Since the mid-1990s, law firms have spent a lot of time and money attempting to broaden the ranks of revenue generators by helping their lawyers acquire and apply marketing and sales skills. Whether they’ve rented outside consultants or hired internal staff, the results have been mixed at best, and disappointing to most.
There are two primary causes of training/coaching investment failure:
1. No clear mission or success criteria
Lawyers face one or both of two different biz dev challenges, each of which requires a different solution.
Opportunity Generation. Most lawyers have too few legitimate sales opportunities. They may go on pitches, but too many of those are mere fishing expeditions or, worse, “relationship-building” calls. With few at-bats, it’s hard to produce hits or become a skilled hitter.
They have no market focus, no identity within a market segment, and struggle to be perceived as relevant to potential clients, who have no reason to make time for them.
Opportunity Conversion. Some lawyers have a larger number of apparent sales opportunities, but come away empty-handed too often. “They said we really impressed them, and it was a hard decision, but they went with another firm.” That’s when they manage to get a decision at all.
Many of these lawyers also have stagnant pipelines that feature the same companies and “prospects” year after year. This is mostly because the purported prospects don’t have to decide anything at all. For example, many lawyers attempt to get buyers to reallocate an existing pie, giving them a slice of some category of legal work. That’s not something the client has to decide -- not even “no.” So, with no criteria for disinvestment, the lawyers keep at it.
2. Investing in the wrong lawyers
Anyone who has observed the law business for any length of time would conclude that most lawyers don’t want anything to do with business development, and therefore won’t devote time and effort to learning the skills to succeed at it. Some percentage do, yet nobody knows what percentage, and there has been no way to identify who those lawyers are.
When it comes to choosing which lawyers to invest in, firms pretty much trust their gut, choosing lawyers whom they believe have “potential.” But, as my data shows, none of the prevalent selection schemes have worked.
I interviewed 100 law firm marketing- and business development officers, practice group leaders, and managing partners. And, in preparation for my speech before the Association of Lawfirm Administrators, I had the ALA poll its membership.
I asked two questions:
What percentage of your firm’s BD training investment do you think is wasted on lawyers who don’t stick with or use the training and coaching?
How do you choose which lawyers will receive such investment?
Waste estimates ranged from 22% to 90%, with almost half at 40-90%. (Perhaps not surprising, a quarter of respondents couldn't even offer a guess.)
Who do you train?
In response to “How do you choose,” more than 70% said they provide training primarily to associates, to everyone (although I suspect what they call “training” is actually Education), or to lawyers who request it. The rest rely on some form of gut feel, e.g., potential, etc.
When you correlate the selection method with the perceived waste, the surprising result is that those lawyers who requested training wasted it the most. Why is that?
All lawyers want to have more business, so when their firm offers or suggests biz dev training, they opt in. However, most don’t know what it will actually take to get business, so they’re making an uninformed choice. When the training begins and they see what’s required, they realize that they’re not willing to do that, so they opt out, wasting the firm’s money and the opportunity.
Other lawyers opt in because it’s impolitic not to, especially if an influential partner has gone to bat to get them included, portraying them as having potential. Saying “no thanks” to BD training isn’t wise.
As a result, firms commit funds and enroll them in training/coaching regimens, only to see them opt out, usually tacitly. They don’t announce, “I’m not going to do this anymore.” They simply stop participating. They don’t complete assignments, and offer lots of excuses. They cancel or are unavailable for scheduled coaching calls. Their activity level is too low to enable any practical skill development. The training money is wasted. (Unfortunately, we experienced all of this years ago with McGlinchey partners.)
Lack of oversight
Firms that don’t visibly hold their lawyers accountable for training program performance tacitly communicate that it’s OK to abandon the investment.
Recommended training/coaching philosophy and approach
The goal is to maximize effectiveness and minimize financial risk by matching your training investment with lawyers’ demonstrated (rather than assumed) degree of interest and commitment.
Of the two BD problems, Opportunity Conversion (Sales) is the easier to solve, and offers the faster path to concrete results.
Opportunity Generation (Marketing) is much more difficult, takes much longer, and will have the highest dropout rate.
Among the three learning tools, Coaching is the most expensive by an order of magnitude. Limit your initial coaching investment to solving the Opportunity Conversion problem for lawyers who have a) a pattern of meaningful at-bats but too few hits, or b) an immediate opportunity to convert.
For all other lawyers, accept that most won’t prove worthy of significant investment due to disinterest.
Structure your investment to enable the bulk of lawyers to qualify or disqualify themselves for additional investment through measurable behavior.
Recognize that skill development is a three-rung ladder:
Education produces awareness, understanding, attitude change
Training is the actual doing, either virtually or physically. It produces practical skill. Technology-based training has been proved to be more effective than instructor-led training.
Coaching is strategic and tactical guidance to apply the skills acquired via Training to produce successful outcomes
Invite all lawyers to complete a 10-question (10-minute) survey that measures their current degree of confidence in their BD skills. This will also be your first indicator of seriousness of purpose. If they won't spend 10 minutes on this, why would you think they'll commit time to acquiring skill?
Provide online Education to all lawyers, using electronic tools at negligible cost, that allow you to measure the frequency, volume, and consistency of their usage.
Provide measurable electronic Training at additional modest cost to lawyers whose measured behavior with Education tools shows credible commitment to learning and applying BD skills in a sustainable way. The program would offer two consecutive 90-day curricula, with participation in the second contingent on successful completion of the first.
Measurable electronic tools enable the firm to demonstrate that it's serious about accountability.
Reserve expensive Coaching for those lawyers who have earned it by their consistent performance with lesser-cost Education and Training tools, or who have an immediate sales opportunity. Expert coaching raises the odds of success.
Assess the nature of those lawyers’ challenge: Generation or Conversion, and match the tool and investment to that.
Analyze lawyers’ non-billable-hour credit claims for BD activity. Segregate the number of actual sales calls with specific stakeholders at specific companies vs. other more generalized activity.
Compare those sales efforts against actual files opened with those companies within 30 days of the last sales activity. This will give you a crude estimate of their closing ratio, and tell you whether they need a higher closing percentage or more opportunities, or both. (There are other values ascertainable from that data, e.g., whether they abandon sales efforts prematurely, or gratuitously stick with them too long.)
To solve the Conversion problem, provide ad hoc sales coaching for each immediate opportunity. This can be especially valuable with successful rainmakers, who often have no way of knowing their actual skill level. Think of it as a Good-to-Great option, which can make them much more efficient, and improve their ability to demonstrate value, which improves their pricing power and profitability. If can also free them from the prison of clients demanding that they personally perform more work on the matter than is prudent.
To solve the Generation problem, provide a minimum of six months of ongoing weekly coaching. At the end of six months, evaluate their participation, activity level, and consistency.
Have all lawyers repeat the confidence survey and compare it with the one completed at the program’s outset.