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20 January 2023

Uncovering the Challenges of Business Development within Law Firms

Florence Jouffroy x Gwénaëlle Henri |
Eliott & Markus

Thoughts on an important topic that is stirring many law firms: business development or why law firms are facing challenges with an ill-defined concept.

As law firms navigate the ever-changing landscape of their industry, one topic that has been causing a stir among many is that of business development. Comments such as "We need a good business developer, do you know one?" and "Business development doesn't fit in with law firms" have become increasingly common in exchanges between lawyers.

One senior business developer recently shared the challenges he faces in his role. "I am completely overwhelmed. I had five calls for tenders during the week, with many different areas of expertise at stake, all across 30 countries, and we don't have offices in all of them. So I had to contact correspondents, but we have little chance of winning compared to other law firms that are better positioned," he said. "I'm constantly shifting from task to task without getting feedback, and I don't have time to debrief with the teams about lost tenders or presentations that led to a mission. I spend a lot of my time collecting client references for rankings, but because of the number of practices, I don't have time to select them properly in order to better position the law firm."

As is often the case, it is necessary to return to the meaning of the words used to decipher a problem, and the first question that can be asked: why the term “business developer"? 

Why, indeed, use an Anglo-Saxon? Perhaps because the word “commercial" in french carries a negative connotation within a regulated profession of experts? Historically, the profession of law did not focus on marketing and communication, but with the arrival of Anglo-Saxon firms on the French market in the 1990s, this has changed. Law firms now have dedicated marketing and communication specialists, whereas in the past, partners would often fill this role, as was the case ten years earlier for consulting and auditing professions.

So, what are we really talking about, and why is there a certain misunderstanding between lawyers and business developers, and sometimes even dissatisfaction?

To answer this, it's important to consider the major challenge facing law firms and professional services firms: differentiating themselves from the competition and defining a positioning that truly adds value.

Aligning a marketing strategy with the law firm’s strategy

For any business, the marketing strategy should be aligned with the company's overall strategy. Law firms are no exception to this rule.

For a law firm, aligning the marketing strategy with that of the law firm is a prerequisite. However, it is also crucial that the firm has a clear strategy to begin with. Targeted marketing efforts can enhance the desired image of the firm, as reflected by its positioning. These efforts should be orchestrated within a well-structured annual action plan, rather than being a series of ad-hoc actions. Such an approach gives a strategic framework for lawyers and business developers to operate within, beyond the urgent and unavoidable projects.

This plan should be centered around five key functions: market research and analysis, development of offers, which is often overlooked, management of client and prospect relationships, internal communication, and external communication. The identified actions should be in line with the strategic objectives of the law firm. All of this should be measurable and regularly tracked using established performance indicators.

Aligning business developers with the law firm’s strategy

For a business developer to be truly effective, their role must align with the overall strategy of the law firm. This means having a strategic framework established by management that they can refer to and consider in the projects they are responsible for.

Having this framework in place allows business developers to have a clear direction and promote constructive interactions with attorney teams, all in the pursuit of growing the firm's business and focusing on what really matters. Without this alignment, business developers may become an unnecessary assistant, causing frustration for both the developers, who are often highly educated, and the lawyers, who may not see the value they bring considering the financial burden they represent.

However, it is commonly observed that job descriptions in the legal field often list a series of tasks such as responding to calls for tenders and managing rankings, not to mention market research, industry analysis, client development and satisfaction surveys, which are key elements to refine and adapt offers. Sometimes, even tasks that are more related to communication such as writing support materials or media relations are listed, which require different specific skills.

Creating the perfect match between lawyers and business developers

In the legal profession, it's crucial to remember that the first and foremost business developer is the lawyer himself. They have the unique advantage of understanding their clients, their personalities, the markets they operate in, and the issues they face. This is where the role of the business developer comes in, as a facilitator and a guarantee of strategy. They can create opportunities by supporting partners, particularly the younger ones, to develop their professional knowledge, expand their networks, and create favorable conditions. This includes an adequate offer, analysis of market development opportunities, and work on reputation, personal image, and networking opportunities. It's important to note that this role cannot be reduced to a passive function of completing proposal templates or rankings tables. The business developer must be able to promote development and, most importantly, ensure the follow-up of client relationships and analyze them regularly.

It's through the complementary nature of these two roles that law firms can ensure sustainable growth and a constructive atmosphere of mutual trust.

An article by Florence Jouffroy in collaboration with Gwénaëlle Henri, Founder of eliott & markus.

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