Weíve heard it a million times: the best place to find new business is with your existing clients. Nonetheless, most lawyers and law firms spend the vast majority of their marketing time and money chasing down new clients. Pinney Allen and her firm, Alston & Bird, know better. Through developing meaningful relationships at multiple levels within client organizations, and working in tandem with others, Pinney Allen has developed a thriving transactional tax practice at a firm that prides itself on fostering teamwork and loyalty among its lawyers.
A summary of her key tips and excerpts from a recent interview with Allen follow:
Lessons on Business Development From Pinney Allen
|1.Your best marketing strategy is to consistently perform at a high level. Focus first on being the best lawyer you can possibly be.
|2. View business development as a long-term investment and make the commitment to take regular action.
|3.Join those professional organizations or trade groups to which your clients or prospective client contacts belong. Often these organizations or trade groups have a large percentage of non-lawyer members and are excellent sources for new client development.
|4.Stay in regular touch with your contacts. Let them know youíre thinking of their businesses, their industries and their careers so that they know youíre the one to call when they need legal help
|5.Winning new business is only the beginning of the client development process. After each engagement, follow-up with the client to find out what went well, what went wrong and how you can do better next time.
|6.Develop your listening skills. Without them, youíll miss important client development and service delivery cues that could mean the difference between a valuable, long-term relationship and a lost opportunity.
|7. Treat departing lawyers well and stay in touch with firm alumni. Theyíre a wonderful source of referrals and many of them will become clients.
|8.The best place to meet new clients is within existing ones. The key is to do the best job that you can on each engagement and to take advantage of opportunities to develop new relationships inside the clientís organization.
|9.Overcome your anxiety about business development by working in teams (most significant projects will require cross-functional expertise anyway) and seeking the support from colleagues and/or your firmís marketers.
|10. Find a mentor. Donít wait for one to come to you. Even the most senior lawyers have mentors because they know they can always learn more.
SUGARCREST: Tell me about your background and how you arrived at your current position.
Allen: I grew up in a small town in the Midwest and went East to school. In 1979, I decided to move to the South and started work for the law firm that became Alston & Bird. Iím unusual in todayís world -- I have worked for almost 23 years at the same place. Today, that kind of career pattern is not very common.
I started out working both in tax and corporate law. I very quickly decided I liked the tax emphasis in a transactional practice, so my practice developed over the years in that direction. I became a partner in 1987. Around that time, practice groups were just starting to be the way that people organized. Firms were discovering as they got bigger that large departments werenít really working as an organizational structure.
We were the first in our firm to go to a practice group structure under the leadership of the then department head. At that point, I became the head of our federal income tax practice. I did that for many years, continuing to grow my own practice and expanding what it was I did at the firm.
I didnít really make a conscious decision to seek a position on our Partners' Committee, which is our executive committee, but it happened for me about four years ago. Itís been a challenge that I have found tremendously interesting. And, having that role in the firm brought new vitality to the work Iíd done over the years. Iím looking forward to getting back to being a more full-time practicing lawyer, but Iíve enjoyed this role, particularly this past year working with our managing partner as the chair of the Partnersí Committee.
The other aspect in my actual practice -- my legal work -- is of course, my role as the group coordinator, which in the old lingo would be the department head, managing all of our tax services. I enjoy doing that on a joint basis with another one of our attorneys because Iím involved more in the strategic direction of a practice area in addition to working on the more strategic issues for the broader firm. That pretty much brings us up to 2002.
SUGARCREST: Do you recall getting your first client and how it happened?
Allen: My first really significant client was an existing client of the firm. For many people, the first step is when existing clients start calling you. As the client becomes aware that you will often return calls faster than the senior partner, and you cost less, you start to play a more significant role with the client. I canít really remember the specific client with whom this happened first, but in my fourth or fifth year of practice, I started getting those calls and becoming comfortable in that role. That was really my first foray into client development.
As far as the first really new client -- a new matter from a totally new client to the firm -- it really wasnít that long ago, certainly within the last ten years. Of course, you can never put your finger on the single thing that made it happen.
In this particular case, it was somebody with whom I had had a working relationship through an existing firm client. She and I had worked together a number of times as a result of the firmís relationship with her company. The firm was hosting a marketing event and inviting a number of clients. Not realizing that she had moved on, I sent her an invitation. The invitation came back, so I tracked her down and contacted her. She called me back and said that there was a matter she wanted to consider us for. We ended up getting the project.
