The fuller version of the article in the Journal for May 2007

In March 2006, my father died. He had been seriously ill for quite some time but nothing prepared me for the end, when it came. I thought he would go on forever and in the weeks that followed his death I struggled to hold everything together. During this time my mind raced in many directions. I laughed, I cried and I reflected on the life of a man who was, amongst all other things, a fair, decent and genuine human being.

He was also a very successful man, but I do not draw on his many and varied achievements from the world of business, sport and the military (the latter two in his early years) as this, whilst interesting, would serve no purpose here. What I remember is a man of principle. A man who always had time for people, at all levels, and who never, despite his seniority, became self important. Why is this of relevance to an article on business development? The answer is simple. Self-importance is a failing which can get in the way of too many people (young and old) in the professional service sector and one which, until it is recognised and addressed, can hold some back.

Reading these words, you might recognise these failings straightaway, no doubt being able to recall one or two examples of such characteristics being displayed. For example, the partner who says good morning to his fellow partners and those he rates, but ignores the filing clerk and secretary as they pass on the way to their desk. Another who dismisses the suggestion from a junior member of staff merely because it came from them. The trainee or junior assistant who, having gained straight A grades throughout school and having spent four or five years at university achieving an honours degree enabling them to embark on their legal career, does not feel they have anything to learn about giving out name badges at the start of a client event hosted by their firm. Another trainee who dismissively believes they are more important and more valuable to the business than a secretary who has worked for the same firm for over 10 years. Of course, they might well be, in some cases, but it is not a given.

My father believed and taught me that absolutely everyone is important. Value that and you value your people.

The key message, in terms of business development is this – be sincere in all you do. If not, your insincerity and lack of genuine concern will show through and it will betray you. If, on the other hand, you do genuinely care about the clients and people with whom you are dealing, this will also be evident and the warmth and friendship which will flow from conversations and meetings will be sincere – because it is – and connections will be made. You can’t pretend to be interested. Your mask will slip. Think of the times you’ve heard people say “he [or she] is only nice to me when he wants something”. You can’t hide genuine interest either. The dialogue will come naturally as the conversation grows. It will be obvious if you care and take a personal interest. It is not about being able to solve every problem for everyone you meet, nor about impressing them, just about taking the time to (actively) listen, to learn more about them and their issues, to celebrate their success and to be pleased to be able to share some time together.

Some people select those they are going to take time to get to know and only devote this kind of attention to them. Fair point – it is important to be strategic. However, a smile, a nod, or a quick hello in passing does not take much effort, nor does it disrupt or affect one’s work pattern in any way. Making time to know your staff and colleagues and what matters to them will add to the good working environment of your business; and being nice to, and knowing, the staff in your key clients’ business will pay dividends as well.

My father truly believed that one needed to be “blooded young” in business. What he meant by that was that one needed to have taken a few knocks. If one passes everything with flying colours, be that exams, a university degree or appraisals from managers, and went on to gain promotions with ease, there is a danger that whilst this person is clearly successful they do not have an edge. They do not have a sharpness, a hunger for success, which can only be born out of the taste of failure. Knowing the shock and distress of failing at something or losing a contract or valuable profits or that perhaps the business is just not coming through the door – so long as the impact is felt – develops a keenness never to let this happen again. For so many in the professional service sector, this sense of failure is absent from their lives. The impact of losing a client or tender bears little relevance to their lifestyle. They are cushioned from the reality and therefore do not feel the real pain. For a large number, the work has always landed on their desk and they have done it. They have not had to go out and find new business to ensure the school fees and mortgage are paid and that there is food on the table. The hunger is therefore missing.

Many may read this and believe this day will never come, when a “professional” need worry themselves about this kind of concern. I would disagree. The professions are changing at a remarkably quick rate. Clients are more discerning, competition is fierce and just as employees no longer feel there is benefit in staying in the same firm throughout their career (in fact this can now be seen as a positive disadvantage), so too clients often feel that a change of professional adviser can be a good thing also. With clients shopping around and tenders becoming commonplace, those working in the professional service sector need to move with the times and hone their business development skills to ensure they are best placed (a) to retain the profitable work which they already have, both ensuring that they keep their clients happy and fight off any unwanted attention from competitors; and (b) to be in the best position to maximise any opportunities which present themselves in order to win new work.

The day of the professional acting a bit like – dare I say it – “a sausage factory”, sitting at his or her desk churning out the work which happens to land on it, are long gone, or going fast. Complacency is the greatest danger some face. Professionals now require to shape their careers, decide on their specialism or specialisms and work hard to keep and win the work they want both for now, today, and for the future. They need to have personal business development plans to ensure they use their time wisely and to know clearly what they want to achieve and to work towards getting it. I have a favourite question which is, “If I could wave my magic wand and grant you a wish, what would it be?” Would you be able to tell me what business you want and who is going to pass it to you? If not, how can you ever go after it? You have to know what you want, plan how to get it and work through that plan to make it happen. Without that you are living on hopes and dreams.

The latter part of this article provides practical tips and hints for making the most of your business development opportunities, and I hope you find this helpful. Some are connected to an event but, for the avoidance of doubt, they have nothing to do with actually organising it yourself. The tips and hints are to help you with your role, as the professional, attending the event, either as a guest or as the host. By following these steps, they will help you to ensure that you are working towards achieving your business development goal and will be able to see real success.

