On Tuesday, we had the pleasure of welcoming David Ackert of The Ackert Advisory for a special webinar presentation on Development Strategies for Associates. 

David began by sharing the agenda for the session, which included looking at: 

  • Getting a head start: why business development at the associate level is so critical
  • Leverage points: playing to your strengths
  • Networking strategies
  • Mentorship
  • Establishing credibility in your niche: this is a key way associates can start to differentiate themselves as they’re going about business development

Getting a Head Start

Business development for associates is all about getting a head start. David mentioned that the techniques that he’d address are designed to be as efficient as possible, because lawyers don’t have a lot of time at any level to do the kind of business development exploration that they might have in a more idea setting. They have to get there quickly. 

This is in part due to the shifting landscape of the legal marketplace. There was a time, not too long ago, when business development strategy was about answering the phone, partners kicking down work, or work coming your way when you made partner. Those days have changed.

Today, the landscape is more competitive. There are more lawyers, but there are also more people competing for legal services that firms once handled. This includes work being commoditized or being brought in house.  Lawyers now find themselves in the position of having to learn business development skills, and that’s uncomfortable. 

The good news is that the new generation of associates are more entrepreneurial – this is good because pursuing business is no longer a luxury; it’s a necessity. Lawyers have to be able to contribute financially to the firm, and it’s important to get a head start, because business development is not an overnight endeavor. 

You want to begin the process as early as possible, so that you can plant the seeds to germinate into the results you’ve been looking for. One of the ways to do this is by finding your leverage points. 

Leverage Points

Everyone has a different personality, practice group, network, and series of business opportunities before them, so it’s impossible to tell lawyers that there is one business development tactic that will work for them. Instead, David advises designing a strategy around your strengths.

Some people are more introverted, and will be better one-on-one than in a big room. Others will be more comfortable sitting on a panel than writing, while some will be the other way around. Everyone is different. 

The key is to recognize that regardless what your leverage point might be, you can build a business development strategy around it. For example, you may be more comfortable with blogging – you can start now, develop an audience and a dialogue, interview people and take a journalistic approach. That’s a type of relationship development technique that takes your leverage point and turns it into a business development endeavor. 

David offered some examples of leverage points that he’s seen be effective for lawyers over the years: 

  • Group setting
  • One-on-one meeting
  • Public speaking
  • Teaching/mentoring
  • Writing (blogs, articles, OpEds)
  • Social Media
  • Committees (boards, roundtables)
  • Networking groups
  • Meeting facilitation
  • Social events (block parties, fundraisers)
  • Family-oriented activities (kids’ soccer, PTA)
  • Client environment (site visits)

From this list, take a moment and write down the ones that really resonate for your – those will be the doorway through which you place your business development energy. David also advised against trying all of these – instead, he suggested limiting yourself to two or three that have the highest likelihood of being sustainable. 

Part of the challenge for associates is that they get a lot of advice from different places, but they have to know what works best for them, in order to focus on that and make it sustainable. If you don’t like getting out there and doing a lot of networking in big groups, even if the firm forces you to do it, it’s not going to last or be effective. It will only be a sustainable tactic if it’s aligned with your personality. 

Networking Strategies

Whether you’re networking one-on-one, or through groups, it’s all about other people. Ultimately, you can’t have a book of business if other people aren’t involved, so you have to find a way to network. David offered a few recommendations. 

Maintain contact with your existing network

Your existing network is going to be one of the most powerful resources that you have in years to come. Because of this, you want to make sure that you have some sort of CRM tool in place. Some may use Outlook for this, but it has some limitations around its ability to keep your relationships top of mind. There are other CRM platforms that you may want to consider – your firm may already have one, or you can explore alternatives as well. 

You want a shortlist of 20-30 people who you consider to be your existing network. This can be fellow law school alums or that cousin who’s a serial entrepreneur, but they should be good people to stay in front of and make sure you’re offering them as much help as possible, so that they start to see you as a trusted resource and advisor. Even if you’re an associate, and you don’t yet have the confidence that you will in years to come, if your intention to help them is clear, and your interest in what they’re doing is developed at an early stage, that will send a clear message about who they should call when a legal issue comes up. 

