It is 15 years since the first publication of David Maister’s book The Trusted Adviser, during which time the phrase has become almost a cliché whenever adviser/client relationships are discussed. But does the phrase still have relevance in today’s professional firms, and what application does it have to business development (BD) practitioners?

Following a range of research interviews with partners and practitioners, I believe there are in fact five distinct roles BD professionals must now be adept at playing if they are to become truly trusted advisers. How well do you measure up in each category?


Few BD professionals would regard their role as essentially ‘therapeutic’, but an aptitude for listening non-judgementally and empathising with a partner’s position without necessarily needing to propose a solution was one of the attributes most valued in a senior BD adviser.

“The BD professionals I rate most highly are the ones I can have an honest conversation about my practice with and who will listen, provide the odd insight to get me thinking, but act mainly as a sounding board,” one partner told us. “Too many seek to be either the servant awaiting instructions or the master leading me rather patronisingly by the hand through the mysterious world of marketing. It’s a difficult balance to strike, but the best ones do.”


Clients tell us all the time that they want ‘commercial’ lawyers – advisers who understand the business context as much as the legal detail. It’s a difficult perspective for lawyers to master, and many continue to view the client relationship through the lens of the specific matter or case rather than the business.

There is an opportunity here for the BD professional. By keeping abreast of macro-trends – even if it is just what can be gleaned from the pages of the FT or The Economist – as well as the specifics of a particular sector or industry, the skilled BD professional brings a fresh perspective to client interactions.

“You’d be amazed how much kudos you can gain by feeding back pretty basic market intelligence to partners,” an experienced BD Director told us. “By encouraging partners to think about the broader themes, to see the bigger picture, you can significantly enrich the conversations they are having with clients. The slightly detached viewpoint is very useful…many partners just don’t have time to keep abreast of these things.”


One of the key challenges of a new BD role comes when there is a feeling the partnership just doesn’t ‘get it’. Rather than take the advice they hired you to give, they prefer to dither and delay. How you handle this sort of roadblock will often determine your longevity in the role.

“I’ve seen many BD professionals crash and burn,” said a seasoned partner. “Because they come in and have unrealistic expectations of the pace of change in a firm like this. The best ones play a long game. Consolidate your key partner relationships over time. Make individual partners look good. Serve their agenda. If you can swallow your pride long enough to do that, the credit you ultimately accumulate will allow you to implement change. But it’s incremental, not revolutionary.”


Ultimately, though, any BD professional will need to have critical conversations with the partnership to get buy-in for key decisions. How is the convincing and persuading best done?

“Pick your battles,” the seasoned partner told us. “Don’t go seeking more budget or coming up with initiatives every few weeks.”

And, having picked your battle, it seems two perspectives in particular are useful when it comes to framing your case: clients and the competition.

“You have to have access to clients and be effective,” said another experienced BD Director. “At crunch points, the partners may not listen to me but they will listen to clients. And they will also listen to what their peer firms are up to. If I was to pick two things that help me get buy-in, they would be client listening and peer group benchmarking.”


Finally, effective BD professionals are especially adept at forming alliances and partnerships, sometimes in unlikely places, to get things done. In particular, they understand the influence support services can have when acting in concert, and work hard to ensure good lines of communication with Finance, HR and IT.

One of the principal challenges to effective BD in law firms is the silo mentality on the fee-earning side and, again, an effective professional will work hard to build bridges between offices, practice areas sector groups.

“We can’t sell the firm effectively if we don’t know what the rest of the firm is doing,” said a BD Director at a mid-tier firm. “Part of my job is about connecting the dots, getting people talking, so that we really understand the breadth of the firm’s offer. At the start, though, when I suggested partners might attend other practice head’s meetings, they looked at me as if I was mad.”

So, if these five key areas of competence seem to characterise the high-performing BD professional, how many of the following five statements apply unequivocally to you?

  1. I am the sort of person partners seek out and open up to
  2. I make it my business to keep partners aware of commercial trends affecting their clients
  3. I understand clearly what each of my key stakeholders wants to achieve, and devote time and effort to helping them
  4. I use client and competitor data to help convince and persuade
  5. I am skilled at forming alliances and connections between different parts of the business

About Steven Pearce

Steven Pearce is an author, speaker and adviser to professional firms who coaches partners and BD professionals worldwide. He is also a regular speaker on the subject of influence at partner conferences.

His latest book, Secrets of Influential People, was published by Hodder & Stoughton in June last year and became a best seller on the WH Smith business book chart.

See Steven speak at

Contact [email protected]


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