Business Development Mistakes: Bad Balance of Billable & Non-Billable Work

This is the third in a five-part resource series on the most common mistakes lawyers make as they try to develop business.

Third Mistake: Not finding the right balance of time spent on business development versus billable work

It’s critical that you define the amount of time that should be spent on non-file-related business development activities. In order to grow your practice, you must develop your skills so that you actually have something valuable to offer. The lion’s share of your time should be being spent on that and your first priority should be to do as much of it as you can, do it as well as you can, and learn as much as possible about it.

But just because it is the first priority, doesn’t mean it is the only priority. You must also carve enough time out of your schedule to give you the opportunity to do other things that will promote the growth and development of your practice: speaking, networking, creating useful content for websites, newsletters, and other distribution channels, social media, etc.

It is impossible to say what percentage of your time should be spent on those other things because it will be different depending on your context. If you are starting your own practice, the percentage of time you will need to spend on those sorts of endeavours will be much greater than if you are a young associate in a large firm where work is channelled in your direction by one or more senior lawyers.

I firmly believe everyone should be doing some of this and doing it regularly, but how much time you should be spending on it is an individual calculation. During the course of my practice, my ratio of time spent on file work versus time spent on business development was about 4 to 1.

Also important to note is that the time you spend working consistently and proactively will be more effective than time spent erratically and reactively.

One mistake I see all the time is lawyers getting to a certain point in the year, or a certain point in their career, and panicking because they haven’t done anything to raise their own profile or attract new business.

The response is almost always to do as many things as they can find, regardless of whether they are related to each other or to any goal the lawyer has for their practice. I see many resumes with dozens of speaking and writing engagements on them, most of which bear no relationship to one another and all of which have been delivered to different audiences.

The ROI of this strategy on the building of a practice is very low. Each of the audiences that the lawyer has contributed to by speaking or writing has now seen that lawyer once. It is very likely that no one in those audiences will remember him/her after one interaction, even when they find themselves in a situation where they need that lawyer’s particular expertise.

The next stage for these lawyers is burn-out, because they get behind on file work. The result is that they stop doing any non-file-related business development, catch up on their work, and start the cycle again when the next thing causes them to panic.

A much more effective approach would be to do only three or four things per year and focus on one or two audiences of people who you believe might need the kind of service you provide at some point. That way a number of people in those communities will see you more than once and you have a better chance of being remembered.

With the blessing of the internet, you now also have the opportunity to turn whatever product you created for those audiences into blog posts or other content that can be widely distributed over the internet and through social media to help build your profile on a wider basis, thereby getting much more bang for the investment you have made in the things you have spent your time on.

Regardless of how you do it, you must avoid the “blitz-burnout” cycle. No good can come of it.


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