This post is part of the MyShingle Solos summer series which will run between June 17 and July 3, 2014.
This post is written by MyShingle Guest Blogger Dwayne Allen Thomas
I’ve got a bit of bad news for you. The term “business development” is undefined. This lack of a definition helps to explain why one can apply for a job in business development and end up in a pure sales job, and why others think of “business development” as somewhere between sales and marketing. Despite this lack of definition, Googling the term returns 456 million results. Including the word “lawyer” only knocks the number of results down to 49 million. Among these results are websites with tips, checklists, and even entire books on the subject. All for a phrase with no definition.
I think we can do better than “undefined,” especially if this article is going to be useful to anyone. I therefore propose the following definition, based on what I thought the term meant the first time I heard it: Business development encompasses all activities a company takes to maintain or expand its customer base and ultimately sell its product or services to those customers. [For the purposes of this definition, the word “company” includes all forms of business (think sole proprietorships and non-profit organizations); “customers” includes “clients;” and “sell” is construed very broadly with reference to non-profit organizations, as their end goal is some form of charitable giving rather than an exchange of goods for money.]Under this definition, “business development” becomes an umbrella term, with at least the following functions falling under the umbrella:
- Marketing: the process of communicating the value of a product or service to customers, for the purpose of selling that product or service.
- Advertising: marketing communications used to encourage or persuade an audience to take or continue to take some action.
- Sales: the exchange of goods, property, or services for an agreed sum of money or credit.
- Networking: to cultivate people who can be helpful to one professionally, especially in finding employment or moving to a higher position
- Some Customer Service Functions: especially where the customer service agent attempts to resell or up-sell a product, or thanks you for shopping with their company.
- Research and Development: where the company’s products require continued upgrades in order for the business to stay competitive.
Hopefully this definition is serviceable, as it is the definition I will stick to throughout this article.
2. The Myth
Conventional wisdom suggests that successful entrepreneurs are the ultimate “one-man show,” skillfully handling every aspect of their business with the kind of competence that comes from years of training. But wait – that’s a bit of a list…and each item on the list has its own skill set…and the list doesn’t even mention the management and financial aspects of running a business…and when do I have time to actually be a lawyer?!
Fortunately, this is one of those times where conventional wisdom is wrong. Our fictional works often tell the story of a person who overcame great odds to become successful on his own, but real-life success stories often involve a hero whose mentor does not die at the end of Act 2. Here, YOU’RE the hero, trying to move your company from one phone call per week to “I need help answering the phone,” and there’s nothing that says you have to do it alone.
So, what can you do?
3. The Ideal
Go to business school.
Graduate-level programs that taught students business skills first appeared in the early 20TH century. Since that time, there have been a number of changes to these programs, and schools have even introduced undergraduate-level business programs. These programs generally require the student to take a core of general classes (management, finance, accounting, etc.) in addition to a group of specialized classes in an area of their choosing. For the purposes of the business development skills listed above, marketing is the clear winner.
Why marketing? Remember, the definition we are using for “business development” is comprised of two main tasks: (1) increasing the size of your audience, or the number of people looking to obtain legal advice from you, and (2) getting as many of these people to utilize your services as possible. The skills learned in marketing program directly relate to task (1), thus giving you the best opportunity to learn how to increase the size of your audience.
Given a choice between learning these skills on the undergraduate level and the graduate level, I would personally opt for undergraduate if I knew that my only reason for going to school was to improve my company’s opportunities. Undergraduate classes are cheaper. I would not have to study for, and then take the GMAT, just to get into school. And most importantly, there may not be a significant difference between the materials covered on the undergraduate and graduate levels (at least there wasn’t when I was an undergrad) to justify the time and expense associated with a graduate degree. However, graduate classes are generally smaller and have more students who are willing to participate. This benefit alone may make a graduate program a better option for some. Therefore, I’d suggest contacting colleges and asking about these factors before making decisions regarding your education.