Routines are also critical here – if you wait until you feel like reaching out, or until they reach out to you, you may be waiting a long time. You stand to gain the most out of staying in contact with the people who may have a business opportunity for you in the future. So establish a routine – maybe once a quarter, or once every five months, you reach out to these 20 people in your network. Technology can be helpful in that effort. 

Seek out your demographic for peer networking

David noted that you’ll find that you are taken most seriously by your peers, and not so much by people who are 10-20 years your senior. So when you’re in a setting, and you recognize that there is someone in the same age demographic as you, that is the person you should reach out to. You will immediately find that you have things in common, and an easier time relating to them, than if you try to develop a relationship with an older GC.

Even if you make friends with the CEO of an organization at an event that you’re attending, they probably won’t send you significant matters any time soon. David mentioned that he’d discuss a strategy that can help with that, but generally speaking, you want to seek out the people who are similar to you in terms of their circumstances because as they develop, and you put them on your short list, you will find that they’re a better investment of your time. And we’re focusing on time-efficient strategies that lead to the best results. 

Expand your network beyond law

Lawyers prefer to network with other lawyers, and it’s reasonable that that’s the case, because of common interest, passion and profession. But lawyers aren’t always going to be the best source for business. Non-lawyers will. 

So make sure that your network includes other kinds of advisers, business owners, and people who are stakeholders in the business community, because ultimately, those are the people who hear about someone having legal trouble, and who need to engage you directly or refer work to you. They can’t take care of it, because they’re not a lawyer. When you’re looking at your short list, make sure it’s not a list of 20 lawyers, because you want variety there. Your network should be a dynamic pipeline for a variety of opportunities. 

Build professional networks around social activities

One of the easiest and most time-efficient ways to develop relationships is around social activities. David offered the example that he and a group of friends get together monthly for dinner, and talk about various issues, both professional and personal. The group includes business owners and a couple of lawyers, and they share ideas, get advice, and share their struggles. 

This is an excellent opportunity for those lawyers, because when David has a legal matter or business challenge, they’re hearing about it first. They can suggest calling him the following day to discuss further, and see if the firm can help him more formally. 

This can work for you as well – maybe it’s a wine or cigar club, poker, watching the game, or a book club. Match these activities to whatever you have a passion for, and you’ll want to stay engaged over time. Then, be strategic about who you invite to the table. Invite people in your demographic who share your interests, and make sure they’re business leaders, people in legal departments, investors, entrepreneurs, or non-competing lawyers. Then, you’ll have a regular way of staying in touch that doesn’t feel like networking. 


David next spoke about mentorship, noting that internal mentors are very common at law firms. However, they’re not normally business development mentors, so he recommended seeking out someone for that role. This person should be: 

  • Mid-level partner who has done well at developing a book of business
  • Not too much older than you, so that you can relate to them and their advice will seem relevant
  • Someone you respect & admire, and aspire to be in some way

Internal mentorship will be most effective if your mentor’s approach is compatible with your leverage points. They should provide advice and encouragement, and will understand the politics and culture of the firm, so they can speak to those issues and help you navigate them. They may be able to introduce potential allies to you, such as referral sources.

However, the main challenge with an internal mentor is that they won’t introduce you to potential clients, because they have their own book of business to build. For that reason, you may want to think about fostering an additional business development mentor relationship.

