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LAWBIZ COACHES CORNER: Business development starts with talking

Ed Poll

I recently read a guest article penned by an in-house general counsel, providing law firms with tips on the GC’s perspective. It was a practical and useful review, beginning with the suggestion that outside counsel should “stay in touch.”

In other words, communicate!

Too often, outside counsel take for granted that inside counsel will have them on the top of their mind or tip of their tongue when a challenge arises. But general counsel are busy folks who need to react quickly.

The outside counsel who does not regularly offer help and ideas may well be forgotten at crunch time. Business development, after all, is essentially relationship development, a contact sport.

The article reflects the fact that general counsel work in a commercial environment that makes them more attuned to the business world than to the legal profession. This was clear in the idea that “[A]n endorsement from someone in the industry is a particularly good way to get hired.”

Testimonials and endorsements, in my mind, are contrary to the confidentiality provisions of the rules of professional conduct. Testimonials and endorsements fly in the face of this longstanding obligation.

Yet, it is one of the essential ingredients of good marketing in the corporate world.

We see this in advertising on every medium; there are actors, politicians, and others endorsing the products and services we are asked to purchase. Lawyers are forbidden from doing this.

Some may say that having permission negates this rule. From personal experience, both as a lawyer for 25 years and as a coach and consultant to lawyers for almost an equal number of years, I can attest that lawyers do not want their names bandied about, even when they value highly the service they received.

The same can be said for our clients. While they may feel uncomfortable in refusing a request to offer a testimonial, subconsciously they would prefer not to announce that they have used a lawyer, even one whose service they value.

Yet another “tip” addressed the very heart of our billing system. The general counsel writer suggested that lawyers bill at a fixed fee rather than at an hourly rate. This is not unreasonable for services that firms provide frequently, because they should have an idea of the effort and cost involved.

When lawyers work solely on the basis of hourly billing, the cost uncertainty makes it difficult for the general counsel to budget — which makes him or her a less capable member of the company’s management team. Each member of that team operates under a budget.

The outside counsel who can give the general counsel a degree of cost certainty, particularly if it reflects efficiencies from technological innovation, is highly valuable.

In another business development suggestion, the general counsel advises lawyers to write articles and issue client alerts. If these raise new issues that in-house counsel did not previously consider, they provide real value.

Moreover, they demonstrate that the outside lawyer as an expert in the field, a thought leader who the general counsel will want to consult when challenges arise.

The bottom line message is one law firms should take to heart. Communication, cost certainty and shared information all are greatly valued by in-house counsel. Firms that provide them are much more likely to build a strong, loyal relationship with in-house counsel clients.

Ed Poll is a speaker, author and board-approved coach to the legal profession. He can be contacted at edpoll@lawbiz.com. Also visit his interactive community for lawyers at www.LawBizForum.com.

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