4. The Reality
School only provides a foundation. What one learns in actual practice – “the real world” – is often quite different from what one learns in school. The difference usually stems from the fact that theory often starts with perfect conditions and rational actors. Real life rarely presents us with perfect conditions, and sometimes people just aren’t that rational. Therefore, direct experience is vitally important if you wish to translate business education into your company’s bottom line.
One of the many ways to gain marketing and advertising experience is through event planning. In my last piece, I talked about how planning events can assist your networking efforts. This strategy only works if you can get people to show up to your event – which means that event planning is a great way to gain marketing and advertising experience that you can later use in your company. In the school setting, the student activities staff can be of immense help: letting you know what to expect, giving you information about past successful events, and even helping you to pick the right rooms. Outside of school, you may wish to speak with people and organizations that plan events (and even offer to help) in an effort to gain this same kind of experience.
Unlike advertising and marketing, sales and networking don’t have three-month classes devoted to gaining expertise in these areas. Learning to be an effective networker or salesperson is often a matter of trial and error, supplemented by books on sales techniques and overcoming objections. There are only a limited number of ways to ask for a sale or a business card, after all. As a result, the best possible option is to take on a job in sales for a limited amount of time – if you can be sure that the company in question will train you. If you can find such a person, they can help you learn what techniques work best for you, and what types of clients might be most amenable to you and your style.
5. The Problem
The problem with this particular course of action is, again, time. The “ideal” path involves two or three years of classes, at least a year of sales experience, and time to meet the “right” people and have them show you how to speak with people, put together events, and sell products to people. In the interest of full disclosure, I actually engaged in all of these activities – before I became a lawyer – all in the ten-year span from my undergraduate graduation in February of 2004 to my admission to the New York Bar in February of 2014.
Coincidentally, Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers popularized the idea that any person can become an expert at something if they practice that thing for 10,000 hours, or ten years. Taking the time to engage in all these activities might work for an undergraduate, but it certainly works less well for someone who’s been practicing law on their own for any amount of time. Once your career gets going, you may simply have enough time to go back and pick up such a wide array of skills while trying to maintain your business.
To make matters worse, Mr. Gladwell’s work is often misquoted. Outliers actually states that a person with talent for a thing can become an expert after ten years of practice. Imagine spending all of that time and effort to become an expert in all of the different business development skills only to find out that you’re not good at any of them. This would be a monumental waste.
6. The Solution
Fortunately, getting help to learn skills is not the only option available to you. You can also contract work out to others who are better at or better equipped to handle tasks than you are. In fact, most businesses can contract out nearly all of their functions other than management. This arrangement might not work as well for a law office, once one takes ethical rules into account, however. With respect to business development in a law office setting, here’s what I suggest:
- Know Your Strengths: This heading is based off of Now, Discover Your Strengths by Marcus Buckingham. This book and its predecessor First, Break All The Rules discuss job satisfaction in terms of whether a person is doing the things that they are best at. In short, the theory is that one’s greatest chance for job satisfaction is if they spend their time engaged in things they do well. StrengthsFinder 2.0 is a tool Gallup developed based on the studies that comprise the heart of these books to help people determine what they are best at, thus leading to the best possible jobs. I would first suggest reading the book and taking the assessment test to see which of the business development skills might naturally fit in with your strengths.
- Nurture Your Strengths: Rather than dealing with an entire MBA or BBA program, try to find specific classes on the elements of business development that you might be good at. You may be able to audit a class (that is, take it without getting school credits for it), and you may be able to find continuing education classes that fit the bill. During or after the class, you can also seek out an advisor who can give you tips or suggest good books to read. In the end, you still have to try your hand at your new skills to see what comes of your hard work.
- Hire Others With Complementary Strengths: Let’s say that you learn you’re no good at advertising, but you want to use an advertising campaign to grow your business. You’ll need to hire someone. That person might be an intern, a paralegal, an attorney, or an outside firm specifically hired to create an advertisement for your company. In every case, you can’t contract out the management responsibility, so you are ultimately responsible for the look, feel, spelling, and message in your advertising. But the actual work of creating the ad, not being your forte, is not a task you should be engaged in.
