Developing a taste for growth

Business development specialists are playing an increasingly important role in today’s law firms. Jonathan Newey explains why

As law firms emerge from the recent downturn with a renewed focus on market expansion and improved profitability, recruiters have seen a marked increase in demand for business development specialists. As a result, firms are restructuring departments and hiring specialists with an understanding of global business structures and macroeconomics.

Three to four years ago business development roles were viewed as a support function rather than a fundamental driver in profit generation. However, this view is changing and has in turn created the need for a recruitment strategy capable of attracting and retaining the very best talent in the field. Roderick Meade, business manager at Allen & Overy (A&O), reinforces this view. He says:

“The key to profitability is to maximise the efficiency with which we hire, deploy and develop our people to meet the needs of our ever more demanding clients at a competitive price.”

While business development specialists are increasingly client-facing, there is still a question mark concerning the extent to which they should be exposed, as well as the partners’ level of involvement. Typically, it is the responsibility of the business development manager to support, mentor and coach partners to identify potential clients, develop strategies and ultimately build relationships. Like other firms, A&O has developed a network of client relationship partners responsible for developing key relationships with major clients, as well as other partners from a variety of departments across the practice. In this way the client relationship partner is able to maximise the opportunity to cross-sell the practice’s services to the client’s advantage. The business development team provides support by feeding market intelligence and facilitating (through workshops and tailored seminars) regular contact between the client and partners.

It is not just business development managers that are important in the process. In order to completely understand the market and their competitors, as well as how to position themselves, firms are beginning to recognise the importance of recruiting specialists such as bid advisers, analysts and researchers. Larger practices are also investing heavily in IT systems to ensure groundbreaking research is shared across the firm.

So is the role of the partner likely to change over time as the business development function increases in importance? In order to retain control of client relationships there may be partners who, as part of their job descriptions, have to take ownership for business development (with actual targets). We may even see a distinction emerge between fee-earning technical partners and business development partners.

With increased competition to win new business, there is no doubt that business development specialists will play an increasingly important role within law firms. However, as in any business, client retention is key and practices must therefore ensure that they are not putting all of their efforts into winning new business at the expense of compromising their relationships with existing clients.

Jonathan Newey is director of recruitment specialists Witan Jardine