The DEI and BD Connection: Leveraging Business Development for Career Advancement

Let’s start this article with the obvious. I’m a white guy. Does it mean that this conversation shouldn’t happen or be initiated by me? In a recent podcast interview with my friend Ph. D. and diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) expert, Jim Rodgers, we discussed the importance of having DEI conversations and finding ways to discover common ground (even as a white guy). Together, we agreed that it’s all about finding what we have in common, not about our differences. One of his best quotes, of the many during our interview, was his explanation of DEI. He stated that it’s all about “equipping people to manage natural human reactions that create barriers to productive relationships and that we all need to be at our best at work and in society.” Later in the interview, I asked him about business development as a key component of driving leadership for minorities in law. He agreed that it was the great equalizer, as the all-mighty book is not something to be ignored or unheeded.

According to the 2020 Model Diversity Survey Report, only 7% of minority men and 3% of minority women are in law firm leadership roles. Additionally, while representation of minority groups is growing at the associate level, it’s declining at the non-equity and equity partner level. I believe we can all agree that this is unacceptable. However, the question still remains– why are these numbers so drastically low?

This article is my way to discuss and share a certain point of view that’s being swept under the rug (in my humble opinion). Like you’ve heard me shout from the rooftop for years, the way to get ahead or drive one’s career upward is through business development. This is the ultimate equivalency for men and women, regardless of majority or minority status.  When you’re making it rain, you control the narrative, your voice is heard, and you can absolutely govern the direction of your own career (in or out of the law firm dynamic). Can anyone really argue this point?

Whether you’re a minority lawyer or, perhaps, generally feeling unheard, here are five simple, yet effective ways to start taking control to get that magical seat at the table.

  1. Speak with the leadership at your firm about business development to obtain the support and coaching needed to accelerate the process, including developing a plan. As you all know, building business takes time, commitment, and grit. You may need to ask or insist on generating fewer billable hours to invest time in developing new business for the firm.
  2. Begin reading, watching and listening to anything and everything you can on business development best practices. My podcast BE THAT LAWYER, for example, offers not only my experience in law practice growth but the ideas and knowledge of over 120 superstar guests. To get ahead, many of the top producing lawyers at your firm have probably leveraged the collective knowledge available online.
  3. Create a strategic plan, with goals, to focus your energies in the right direction. You may need to consider who your target clients are, who the best connectors may be and where those decision makers are, so that you can meet with them. This suggestion does not a strategic plan make–it’s only part of it. Loop back to point #1 on how to take the first steps toward developing a plan.
  4. Be consistent in your efforts to grow your book of business. I know that sometimes you feel like you’re on a rollercoaster.  That’s why it’s  more important than ever to be mindful that you include some level of business development activity each day or week. Since biz-dev seems to get pushed out when matters explode during the day, try to get your emails out early in the morning. This will help prevent the day taking control of you versus you taking control of it.
  5. Lean into your minority status. It’s true that some professional women like to give business to women lawyers, and that some minority clients are no different. Make an effort to network with people who will appreciate your efforts to develop business as a minority attorney. Go after that major corporate account even if a competitor firm seems to have it locked up. A number of my clients are focusing on networking with bigger firm players who may find conflict work to pass down.

For many minority attorneys today, you’ve never been busier. The work is flowing like water, which makes the idea of going out and getting business a bit of a stretch. The reality is that there may never be a “good time” to get started or drive up that book. Waiting for six months or a year is equivalent to me saying, “I’ll start losing weight in six months.” Never going to happen. Take advantage of the crazy and busy marketplace RIGHT NOW to get your business development groove on.  This will help ensure your voice is heard and your career trajectory is leading upward. As President Obama so eloquently said, “Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.”

For more information on business development best practices, including planning tips, read other articles on my blog or listen to my podcast.