In "We Need a Chief Resilience Officer," the August 21 edition of his excellent blog, What Makes Lawyers Tick, Dr. Larry Richard discusses how current market conditions, and law firms' response to them, produce a list of debilitating symptoms all lawyers will recognize. He says these are signs of "learned helplessness," a condition in which individuals "experience not having control over their destiny and then over-generalize to conclude that 'nothing I do matters, so I might as well not try.'”
As a layman, I claim no foundation other than my 22 years coaching lawyers through sales opportunities. I suspect that part of the learned hopelessness may relate to the combination of firms' increased carrot-and-stick emphasis on business development, and lawyers' unconscious incompetence relative to marketing and sales.
Business development is the zeitgeist of the law business now, and will remain so as lawyers slowly accept that law is a business like any other rather than a noble calling above the vicissitudes of commerce.
Lawyers' ignorance of the principles and practices of marketing and sales is almost absolute. That's understandable since, until about 2008, they had the luxury of ignoring that unseemly practice for the entire history of the profession. They've long relied for revenue on a handful of rainmakers, whose success they attributed to rainmaking being the province of "naturals." In truth, apart from consistent effort, much of that rainmaking success was due to the 25-year sustained boom in legal service demand. It was more rain-catching than rain-making.
The legal landscape has permanently shifted from one of abundance to one of scarcity. Under such conditions, the symptoms Dr. Richard describes are understandable. People are competing for dwindling resources, hoarding, defending, etc.
Amid scarcity, firms apply pressure on all their lawyers to generate revenue, effectively adding a new skill-based performance category, but without providing the means to acquire the skill, or exhibiting the necessary tolerance for mistakes and the time required to become skilled and gain experience and judgment. It's understandable that lawyers who lack selling skills, who don't understand such skills or, in many cases, don't even know that selling is a skill, would feel hopeless in the face of their situation.
If you believe that BD capability is a natural condition, it will feel like there's nothing you can do about it. It's almost as if the firm declared that henceforth everyone must be left-handed.
Even if you recognize and accept that BD is a learned skill, unless you're one of the lawyers whom the firm has anointed (via purely subjective criteria) as "having BD potential," whatever training/support resources the firm offers will not be available to you. (Won't that give the ol' confidence a boost.)
The BD ignorance effect cascades. Firm leaders are often rainmakers who made their bones during the boom and don't understand that simply "getting off your butt and getting out there" is still necessary, but no longer sufficient. This view is based on the mistaken belief that rainmakers did it on their own. They didn't, any more than successful technology entrepreneurs do it on their own.
This institutional ignorance:
- Discourages investment in BD training, perpetuating both BD non-performance and resulting hopelessness
- Results in a monolithic view of BD, which precludes recognizing and establishing other contributing roles that many in the firm could serve without becoming "rainmakers"
- Creates and sustains a system of two castes: one has a book of business above a certain dollar threshold, and the other doesn't. For many it will appear and feel like there's no way to escape one's current caste.
There's no need to feel hopeless in the face of today's BD challenges.
You know you have to improve your business development skills to get the business you need. But most of the training you see offered feels more like a degree program with a someday/maybe payoff rather than the specific help you need right now.
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