And finally, ending this where I began, nothing prepared me for the loss I felt when my father passed away. I thought he would go on forever, but in truth I had been given lots of warning signs. He was extremely ill and I know now that whilst I paid lip service to this fact, I clearly did not allow myself truly to believe that anything could happen to take him from my present world. He was my dad and I believed he would go on forever. I didn’t face the truth or consider a future without him being there. In the same way, I believe that some in the professional service sector pay lip service to the fact that they now have to actively address their business development skills to ensure they keep their key clients and continue to win new work. Many are doing so, and doing so very effectively, but some, like me with my dad, have not grasped the reality and are not prepared. They are labouring under the misapprehension that being a quality lawyer is enough.

Top tips for success

Follow these tips and hints to help you effectively develop your own business development techniques. These are equally applicable to lawyers at all stages of their career - the main difference being that, unless you are the lead contact (or client relationship partner/person) for a particular client, then you will have to check back with a colleague, or boss, before actioning these with a particular client directly.

ABOUT YOU (Painting your picture)

  • Think about what it is that you do, and specialise in, and find a good way of describing this which is easily understood and interesting.
  • Talk about yourself. Don’t be afraid to let your personality shine through. Make it real. Share experiences.
  • People often ask open questions such as “What have you been up to lately?” Always have three recent achievements in your mind which you can say you are working on, or have just completed. Be proud of these and have confidence that they show you in a good light. Keep them in your mind and you will be amazed how often you bring them into conversations, in a relevant way. Remember to update them regularly. You don’t want to still be trotting out the same achievements a year down the line!
  • Think about what it is that you do that provides a benefit to your clients. Everyone is different so understand and play to your strengths.
  • Think too about why clients might instruct YOU rather than someone else.If you are not sure then try to find out by talking to your existing clients.
  • Are you visible in your market place? Remember you are either VISIBLE or INVISIBLE. No one wants to be invisible.



  • Always have a list of your current clients.
  • How well do you know them and their business?
  • Find ways to help them discuss, address and solve their issues and be informed of legal trends and changes which might affect them. Proactively make suggestions.
  • Keep your clients close and keep them happy with your service.
  • Actively seek feedback.
  • Consider how best you can add value to the relationship. Don’t take it for granted.
  • Colour code your list of current clients into priorities for action?



  • Know your available market. What share of it do you have?
  • What matters to the people and business in this market?
  • What are the current trends, issues and thinking?
  • Keep up to date.



  • Know your service standards. Do you consistently return all phone calls, emails etc within say 24 hours?
  • Stand in your clients' shoes and work out what they may wish to know from you. Are you informing them in this way?
  • Work out essential information which your clients need to know including trigger dates etc, and build in sufficient notice if they are likely to have to provide you with further information. They are as busy as you are and need time to plan.
  • Ensure your clients are getting all relevant marketing materials, updates, briefings, and where appropriate media-watch items showing relevant changes which may be of interest to them.
  • Don’t have them need to ring you for an update. Keep them confident in your service and informed.


  • Think of yourself as an ambassador for your firm. You represent your firm at all times. Make a good impression.
  • Always be alert to opportunities to meet new contacts and make the best use of your time.
  • Introduce yourself to as many others as possible, even if your host neglects their duties.
  • Be good company. Be interested in those you meet.
  • Have plenty to talk about.
  • Remember that arriving promptly can often make it easier to enter the room. There will be fewer people there and hosts will have more time to devote to you and to assisting you.


  • If attending a conference, one is often given the delegate list in advance. If so, scroll down it in order to decide, in advance, if there is anyone you wish to meet. If yes, then seek them out, or better still, make contact in advance.
  • Always consider whether you have learned anything which you can immediately share with your colleagues (to assist with cross selling) and with your clients.


  • Speak to as many of the guests as possible, even if you personally do not know them. Imagine you are hosting the event in your own home. Look after all guests in the same way.
  • Ensure guests are welcomed as they arrive and help them to join the group with ease.
  • Introduce people to each other.
  • Watch out for anyone on their own and rescue them. Some people find it hard to break into groups.
  • Consider, in advance, which guests might like to meet each other and to meet your colleagues too.
  • Always know the reason you decided to host each dinner or event so you can measure success.



  • Always say “thank you” to those who refer work to you.
  • RSVP in good time. If in doubt, it is better to decline than not to reply at all.
  • Always call or email if you have to call off at the last minute and, where possible, offer to send a colleague in your place.
  • Remember to thank your host as you leave and take time to send a follow-up thank you by email or letter the next day.
  • If you promise to do something, be sure to do it. Be careful not to overpromise.
  • At a dinner, be sure to speak to the person sitting both on your left and your right.



  • Smile! Be approachable and nice to be around.
  • Know the image you portray.
  • Check your appearance.


The Author
Debbie Atkins LLB (Hons), DipLP is Director of Client Relations Management & Business Development for Tods Murray LLP. She can be reached on 0131 656 2244 (email: This article first appeared in Professional Marketing Magazine in March 2007.
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