Recently I saw an article by Joel Peterson, the Chairman of JetBlue Airways, entitled, “How to Run a Business Like an 11-Year-Old,” which discussed the lessons he learned and the business principles demonstrated from his experience selling vegetables to neighbors from his backyard garden as a child. Lawyers can learn from these lessons, too. I’ve taken 7 of his principles and applied them to law firm marketing and business development.
1. Don’t expect immediate (seed stage) results. Crops take time to germinate.
It’s never too early to start building up your reputation and making contacts. Regardless of whether you’re a law student, a brand new lawyer or a seasoned practitioner, it’s never too early or too late to begin networking and building your contact list or developing your expertise.
Marketing and developing business take time. You can’t expect to join a group and get immediate referrals or to get a flood of clients knocking down your door as a result of one press mention, one presentation or one published article. People do business with people they know, like and trust. Trust takes time.
2. Plant extra seeds, thin the crop, and expect the strongest plants to reach maturity.
The process of marketing and business development is an evolving one. What works for your clients and your practice now may not work one year, five years, or even six months from now. Often, it’s hard to tell which efforts will bear fruit. What works for someone else, even in the same practice area, may not work for you. You need to have a business development plan with tried and true methods, but you should also try new things periodically and continually evaluate your efforts. As some initiatives get stale or lose their effectiveness, replace them with new ones or focus on others that work better.
3. Don’t dig up carrots to see if they’re still growing. Have faith in the cycle.
This one is a close cousin to #1. Too often, I see lawyers quit or give up on business development too early in the process. You need to give people a real opportunity to refer business your way; it isn’t every day that most people will see a need for legal services.
Referrals from membership in a group or organization can lead to great business opportunities, but you don’t want to appear desperate or self-serving. Business will come from building genuine relationships with people who get to know you over a period of time and who see how you are willing to contribute to the group and help others. Pushing for business too soon will backfire.
4. Pray for rain and sun, but make your own luck by weeding and watering.
Sitting in your office and waiting for the phone to ring isn’t going to bring results. Cultivate good contacts by staying in touch and acting as a valuable resource, even when you don’t think there is any immediate benefit to you or immediate business to be generated.
Continuously cull your prospect and referral list; not all contacts are worth continuing to pursue forever. Get rid of clients or practice areas that are a bad fit for your firm and the future you want to see. Bad clients get in the way of good clients. Weed them out before they choke off your good business or chase away your best employees.
And of course, you need to do good work and take care of your existing clients.
5. A garden needs constant nurturing — don’t go on vacation when it’s time to harvest.
Meeting new people is only the first step. Relationships of all stages need to be cultivated. Follow up to make the connection stronger. Don’t check out after the initial contact. Don’t neglect your best clients or contacts by focusing all of your energy on acquiring new business.
If you’ve expended resources, including money, time, and energy, into developing contacts or learning a new area of the law to offer additional services to clients, don’t let those resources go to waste by making it difficult to get in touch with you or failing to get the word out about services you’re offering to clients. Make sure your staff is trained to treat everyone as if they’re your most important client or contact.
6. When you’re out of cash, you’re out of business; so be frugal like a farmer.
Cash flow problems are not only stressful for you, but they can wreak havoc on your employees, your clients and your entire practice. Lack of cash flow or emergency funds is often what leads to poor financial decisions and ethical problems.
Although you need to invest in your practice, you have to know how to invest wisely and when the best decision is not to spend at all. This also applies to knowing when not to take a case that will ultimately cost your firm in the long run.
7. Make sure your investors get a return – and don’t forget to thank them. Without backers, there’s no lettuce for anyone.
Unlike other types of businesses, lawyers don’t generally have ‘investors’ in the usual sense of the word, but that doesn’t mean that you don’t have supporters or backers. Your family, your good referral sources, your best clients (including former clients), your mentors and your employees all want to see a return. They are all investors in some sense and they deserve the be recognized for the part they play in helping to make your firm a success.