That was really the first time. It was an interesting mix of having done good work all along, developing multiple relationships within a client company, and learning again the lesson that you always should stay in touch with people. Of course, a lot of it is luck. But, you can increase your chances of being lucky by doing the right things.
SUGARCREST: Whatís been your strategy for growing your practice?
Allen: I think there is a mixture of things that you have to do. The benchmark is always performing at the highest level you possibly can -- your best marketing strategy is to always perform well. Having that goal is extremely important. Second, you need to be out there building your profile. Whether itís professional organizations, speaking, or writing all those sorts of things are very important.
Of course, at different phases of your practice, you focus on different things. What I focused on ten years ago was very different from what I focus on today. Ten years ago, my strategy was to build my profile and do the best work I could. I also focused on working through the connections I had -- developing as many relationships as I could with existing client contacts and within my firm. Back then, I most often participated in bringing in new business as part of a team.
As Iíve gotten further along in my practice, I am more often the person doing the cold call or calling up someone who would know my name only from a gathering at which we had met. One time, I called the general counsel of a very large company -- a household name -- that I had met briefly at a conference. As it turned out, they were thinking of hiring new counsel and they transferred me to the associate general counsel who was working on it. I have since struck up a relationship with this associate GC. Will it develop into anything? Who knows? But, you have to do that sort of thing.
As Iíve gotten more senior, my strategy has been to develop the higher-level relationships into business for the firm as a whole. When you get to my stage of practice, thatís what youíre supposed to be doing. A brand new partner needs to get out there at a much different level -- they shouldnít be worrying about bringing in the next ten million-dollar client.
SUGARCREST: What do you say when you cold call?
Allen: I basically have an advertisement. I identify who I am, what law firm Iím with, and what I specifically do within the firm. I then ask if I can have an opportunity to sit down and talk with them about the work that we do.
SUGARCREST: How do people react?
Allen: Most of the time, you get reasonably positive reactions. Sometimes you leave a message and you never get the call back. But frequently you do and you go have the meeting. As hard as it is to believe, they donít kill you. You do survive. Itís actually pretty exhilarating. Ultimately, itís not that difficult, though being the chair of our Partnersí Committee does open doors that would not otherwise open to me.
SUGARCREST: Youíve seen more than one economic downturn in your career. How have you managed during those times? How have you kept your practice going?
Allen: Business development is an investment process and you have to keep working at it. I think one of the great things about a downturn is that you have the time to really make the investment. Whether that takes the form of heavy-duty credentialing, article writing, speaking, or mining your Rolodex and getting out to meet people. I just spent a full day just going through my Rolodex. I must have put in 25 calls and e-mails. Two days later, Iíve got about seven or eight meetings scheduled. Will anything come of that? Out of seven or eight, I bet I get one or two pieces of business.
SUGARCREST: From where does most of your business come?
Allen: I would say most of it comes from people who are aware of Alston & Bird and who are either existing clients or have contact with us through some other professional setting. We talked earlier about doing the cold calls. When one of those calls is successful, itís incredibly exhilarating -- but thatís not the way you ultimately get the bulk of your business. In most instances, business comes as a result of building relationships or connections over time.
SUGARCREST: Where are the best places for you to meet your potential clients?
Allen: I think the best places to meet potential clients are within your existing clients. We have a number of examples in the firm where weíve grown the relationship with an individual and he or she moves on to another company. We have not only kept the first client, but we have also gotten new business from the new company. It all goes back to always doing the best that you can and taking smart follow-up steps. If you do that, youíll get the opportunity.
You also meet potential clients through professional organizations whose members are not just lawyers. There are lots of lawyer-only groups that you can join and many people spend a lot of time on that. Some of itís good because that is what credentials you. But trade groups to which your client contacts belong are the best places to meet new clients and expand the relationships with existing ones.
In the tax world, for example, the people handling the tax work for a company may not be lawyers, or they may not be in the same line of reporting as a typical general counsel. So, membership in certain professional organizations gives you the chance to connect you with those people and their organizations. Itís a great way to meet people in that particular subject area. In almost every company, thereís going to be the counterpart to outside counsel within the organization. The key is to find out who they are and where to meet them.
SUGARCREST: At Alston & Bird, you have a significant number of clients where your client contact is a former associate or a partner at the firm. What does the firm do that results in this kind of alumni loyalty?
Allen: We work very hard to make sure that when people leave, they leave happy. We are very fortunate. Weíve got a great firm culture. Weíre very proud to have been recognized by Fortune‚, for the fourth consecutive year, as one of ďThe 100 Best Companies to Work For.Ē People leave firms for lots of different reasons. We try to make certain that they leave happy and that the reason they leave is not something negative about the firm.
