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Creating a Culture of Business Development: A Case Study

Posted by Susanne Mandel on Sep 14, 2015 11:17:40 PM

As all of us in the legal marketing community know, the economic downturn exacerbated the need law firms felt to foster a culture of business development — and at warp speed. This was, and continues to be a challenging process, given lawyers’ risk-averse personalities and their general discomfort with change (at any speed). My firm tackled this challenge through an initiative we called “DNA,” which helped to shift our lawyers’ mindset and resulted in significant financial gain. Here, I share the details of this initiative in the hopes that it will help those looking to accomplish a shift in their business development culture.

The Case Study
The core message behind our “DNA” initiative (Deliver excellent client service; Nurture client expectations; and Achieve business development success) was that business development must become a priority for every lawyer in the firm and must be acted upon consistently to generate results. Recognizing that there is no one-size-fits-all solution for a large, regional firm, we created several customized programs, spanning a full year for five unique groups of lawyers.

Group 1: The Practice Group Leaders
The first group consisted of partners who were relatively new to their leadership roles. We engaged a coached who worked one-on-one with the practice group leaders to enhance their leadership — not to mention cheerleading — skills to promote the business development mindset among their practice group members. This initiative heralded a marked uptick in each practice group’s business development activities and, ultimately, new clients/matters.

Group 2: The Junior Associates
For the younger associates at the firm, we developed a curriculum of six one-hour courses on the basics of business development. The curriculum included topics such as how to build your brand internally, how to grow your network, mining referral sources, using social media for business development and even how to handle client meetings. Instructors included three partners per topic, plus me, in a mostly informal roundtable-type setting. Real-life examples and questions were encouraged. Although the junior associates are not yet charged with building their own practices, this program helped them to understand that it's never too early to make business development a part of everyday life. It also allowed 18 different partners to participate in the DNA program as mentors.

Group 3: The “Community-Facing” Senior Associates and Junior Partners
The third group consisted mostly of senior associates and younger partners who either serve on boards, attend events and association meetings, or are otherwise engaged in the business community. We hired Annetta Wilson, a local media personality and certified coach in media, presentation and communication skills to lead three 90-minute sessions: the art of the elevator speech, how to work a room/network more effectively and how to make a compelling presentation. Every participant had the opportunity to hone his or her skills, and the evaluation forms reflected much greater comfort levels in these areas.

Group 4: The “I’m Too Busy” Lawyers
For lawyers who tended to be especially busy or had a preference for all things technology based, we opted to license Practice Boomers, an online program that incorporates group accountability into somewhat self-paced learning. With a hybrid of e-learning, productivity tracking and group telephonic coaching, the platform delivered an on-demand video curriculum that the lawyers could access on their own time. The accompanying group coaching calls ensured that the lawyers used the online materials, provided a forum for discussion and helped the lawyers crystalize the actionable steps to which they were held accountable, all of which was helpful in measuring the ROI of the program upon its conclusion. Overall, the lawyers assigned to this group generated a seven-figure return on investment for the firm, representing a 40x ROI over the licensing fee.

Group 5: The Burgeoning Rainmakers
We called this group the “horses to bet on.” These 18 burgeoning rainmakers were already sophisticated business developers. Recognizing their competitive nature, we engaged a sales coach to lead twice-monthly group training sessions for one year, focusing on specific sales-type strategies including asking for business. This was the least effective initiative, discovered only after assembling the group for a few sessions. Despite the thorough vetting process, the coach was a poor fit with our lawyers. When we fired him, we decided to focus on the other initiatives before moving forward with a replacement.

All of the remaining four group programs were well received and successful in our analysis of results versus goals. Two, however, were standouts: Law Practice Consultants (leadership training) and Practice Boomers (BD e-learning).

After the DNA initiative was well underway, the business development and marketing team launched an internal weekly blog, offering tools, tips, success stories and other resources. Most lawyers in our firm will tell you that it is his or her duty to contribute in some way to the bottom line. Thanks to our DNA program, they have — and continue to acquire — new business development skills and habits to more effectively do their part.

Here are some lessons I learned in this process:

  1. One Size Fits One: There’s no such thing as one-size-fits-all programming. Different people learn in different ways. Some prefer the privacy of one-on-one coaching; others prefer the competitiveness of a group setting, while others learn by example, and so on. Using multi-modal formats will help you get the most out of your training initiatives.
  1. Tailor Your Programs: Identify the key skills that need to be bolstered and for whom. Introductory marketing and personal branding might be what your younger lawyers need. Focus on more sophisticated skills such as networking and presentations/pitches for the more experienced lawyers. Address more complicated questions for the potential leaders and rainmakers.
  1. Expect the Unexpected: Brace yourself. Some things won’t work, and some will work better than expected. Reserve your judgment, dive in full-throttle and embrace each initiative as a new, different experience.
  1. Keep Improving: BD training and client service aren’t one-time events; they are ongoing processes. Just as you should be interviewing your firm’s clients to stay abreast of their satisfaction level and needs, so you should be interviewing your clients — the lawyers — to find out what business development skills are needed next. Seek out the weak links of your business development culture so that your efforts have the biggest impact.

Susanne Mandel is the chief business development and marketing officer at the Orlando-based law firm of Lowndes, Drosdick, Doster, Kantor & Reed, P.A., and has nearly 30 years of experience in law firm and corporate marketing. She can be reached at 407-418-6421 or

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