Getting a better return

Throughout the UK, Law firms are spending thousands and thousands of pounds in developing the business development capabilities of their fee-earners.  
Behind this investment is a keen ambition to secure new business and generate greater top line growth. But does this investment always bring the desired return?  In some firms yes, but in others there is a significant shortfall and, once back at their desks, fee-earners struggle to apply the learning.  What do those firms, who reap more rewards from their business development training, do differently?  In this article, we will reveal some of their secrets.

First of all, let’s consider the training a lawyer typically goes through in their career.  A significant proportion of it focuses on developing their technical knowledge and how that knowledge should be applied in given situations. Sometimes knowledge is tested in business simulations or real life, but essentially the learning process relies on the ability to memorise and apply technical data and information.

Most lawyers are very comfortable with this.  The learning process often mirrors their academic experience, in which they usually performed very well.  This is one of the reasons why business development training proves so challenging for many lawyers.  Business development is a skill and as a skill has to be practised to be learnt.  Part of the learning will take into account theory and process, but to be really be proficient it has to be practised.  Performing well in business development requires confidence and confidence cannot occur unless there is experience on which to build it.

Another reason why business development training is often challenging for some lawyers is that practising it requires time and this is something they tend not to have a lot of.  It also requires a firm culture where additional people help, coach and guide an individual to adopt the best habits.

The firms who gain a better return on their business development training have a different perspective. They recognise that:

  • The approach to developing a lawyer’s business development capabilities needs to be different to the one developing technical know-how
  • Time will need to be set aside for lawyers to practise and perfect their business development skills
  • Support needs to be made available to assess an individual’s progress and ensure good habits are formed

What form does this support take?  Here are some examples.

Being clear about the end in mind
The most effective business development training tends to focus on the individual and what contribution they need to make to the firm’s business.  This means understanding individual fee-income targets and assessing them against that person’s current portfolio.  If firms are going to get a good return on their business development training investment, they need to be clear what return they want in terms of new and repeat business.  Without a clear picture of where the firm is going, what it wants to achieve, what inputs are required and how those relate to individual fee-earners, it is going to be difficult to measure a development programme’s success.

One size doesn’t fit all
Given a fee-earner’s targets, it is then important to assess their capability.  Great business development is a result of a several different skill-sets.  Different fee-earners will have capability in different ones.  Those firms that are clear about the gaps in an individual’s ability make better use of the time available.  They ensure that training is completely focused on addressing weaknesses and building confidence and experience in the areas most needed.   In doing so, the more successful firms also tend to recognise that different people learn in different ways and adapt the development approach accordingly, for example some fee-earners learn better in a one to one environment, others like to learn and practise alongside others.

Just in time
Just as it would be difficult to practise learning the piano without a keyboard, so too is it difficult to practise business development training is therefore built around a fee-earner’s current and future portfolio.  It works in the ‘here and now’ and reflects those clients the fee-earner is looking to develop.  Only then can the challenges and opportunities facing the fee-earner really be tackled and the skills needed to convert business into fee-income be developed. When business development training is offered on this ‘just in time’ basis and focused on real clients and real situations, its effectiveness rate increases dramatically.

Good foundations
Those firms that are very effective at business development, tend to have defined a robust business development process – one that isn’t just proven and tested, it also works effectively alongside everything else fee-earners have to do.  Such a process brings a number of benefits to the firm.  It ensures that various internal support services, such as marketing, IT and knowledge management work more cohesively to support fee-earners’ efforts.  It also means from the client’s perspective, there is a more consistent and quality approach to attracting and winning their business.  For lawyers, the process prevents them from having to re-invent the wheel.  They can use what time they have to perfect their skills and approach and motivate clients to want to select and work with them.

Ongoing support and measurement
The more successful firms are definitely more ‘hands on’ when it comes to helping their fee-earners embed the right skill-set.  They follow up training with activities such as further coaching, mentoring, development surgeries with external consultants and the like.  The focus of these is to help their lawyers implement the new thinking back in the office, to guide people on best practice and ensure bad habits are avoided.  Some firms set up buddy systems or have a champions who demonstrate what good business development looks like and help others to be equally successful.  Progress is tracked to measure the effectiveness of the business development training programme.  Review points ascertain what difficulties a lawyer is encountering in achieving their individual targets and during these sessions any further development needs are identified and responded to.

Law firms are wise to invest in developing their fee-earners’ commercial skills.  It ensures they respond successfully to competitive pressures and grow their business.  Good business development skills are accumulated through practice and experience.  Those firms that reflect individual fee-earner’s portfolios, targets and capabilities in the learning experience tend to develop the right skill-set more quickly.  In time these firms reap the rewards of confident and highly effective business developers – lawyers who know how to package and present their technical knowledge to deliver fantastic value for clients.