This person should be: 

  • External to your firm
  • Willing to shepherd a smart, ambitious professional
  • A business leader in your warm market (someone you already have some connection to)

There are a few steps to go through in order to develop this relationship: 

  1. Identify an external business development mentor:  They are in a position to help you (have elevated status in an organization), but they’re unlikely to be in a legal department because that feels too much like a client development relationship. This person shares some commonalities with you, and should be older than you. Consider those in your network now, and see if you can identify someone who may fit these characteristics, and you could either ask them now, or ask for an introduction through someone else. 
  2. The Approach: Don’t just ask them to become a mentor – take them out first, and say you’re looking for advice from them. Tell them you’re an associate, and in this day and age, you’re expected to develop business. You don’t have formal sales training, so you’d appreciate learning from them how they’ve developed their business. Ask if they’re open to a half hour discussion over coffee. Most people will say yes if they have some connection to you, because it’s flattering. Once you’ve had this conversation, you can move into Step 3.
  3. Inquiring: At the end of coffee, ask what they would do if they were in your shoes. You’ve given them a sense of your challenges as a business developer, you’ve seen some principles that may be relevant, so ask what they would do. They will give you advice that will hopefully be helpful, and you should look to apply this as much as possible.
  4. Maintain: Step 4 is about following up and maintaining contact. Whatever advice they give, follow it and report back. Be honest with them, and let them know what worked or didn’t, and ask for their insight. Now you’re entering into a dynamic where they’re invested in your success. You took the trouble to follow their advice and follow up with them, which shows you’re reasonable, professional, and invested in a successful mentorship. When you share successes, it will make them more likely to meet with you again. 

    Now the ball is in your court – you want to be the person maintaining this. Put them on your shortlist to contact, and share your challenges and seek advice. 

This notion of mentorship is the only way that David knows to bridge the demographic divide when it comes to developing relationships. Unless they’re invested in your success, you will find it difficult for senior people in a business community to invest a lot of time in an associate who’s at a junior level to them. 

Now that you have this mentor relationship, develop it around advice sharing. Over time, they will continue to give you helpful advice and you will develop business acumen, In some cases, they may also start to send you relationships that you can engage for work. And when a business leader endorses you and suggests someone engages you for a company or matter, that carries weight. 

Mentors can easily become someone who lead to work opportunities for you, but only if you invest in them first, and only if you leverage the fact that you have this advice that you’re looking for from them, in order to develop a real, authentic connection. 

You also want to make sure to let them know that you’d like to meet more regularly, so they can get used to hearing from you. 

Establish Credibility in Your Niche

The final area that we covered is the idea of establishing credibility in your niche. David observed that some of the participants may already have a market niche, sector or specialty practice that distinguishes them from their competition. If you don’t, start thinking about that as soon as possible.

If you’re a generalist, it’s difficult to set yourself apart from other lawyers who are also generalists – opportunities will not seek you out as easily as if you have some sort of specialty or niche component to your pra 

Even if you are a generalist, you can say something like "I do business litigation, but I have experience in food and beverage. Food companies seek me out." Then, you’ve communicated both that you have the general experience, but also that if someone has a food company referral, they should send it to you first before a generalist.

Once you’ve established your niche, you need credibility so that people are paying attention to what you have to say. You can develop this in four ways: 

  • Authorship: write articles around the niche or industry that you have so that people can read about your expertise. It’s demonstrating the evidence of your unique capabilities.

    David suggested looking to co-author articles as well. Speak to a busier partner in the same niche, and propose that you’ll write an article together, and you’ll both be credited. You’re raising your credibility because of your associate with that more established partner (that’s also true of mentorship relationships). Consider co-authoring an article with a CEO – you’ve now associated yourself with the CEO of a company, which sends a strong signal to your network about the company you keep, and the relationships you’re looking to foster.  

  • Speaking: This can take a few forms, including on panels at trade associations, and through channels to deliver CLE, and it’s an excellent way to establish credibility. If you’re less comfortable with speaking, a panel may be more suitable, and can easily be put together by reaching out to others in your network. This may be an area where your marketing department can be helpful as well. 
  • Attend Trade Shows: Making appearances alone at trade shows communicates to your network that you have an investment in that niche or industry.  David feels that attending trade shows is one of the best ways to start to develop connections with potential clients and referral sources who operate within your universe.