- In Every Case, You Have to Learn Sales: Unlike every other skill (except maybe learning how to practice law), learning to sell is a step you must take, even if you’re not good at it. You might be able to ignore the skill if you have a partner who is a “rainmaker,” and doesn’t mind being the person who brings in the business and ultimately sells the clients on using your law firm rather than another. Unfortunately, we cannot predict the future – and there is no way of telling if a partnership will last. If it doesn’t, the partner who did not focus on his ability to sell prospective clients on their service will be at a great disadvantage if he tries to go it alone. So, try to get at least some experience in selling – cookies, flowers, something. You might not become the greatest salesman in the world, but at least you’ll have the experience.
- Be a Good Attorney: There are a number of oft-told marketing rules. One of these is that if people like what you’ve done for them they will tell three other people about you. If they don’t like what you’ve done, they’ll tell ten people about you. I don’t know where this rule comes from, but there is evidence to support the idea that negative feedback has a much stronger effect on us than positive feedback does. And each of your prospective clients knows plenty of people they can tell you about. Treat one person bad, and that’s an entire network of people that may never seek you out for legal services. Treat them well, and although it may work slowly, keep up the good work and you may eventually benefit from the best marketing money can’t buy: word of mouth.
You may notice that where many articles say that you must engage in this or that activity (Facebook and Twitter pages stand out as examples) in order to attract clients to your business, I do not advocate any specific method of business development. My reason for this is that not everything works for everyone. Facebook and Twitter are essentially useless without constant updates. Networking works only if you keep in contact with people after you meet them and build relationships with those people. Even advertising can go horribly wrong. Rather, focusing your initial business development around those areas you already have some competence in and finding others to assist in areas that you are not gives you the best chance effectively obtaining new clients.
Understanding business development is important to the success of any business. Where that business is a small law firm, the attorneys in charge must be (at least) competent lawyers, decent managers, and fair salesmen. If these attorneys are looking to expand their business by increasing their client base, they should know what business development skills they might be good at and seek to improve those skills (along with their lawyering skills). They should then hire out for those skills they might not be good at, saving them time and money in the process. Even if they sell the same percentage of clients, improving their business development will increase the number of clients the company has. They also have a second option – improve their sales skills, which will result in a higher percentage of clients choosing to hire them as attorneys.
Using this formula, it is not necessary for the small office owner to become an expert at everything. Rather, the small office owner can increase his chances of financial success by being an expert at what he can and utilizing the help and mentorship of others where he cannot.
Dwayne Allen Thomas is an attorney admitted to practice in New York and New Jersey operating out of Queens, NY. Prior to law school, Dwayne earned his Bachelor of Business Administration from Bernard M. Baruch College. Dwayne has 5 years management experience and 3 years of sales experience (his full bio is available on LinkedIn) Dwayne recently opened his practice and hopes that his business experience will serve him well.
 I’ll be using the terms “company” or “business” to speak about law offices throughout this article. I’m saving the “is law a profession or a business” debate for another article.
 This definition actually makes “business development” a synonym for “marketing” where marketing means “the total activities involved in the transfer of goods from the producer or seller to the consumer or buyer, including advertising, shipping, storing, and selling,” except that activities such as shipping and storing would not be included in the definition of “business development.”
 David Wong, The BS Underdog Story Americans Believe Over and Over Again, Cracked.com (June 24, 2014 12:00 PM), http://www.cracked.com/podcast/the-bs-underdog-story-americans-believe-over-over-again/
 The Obi-Wan, TV Tropes (June 24, 2014 12:00 PM), http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/TheObiWan
 The MBA – Some History, The Economist, (June 24, 2014 12:00 PM), http://www.economist.com/node/2135907
 This information may also be useful to you during jury selection.
 As in, “I absolutely did not make this connection until I wrote that last sentence.”
 Hopefully, it goes without saying that one should do some sort of background check on the people and companies they hire.