Many lawyers do not think about crafting a business plan until they make partner at a firm. Starting this process sooner, even as a mid-level associate, will at worst be a superfluous intellectual exercise. Having a well-thought-out business plan can mean the difference between landing your dream position and missing the chance to lateral at all. It can also mean the difference between success and lost opportunities at any stage in your career. Here’s why.
A Good Business Plan Takes Time
Designing a solid business plan is not just about putting your ideas on paper. A business plan is a process, it’s an ever-evolving organism, not just an end product. It’s about stretching your brain to the max, being creative, thinking outside the box, connecting dots and engaging in analytic reasoning. It takes time to get it right. You’ll want to seek feedback from multiple trusted advisors and put the plan aside at some stage so you can return to it with fresh eyes. For this reason, I believe it is never too early to start working on your business plan, even if it’s for your eyes only. You want to start the process well before you start thinking about making a move.
Your Business Plan Can Highlight a Key Skill or Specialty
A business plan is not just a summary of your résumé and deal sheet. It goes above and beyond a list of your legal skills and your contacts. Through a business plan, you have the opportunity to convince a prospective employer that you will add value to the new firm as a business generator and not just as a legal practitioner. You should explain how your particular specialties will lead to business the firm is not currently able to secure. The more specific the better.
I recently worked with a counsel-level litigator who was asked by a top firm where he was interviewing to give a presentation to a group of partners on a niche specialty that he proposed to develop at the new firm. The litigator’s niche specialty only came to light through his in-depth business plan.
A Business Plan Is Also a State of Mind
A business plan must have substance. A horribly crafted business plan is worse than none at all. But your only excuse for a bad business plan is not starting the process early enough.
Substance is important, but a business plan is not solely about the substance. The fact that you have a business plan at all shows a firm you are serious about the process of lateraling and that you understand that to be a value to the firm, your business development skills are as important as your legal skills. It is hard enough to lateral as a senior associate without business. Having a business plan helps overcome presumption that you don’t have what it takes to bring in business.
A business plan also puts you in the right mindset to interview well and hit the ground running in a new position. The exercise of compiling and refining a business plan is a fantastic preparation for interviews. You have your recent work, contacts, and historical metrics right at your fingertips.
A Business Plan Is Necessary to Succeed, Not Just to Switch Jobs
Isn’t a business plan a waste of time if you’re not looking to lateral? Absolutely not. As I argue also regarding deal sheets, a business plan is a great way to take stock of your experience and your connections, and to visualize where you have holes in your skills and your network and where you can best build.
Even if you could lateral without a business plan, you’re going to need one eventually to succeed as a counsel or partner. Give yourself the best chance at success by having a roadmap before you make the move so you can hit the ground running. And don’t be afraid to revisit the business plan frequently throughout your career. Remember, it’s not a static document. It’s an adaptable roadmap.
Even if you go in-house, the exercise of crafting a business plan can prove to be useful. In-house, you are not subject to hourly billing requirements. Success is more results-driven. You’ll need to learn to work closely with your business counterparts and understand their mindsets, pressures, and perspectives. Highlighting your strengths and contemplating potential business strategies for your own “brand” can help you rise to the next level.
You should seek feedback on your advanced draft business plan from as many trusted sources as you can—in and outside of your specific field. If you work with a recruiter, that recruiter can help. A good recruiter can provide you with sample business plans to get you started. I usually share with my candidates a one-page template, as well as some longer examples. I review my candidates’ drafts and give them suggestions as to tone, style, and substance. We often go through multiple drafts of the document before sending it to any prospective employers. Where I do not have the necessary level of expertise in a particular legal field to give detailed substantive suggestions, I may call upon one of my colleagues to help out; this is one benefit of working with a recruiting firm composed of multiple recruiters who are former practicing attorneys in a range of fields. I cannot stress this enough: start early. A persuasive business plan can make or break your next career move.