Using Annual Business Plans to Improve Your Business Development Skills

August 15, 2016

Young lawyers spend so much time perfecting legal skills—and rightfully so—that we often overlook the business aspects of practicing law. But business development is an essential skill for young lawyers to learn, because it ultimately provides the means necessary for us to practice law. This rings true whether you are a solo-practitioner in a small town or one of a thousand attorneys in a big city law firm. Creating annual business plans is a great way for young attorneys to identify and improve upon their business development skills.

I was introduced to annual business plans after I was hired as an associate attorney at Landis Rath & Cobb LLP, a corporate restructuring and litigation firm in Wilmington, Delaware. I always knew that lawyers were expected to bring in business at some point in their careers, but I never realized that business development is a skill that needs to be developed. Nor had I given any consideration to the “how” and “when” of the development process. Fortunately, my firm puts an emphasis on associates building their business development skills. Each year, my colleagues and I are required to create individual business plans for the upcoming year. Because of this, I have experienced first-hand the benefits of having a thoughtful and carefully crafted business plan, and can appreciate the disadvantages of a superficial business plan.

Although my firm has institutionalized annual business plans, all young lawyers, regardless of the size of their firm or the nature of their practice, can implement something similar themselves. One benefit of introducing an annual business plan into your legal practice is that you can repeat the same steps every year to continually build your business development skills. To help young lawyers with creating an annual business plan, I suggest this four-step method. As you get more familiar with the annual business plan process, the order of these steps may change, but the substance of the steps likely will remain the same.

Step 1: Self-Assess

Think about what you hope to accomplish in the upcoming year. First, identify your strengths and weaknesses. Then, ask whether you want to create goals that play to those strengths, making these goals easier to accomplish, or that may help turn a particular weakness into a strength, which may make achieving that goal more difficult. When I assessed my 2015 annual business plan, I noticed that most of my goals were geared towards networking opportunities and other ways to make personal and professional connections with attorneys. Although I do not view writing as a weakness, I recognized that I neglected including it my annual business plan. I decided that my 2016 annual business plan needed to prioritize finding writing opportunities.

Step 2: Set Reasonable, Particularized Goals

This is the most critical step when creating an annual business plan. Depending on whether goals from previous years were accomplished, you may see substantial overlap in your goals from one year to the next. This is not necessarily a problem, unless you list the same goals year after year and they consistently remain unachieved at year’s end. Ideally,  each year’s annual business plan should include goals that expand on previously accomplished goals.

Along those same lines, goals should be made with the understanding that not everything happens instantly and, sometimes, playing the long-game is best. As a 2010 graduate of Penn State University, it would not behoove me to include in my 2016 annual business plan the goal of becoming the president of the Penn State Alumni Association by 2017. I simply do not have the necessary experience for the job, nor have I been involved in the alumni association long enough. I made a more manageable goal: to contact the current president of the Delaware Chapter of the Penn State University Alumni Association and attend at least two chapter events in the upcoming year. This goal is reasonable enough that I believe I can achieve it within the year, but also particularized enough that I understand the next steps I need to take. It also incorporates a long-term goal that I can expand on in future annual business plans.

I also believe goals should be a collaborative effort. Rather than going at it alone, young attorneys should use the resources available to them to help make worthwhile and obtainable goals. Another personal goal of mine is to get more involved in the substantive committees of the American Bar Association’s Business Law Section. To gain some insight, I sought out the advice of James S. Green Jr. and Tyler O’Connell, both partners at my firm, because James is active in the Intellectual Property Committee and Tyler is involved in the Business & Corporate Litigation Committee. I did not, however, limit myself just to attorneys working at my firm. I also met with Kyle Evans Gay, an associate at Connolly Gallagher, LLP to discuss her involvement in the Director and Officer Liability Committee. Collaborating with these attorneys and drawing upon their experiences made it easier for me to create meaningful and reasonable goals about getting involved in the Business Law Section’s committees.

Step 3: Execution and Accountability

So, now that you have self-assessed and created reasonable and particularized goals, your goals should automatically get achieved, right? Unfortunately, that is not the case. Simply setting reasonable and particularized goals does not guarantee that you will follow through and take the necessary steps to achieve those goals.  On the one hand, if your goals are particularized enough, the path to achievement should be readily apparent. If, however, your goals are too vague or generic, you may be in the more difficult situation of trying to figure out what to do next. Answering the question of “what next” is a good way to determine if your goals are reasonable and particularized.

To make sure I follow-through on my 2016 annual business plan, I included quarterly meetings with a partner at my firm to review my progress. Having another (more senior) attorney prompt me about my annual business plan should, at the very least, motivate me to execute on my goals. Involving another attorney also shows initiative and accountability, both of which are traits that your firm likely desires to see from a young attorney.

Step 4: Take Time to Reflect

After the year is over and you (hopefully) accomplished all your goals, the last step—which may become Step 1 after creating your first annual business plan—is to reflect on your previous year’s business plan. Understanding why you may have failed or succeeded in accomplishing your goals is invaluable. While I am mindful of the time constraints young attorneys face, reflection on the previous year’s goals and gauging your level of success in accomplishing those goals will enhance your annual business plan experience. As young attorneys, we should take the time necessary to learn from our mistakes, but also build off our triumphs.

An annual business plan is not something you should pick up once a year just to please your colleagues. Rather, it should be a living document that you use and refer to throughout the year to help build your business development skills. You should not get discouraged if you do not meet all of your goals, so long as you put in the required effort. Developing the discipline to create an annual business plan and execute on your goals will pay dividends as we transition from young attorneys to senior attorneys with the expectation that we grow our practice and bring in business.

BY TRAVIS J. FERGUSON 

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