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, endorsement by mentors, etc.
When you correlate the selection method with the perceived waste, the surprising result is that the lawyers who requested training wasted it the most -- 79%. 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 those lawyers 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.
Lack of oversight
Firms that don’t visibly hold their lawyers accountable for training program performance tacitly communicate that it’s OK to abandon or underuse 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 using inexpensive tools.
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
BizGen Confidence survey: 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?
Entrepreneurial Traits survey: The second survey asks them to assess their degree of entrepreneurship.
First filter: My experience suggests that as many as half of the lawyers won't spend 5-10 minutes completing these. This is your first evidence of seriousness of purpose -- or its absence.
Stage 1: Education
Dezurve is a large library of online Marketing and Sales topics available to all lawyers, at negligible cost. They can access it 24/7 from any device. They earn points for each article they read, and for each associated quiz they complete. These values inform a performance graph that guides your training investment decisions.
Lawyers can find the content they need in four ways:
Traditional tree structure
Since lawyers’ understanding of marketing and sales is so poor, merely seeing these topic names is educational. “Hmm. ‘Product Maturity.’ I wonder what that is.”
Lawyers rate each article, which motivates content contributors to submit good stuff, and lets you see which contributors and consultants already have the trust of your lawyers.
Lawyers rate the content. Over time, you'll accumulate information about what they like and dislike the most, which you might use to inform other training initiatives or retreat content.
They also complete an open-book quiz. Since the article remains in front of them, this is not a test, but a means of reinforcing what they just read.
Dezurve enables your firm to measure the frequency, volume, and consistency of lawyers' learning. However, there's no management burden. You only look at the performance data when you have an investment decision to make. The color-coded report lets you see what you need to know at a glance.
Stage 2: Training
Lawyers who satisfy your performance criteria for the Education stage progress to training.
RainmakerVT is online training via video lessons and interactive simulations. They provide measurable electronic Training at modest cost to lawyers whose measured behavior within Dezurve has demonstrated credible commitment to learning and applying BD skills in a sustainable way. The regimen would offer two consecutive 90-day guided programs, with participation in the second contingent on successful completion of the first.
Weekly plan, guidance
Each Friday, participants receive an email with a reminder of what they should have completed this week, and a link to their plan for the ensuing week. Each week's plan is a mix of four components:
Repeating previously prescribed courses to reinforce what was learned
Practice sessions: These are 5-minute exercises
Skill-validation sessions: These demonstrate whether or not the lawyer has internalized the skill, and can count on it being available when needed in the real world. Most lawyers discover that they should have spent more time repeating and practicing, that they haven't actually internalized the skill. This is an important part of moving them away from the check-the-box curriculum mindset that's a vestige of their formal education.
Each weekly plan will take between an 60-90 minutes to complete.
Firm management can view any lawyer's performance at any time.
Measurable electronic tools enable the firm to demonstrate that it's serious about accountability.
Stage 3: Coaching
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.
Studies among professional salespeople in the commercial world, who have sales quotas to reach, show that coaching can make an important difference.
Whether done by internal staff or outside consultants, coaching can get expensive.
In a typical scenario, the firm chooses 20 partners (associates are rarely provided coaching) and spends $1000/month on each one. In six months, the "80% problem" will have wasted $96,000 of the $120,000 invested. (As unlikely as it is that most firms would spend that much on 20 lawyers.)
By contrast, the three-stage, tranched program described above eliminates the waste and produces these three effects:
For relative pennies, every lawyer would have had an opportunity to learn about BD and demonstrate that they're serious about learning
Roughly 20% of those would have progressed to Stage 2, and been able to learn actual practical skills
About 5-10% of those would have earned professional coaching
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. Cull 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 who completed the confidence survey repeat it and compare the results with the one completed at the program’s outset.
Ad hoc coaching demand projections
Here’s a projection of ad hoc demand based on my observations working with partners over the past 25 years.
This is an example for a 180-lawyer firm. To adjust this for your firm size, or to test different just-in-time coaching demand scenarios and assumptions, click here to access the live spreadsheet. You can modify any of the pale yellow fields.