Five Critical Elements of Business Development Success

Reprinted with permission from the April 2021 issue of Accounting and Financial Planning for Law Firms, a division of ALM.

There is no question that a successful career in professional services requires an ability to generate new business — a herculean task for anyone, but especially for a professional without any experience or training.  While acquiring the skills necessary to develop business is certainly a life-long journey, here are five critical elements to consider from the outset.

1. Focus on What is Important, Not Urgent

Jerry Rice, widely considered the best all-time wide-receiver in the NFL, once stated that “today, I will do the things others won’t, so tomorrow I can accomplish what others can’t.” Many attorneys are uncomfortable putting in the work required to maintain healthy relationships in the market, and, when choosing between simply doing the work on their desk today, versus the work required to build for the future; they exclusively choose the former and entirely neglect the latter. However, you must do both if you want long-term career success — in other words, you must learn to develop a dual-focus on what is important, not simply what is urgent. Admittedly, with all of the demands on your time — both personal and professional, this is much easier to say than to do — but, if you truly want to develop the business, you must first find the time to develop relationships. Make a list of the top 20 relationships you’d like to develop over the next quarter and make a point of calling, emailing and meeting up with those individuals. Don’t make the list too long or it will never happen.

2. Learn Patience

You must sustain your energies over a very long and extended period — truly, it is a process that never stops. In the words of Sir Paul McCartney and the late John Lennon, “[t]he long and winding road that leads to your door will never disappear.” Until you become an experienced attorney, your entire professional life is segmented into clear steps with relatively immediate gratification and a feedback loop of accomplishment — school, more school, internships, summer programs, perhaps a clerkship — then, if you join private practice, you are thrust into a world demanding billable hours and additional time obligations. After a few years of developing technical expertise, you realize that you are going to have to find clients of your own if you’d like to advance rapidly in your career. There is no guidebook, no manual — no test to study for — just a few seminars here and there and a lot of mysterious talk of being a “rainmaker.” With the work piling up on your desk, and many deadlines and demands on your time, both personal and professional — plus the lack of training and the uncertainty of a return — many attorneys for obvious reasons shun the proverbial “long and winding road.”

Even if you are courageous enough to take that path, despite all the challenges, that door “will never disappear.” The sooner you can embrace the process — which can take many years – and commit to sustaining the path despite the lack of immediate returns, the sooner you will break through to the next level.

In his book, Creating Rainmakers, Ford Harding describes the process of developing a practice as a J curve, or a “hockey stick curve.” At first, you go “down the J” and spend lots of time that seemingly doesn’t produce results — but after a few years, you start to get better at it — and start to rapidly “ride up the J”, which is the direct result of years of relationship building that preceded it.

The same way financial advisors constantly harp on the concept of compounding interest in the stock market, experienced business developers will tell you that relationships have a similar yield curve: the earlier you start to invest in them, the better; the more up-front work you put in at the beginning leads to outsized returns in the later years. Trust the process.

3. Ambition

To be able to execute on elements 1 and 2 above, you need to have ambition, plain and simple. It is my view that this is the one critical element that simply cannot be taught. You can listen to motivational speeches and podcasts and spend time with others passionate about their careers, but either someone wants to achieve and will be willing to do what it takes, or not. Ambition is the rocket-fuel that will allow someone to persevere as they encounter and overcome the roller-coaster of rejection and mistake-making that is inherent in developing this skill set. But remember, as you climb up the J curve, in every defeat lies the seeds of future victory. Don’t worry about making mistakes or striking out — it is all part of the process and, with every rejection, you are one step closer to getting to a “yes.” Passion will keep you moving forward even when you have had enough. To paraphrase the words of the famous hunter, Steven Rinella, it is fine at times to be a pessimist, but you must always be wearing the boots of an optimist.

4. Stop Being a Lawyer

You read that correctly. To be successful at business development, you need to stop being a lawyer when you leave the office. Of course, you still need to be technical at the office, and yes, you need to draft the contracts perfectly — but when you actually spend time outside of the office with your clients or have conversations that are not technical subject matter related – I promise you that they don’t want to hear about the latest case law and they absolutely do not want to hear any jargon. You need to connect as a human being and develop empathetic listening skills — learn to relax and have fun — let your guard down and embrace being yourself. Remember, people rarely remember what you say, but they will always remember the way you make them feel. Learn to make people comfortable in your presence — even if you need training or coaching to do so — it will be an invaluable investment. If you just remember one thing when you go to a meeting it is this: you should never be speaking more than 20% of the time. The other person must be speaking 80% of the time and your job is to ask open-ended questions and to let them speak. This is often difficult for lawyers but that is precisely the reason for the title of this element.

5. Become a Creator of Opportunities

Networking at its basic level is not enough. After all, just because someone needs a broker and you introduced him to one doesn’t make you a rainmaker. You need to actively listen all the time and especially carefully to those relationships you are nurturing as they are all asking for help in direct or indirect ways. For example, the overworked general counsel of a company who is looking for an associate general counsel — don’t you know someone? Make the introduction. Have a client or a possible client that is looking for a joint venture partner? What about that family office you recently met that is looking to team up with sponsors in that specific market? Make the intros. Constantly. The way to really accomplish this is to take notes after every call and meeting; do not expect that a year or two later you are going to remember the details of conversations you are having today.

These notes will help you get back into conversations fluidly when you meet up again and will also give you homework you can do in the marketplace to find actual value for the other person (homework is of course difficult, but refer back to Rules 1, 2 and 3 above).


If you can continuously help successful people achieve their goals, you are invariably going to be growing your business to the next level. Keep actively listening and keep taking the time to help — this has and always will be the most tried and true way to develop business.


Aaron Y. Strauss is the founder and managing partner of A.Y. Strauss, a highly regarded law firm with offices located in Roseland, NJ and New York, NY, that serves the needs of clients with the utmost in care, integrity and transparency. Aaron continues to build a talented team of attorneys that are highly skilled in the latest intricacies of transactions and litigation involving commercial real estate, construction contracting, bankruptcy, franchising law, and labor & employment. Aaron can be reached at, 973-287-3561, and on LinkedIn.