In fact, in the example I gave earlier, the person who left one client for another, was actually a former partner who left to join one particular client. That client is now one of our most significant ones. Our former partner hasnít been there in years. She has moved on to other companies that we also now represent. Itís one of the key ways that we, as a firm, have developed our client base. And, we have an alumni program to stay in touch with both former partners and associates. Itís a wonderful referral source and results in great potential clients.
SUGARCREST: Do you think business development is different in your practice area than it is in others?
Allen: While there might be nuances from one area to the next in the way you pitch for business, I donít think there are significant differences. Itís about spending the time and making the investment to understand what clients want. And, itís about spending your professional time to make yourself attractive to clients. Those factors arenít different from one area to the other.
SUGARCREST: You and I have done a lot of work in this area. Do you think marketing is different for women?
Allen: I think marketing is different for every person and, of course, ďwomenĒ is one category of people. Everyone is going to have strengths and weaknesses. In professional services, there is a lot to having a personal connection with an individual. Who you are marketing to matters. There are going to be people with whom you connect and those with whom you donít. Thatís true for men and women and itís simply not going to be the same for every woman.
With that said, in my twenty-three years of practice, the number of women who are the people to whom I market has increased dramatically. Does that make it easier for me than it would have been twenty-three years ago? I think it does. But ultimately, everybody has to become comfortable with their own style of marketing; everyone has to figure out how they want to go about doing it and figure out where theyíre going be best.
SUGARCREST: What techniques work best for you? Obviously, youíre a great cold caller.
Allen: Well, I hope so. I wouldnít necessarily call it Chinese Water Torture approach, but I constantly stay in touch. I also try to be thoughtful about the person by showing them that I am interested in them and in their career, not just their legal work.
Itís important to help them in areas of their professional development that have nothing to do with billable work. Itís remembering to write a personal note. And itís doing it on a consistent basis. You keep doing it. Sooner or later, youíre going to hit them on the right day. Even if you donít hit them on the right day, your consistent contact will make them think of you when it is the opportune time. Youíve got to stay at it.
At different stages in your practice, exactly what you do to stay in contact is going to be different and the person with whom youíre staying in contact is going to be different. Regardless of the stage youíre in, constantly staying at it is what works best.
SUGARCREST: What doesnít work?
Allen: What doesnít work is not listening. You absolutely have to listen. If youíre talking with a prospect about your capabilities in a certain area and they tell you that theyíve got that entirely covered, you will be wasting your time and theirs by continuing to discuss it. You need to be aware of the other work that they may be interested in. If you donít listen, you could easily miss the clues that they send out about other needs. You need to recognize those clues and quickly pick up on them.
Listening is also essential when you get the work. You need to listen to what they want and not tell them what they should want. You need to guide to some extent if you think theyíre not asking for the right thing. But, itís amazing how often lawyers donít listen to what the client is really asking for. You do that more than once or twice, and it will be the end of your relationship. If the client wants a bullet-point outline, donít send a 50-page memo -- no matter how proud you are of that 50-page memo.
SUGARCREST: Lawyers often express discomfort with different aspects of business development. Have you experienced that and how have you overcome it?
Allen: For years I experienced incredible discomfort and it still can be somewhat uncomfortable. One way to overcome it is to market with others. It will give you incredible strength. Donít feel that you have to go out all by yourself. Frankly, in todayís legal market and the kinds of services Iíd want to be selling, I would be a fool to walk in alone and attempt to sell the kinds of complex legal services that we are trying to provide.
Almost any kind of significant project, be it in the adversarial area or in the transactional area, is going to involve a number of different skills -- and clients expect to see those different skills. It feels more comfortable when thereís somebody else there with you. You donít need to worry about the awkward silences.
Another way to overcome the discomfort is to take advantage of the help in your organization. Whether itís working with business development directors who can help critique your presentation or talking with another attorney in your organization, most firms have people who can help or resources, such as consultants, that can be made available. You can get help and you should.
Finally, you will be far more comfortable if you always go in having thought through exactly what it is you want to accomplish. Set out at least two or three points you want to talk about and be organized with relevant information about yourself, the firm and the industry.
Also, keep in mind that youíre not alone in your discomfort. There are many great performers that have the same fear. Barbara Streisand is actually petrified of getting up in front of an audience. If you go to one of her concerts, youíll see that every single word of all the songs that sheís sung for years is on the teleprompter. Sheís petrified that she may forget one of them. Thatís sort of comforting -- to know that people who are really professionals can get scared too.