    The firm may not want to fly you out somewhere to attend a trade show, so you may have to get creative. Look for regional trade shows, or spend your own money to attend – it’s a worthwhile investment. 

    Trade shows can be some of the most time-efficient and focused networking that you can do, because you’re spending two or three days with key industry leaders who are speaking, and you can connect with them. Go to their presentations, speak with them afterwards to give them your commentary on what was valuable and exchange business cards. 

  • Winning: Winning a matter or case is something that will help to establish your credibility – nothing speaks volumes like results. When you win or are affiliated with a win, make sure you promote it to your network. Sometimes your firm can do this on your behalf, but you shouldn’t be shy about it. You’ve made sure to be part of a winning team, and when that works in your favor, you want people to know that they’re hiring a winner. 

Practice Boomers/ Practice Pipeline

David ended with a few points about Practice Boomers, a business development e-learning platform that provides law firms with a curriculum of business development videos. Each video is only about five minutes long, and builds on some of the themes that were touched on during our presentation. 

The program also includes coaching, and the lawyers David has worked with really thrive in an environment where they can have a discussion with each other and a coach/facilitator who helps them to problem solve and vet objections. The program also offers performance tracking, which can be helpful to law firm management, and they provide ROI to firms that shows that lawyers increase their book of business significantly over the nine month program. For more information, take a look at the Practice Boomers website, and their demo video. 

Practice Pipeline is more about business development management. David recalled discussing the 20 key relationships, and using CRM to keep track, and Practice Pipeline is one of the tools that you can use for that. They have a high adoption rate for lawyers because of the way it’s designed, and it includes a coaching component. For more information, take a look here

Thanks to David for an incredibly informative and substantive discussion, which has given our associates a lot of food for thought! 

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Photo of Lindsay Griffiths Lindsay Griffiths

Lindsay Griffiths is the International Lawyers Network’s Executive Director. She is a dynamic, influential international executive and marketing thought leader with a passion for relationship development and authoring impactful content. Griffiths is a driven, strategic leader who implements creative initiatives to achieve the…

Lindsay Griffiths is the International Lawyers Network’s Executive Director. She is a dynamic, influential international executive and marketing thought leader with a passion for relationship development and authoring impactful content. Griffiths is a driven, strategic leader who implements creative initiatives to achieve the goals of a global professional services network. She manages all major aspects of the Network, including recruitment, member retention, and providing exceptional client service to an international membership base.

In her role as Executive Director, Griffiths manages a mix of international programs, engages a diverse global community, and develops an international membership base. She leads the development and successful implementation of major organizational initiatives, manages interpersonal relationships, and possesses executive presence with audiences of internal and external stakeholders. Griffiths excels at project management, organization, and planning, writes and speaks with influence and authority, and works independently while demonstrating flexibility in thinking, especially in challenging situations. She also adapts to diverse and dynamic environments with constant assessment and recalibration.

JD Supra Readers Choice Top Author 2019

In 2021, the ILN was honored as Global Law Firm Network of the Year by The Lawyer European Awards, and in 2016, 2017, and 2022, they were shortlisted as Global Law Firm Network of the Year. Since 2011, the Network has been listed as a Chambers & Partners Leading Law Firm Network, recently increasing this ranking to be included in the top two percent of law firm networks globally, as well as adding two regional rankings. She was awarded “Thought Leader of the Year” by the Legal Marketing Association’s New York chapter in 2014 for her substantive contributions to the industry and was included in Clio’s list of “34 People in Legal You Should Follow on Twitter.” She was also chosen for the American Bar Association Journal’s inaugural Web 100‘s Best Law Blogs, where judge Ivy Grey said “This blog is outstanding, thoughtful, and useful.” Ms. Griffiths was chosen as a Top Author by JD Supra in their 2019 Readers’ Choice Awards, for the level of engagement and visibility she attained with readers on the topic of marketing & business development. She has been the author of Zen & the Art of Legal Networking since February 2009.