How will your legal background help you?
Combining a legal background with a talent for business development can create a strong proposition.
- Some law firms will value your insight into client expectations and the related priorities of lawyers and the law firm.
- Your experience dealing with these clients, organisational, financial, legal, regulatory, risk, market and competitive pressures can be a real asset.
- Being legally qualified, with its attendant attention to detail, analytical approach and focus on clear communication, can be a positive point of difference.
However, it has to be said that not all law firms favour BD candidates who have a legal background (whether in legal BD or as a former lawyer). You will be competing against candidates with years of pure BD or other industry experience. And some law firms show a clear preference for recruits with non-legal backgrounds (as these are often seen as more commercial).
What motivates you?
More important than having a particular background is having the right commercial aptitude and attitude and a willingness to embrace ongoing change and respect different approaches. Your challenge is to prove that you have this talent set. Being sure about what motivates you, where you get your satisfaction from and where your talents lie is key to making the move into a legal BD role.
How does a BD function work?
When fully supported by the management team, a law firm’s BD function works at a strategic and tactical level to protect and enhance the firm's profitability and profile and deliver excellence in client service. Commercially astute lawyers recognise the benefit of working in close partnership with a strong BD team. That said, encouraging lawyers to prioritise BD actions over billable hours can test even the best powers of persuasion...
What can you expect to do in a legal BD role?
A quick review of the job adverts for legal BD roles outlines the mix of common strategic and tactical responsibilities. You can also see the range of salaries for roles including BD Executive, Manager, Head and Director. Whilst legal BD salaries are generally lower than the salaries being paid to commercial lawyers, the legal market remains one of the highest paid sectors for BD. Also, in most (well run) teams, the hours are less punishing than the long and irregular hours worked by some lawyers.
Many BD roles focus on supporting one or more practice, sector or regional groups and client teams and a number are dedicated to client relationship management/client development (including creating and embedding best practice in client service). More and more senior BD team members are conducting client service reviews in addition to playing key roles in analysing and acting on the feedback.
Most roles include planning, reporting, budget, marketing material, pitch, training, development and events-related responsibilities too. Some BD roles are increasingly client-facing and there is a move towards BD professionals acting as client account managers as part of key client programmes. In international firms, the BD team play their part in supporting the international integration of the organisation via liaison with international counterparts, travel (when budgets allow) and the possibility of secondments to other offices.
Although much less common, some legal BD roles have been scoped as BD Professional Support Lawyers. Former lawyers might also seek roles as business managers in more corporately-run firms (often responsible for a practice group’s profitability, efficiency and financial and management reporting) - a possible stepping stone towards a COO role.
Checking the cultural fit
Within less evolved law firm cultures, BD can be seen as an "overhead" or just "support". Checking that the culture, values and vision of the firm suit you is important as this potential status shift won't suit everyone. And it is not always the large law firms who have the management vision and commitment to push for market leading best practice in business development and client service – some of the medium and smaller-sized firms have impressive BD functions too.
Many legal BD roles involve juggling a large number of responsibilities and managing the often urgent and sometimes disparate BD requirements of a partnership. Resource is almost always tight and it is not a career for the faint hearted. However, those who thrive on delivering business benefit, planning, making improvements, building internal and external relationships, flexing excellent communication skills and supporting change will do well.