SUGARCREST: Where do you find the time to market?
Allen: You just do and thatís it. You need to control your urge to do whatís comfortable -- to just do the billable work. You simply have to carve out the time. Law firms recognize how important this is. You canít let it slip. There are only twenty-four hours in a day and hopefully Iím not spending all twenty-four in my legal practice, but you simply have to do it.
SUGARCREST: How has the firm facilitated the cross-selling of services to existing clients? Many firms have a lot of trouble with that.
Allen: First, you need to be sure that your compensation system rewards people who cross-sell. Itís extremely important. You see firms all the time where relationships with significant institutions never get out of a silo of skill sets. The client remains solely a tax client or solely an XYZ-kind of client and it never develops into something more. Itís a huge opportunity lost.
The firm culture must encourage and reward people -- not just monetarily -- but with recognition for bringing new people into a client relationship. The culture has to encourage teamwork and reward people for more than just the work they do. In our annual evaluations, every partner has to submit a memo outlining their planned activities for the next year. If you are responsible for a particular client, you have to address the other services that you could sell to this client. Itís very gratifying to see the IP litigator say, ďI could sell state and local tax services.Ē To make that happen, a firm needs to insure that its systems donít encourage the opposite behavior.
SUGARCREST: How do you move clients through the sales process? How do you get them from meeting you to giving you work?
Allen: Sometimes itís very quick. I recently asked the in-house counsel of a very significant company, whom I had met at a conference, to get together to talk about her legal needs. The following Monday, she called with an opportunity -- that was a week. Itís very rare that it happens that quickly.
Usually, itís a long process. You stay on top of the relationship. You follow the industry and that company in particular. You send an e-mail with an attached Wall Street Journal article that you know theyíve already read. You let them know that youíre thinking about them. And, periodically, you go back and ask again.
Once you get a small piece of business, your strategy changes. You make sure the work is done very well. Recently, a new client gave us work in a fairly small area. I just contacted them and asked to meet to get a report card -- to find out what went well, what went wrong and where we might expand the relationship. Iím meeting with them this week. Once you get their work, you need to make sure, from their perspective -- not yours -- that you are doing the best you can.
SUGARCREST: What advice would you give to a young lawyer regarding business development?
Allen: I would say, ďDonít worry about it -- it will happen. First and foremost, be the absolute best lawyer you possibly can be.Ē Very few people can ultimately be effective marketers if they are not also very effective lawyers. Young associates sometimes worry that theyíre supposed to bring in business. Youíre supposed to be learning how to be a great lawyer.
Nonetheless, young lawyers should always stay in touch with the people theyíve met in various settings -- law school and college classmates, neighbors, and friends. They may not be in a position to give you business today, but like the first person who gave me a significant piece of business, someday they may be in that role. As a young lawyer, you may be relating to a fairly junior person in a legal department. If they move on to another company or move up a rung, write them a congratulatory note. Take them out to lunch; stay in touch with them. If you do that, business will come naturally for just about anybody.
Finally, and maybe most importantly, find a mentor. Find somebody who will help you with the things about marketing that may not come naturally. Itís shocking to me the number of things that people donít know. I have, of course, forgotten that I didnít know those things either. The only way youíre going to really learn is to find a mentor. Even the most senior lawyers still have mentors because you can always learn more.
And, donít sit on the sidelines waiting for a mentor to find you. I have the best of intentions and would love to help anybody in my firm. But, Iím not going to seek you out. Iím flattered when somebody calls and says theyíd like to talk with me about something or work with me on something. Most people feel that way. You can seek out mentors either on a long-term basis or on just an issue basis. Your mentor can be in your firm or not. Find someone you admire. Chances are, they will be pleased to help you.
SUGARCREST: What do you know now that you wish you knew then?
Allen: That it doesnít hurt. I was as frightened of marketing as anybody could be. I now know not only that marketing doesnít hurt, but also that failure at it doesnít hurt either. You learn that itís not personal. I wish I had known how much fun it could be. Many of the people you get to work with are absolutely fascinating. It really is fun meeting and spending time with them.
Felice Wagner, a former practicing attorney, is CEO of Sugarcrest Development Group, Inc., a D.C. firm that gives seminars and training programs throughout the country on business development and client loyalty. She can be reached at (202) 244-3031 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Want to see how you measure up as a rainmaker? Take the Rainmaker Reality Check today!
© 2003 NLP IP Company. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission of Legal Times, 1730 M Street, NW, Suite 802, Washington, DC 20036 (202) 457-0686.