can demonstrate they are likely to be good return on the investment of hiring them. An understanding of business development and an eagerness to improve on this as a discipline will only add to a trainee’s CV. Whilst this article is concerned with what trainees can do to improve their business development, firms should seek to encourage and support the initiative of trainees to engage in business development.
Alexander Lamley is a trainee solicitor with McClure Naismith LLP