Which comes first, the demand (chicken) or the supply (egg)? Which should lawyers focus on first, attracting clients or developing expertise? The short answer is, "demand," without which supply is unneeded.
This question results from an exchange on Carolyn Elefant's MyShingle.com blog. In response to her post, "Open Letter to New Lawyer: You should be dragging me into the 21st century, not the other way around," an anonymous poster bemoaned that
"There has been this disturbing trend of stressing marketing and Internet presence at the expense of gaining substantive legal experience." He or she continues with "IMHO, this whole 'profession' is being transformed by a bunch of marketing zombies from skilled advisers and advocates into a bunch of empty suits jumping up and down trying to be noticed," and concludes with "After all, it's a heck of a lot simpler to become very good at self promotion or sales, than it is to become very good in a specific area of the law."
According to the respondent, until you have acquired serious experience, you shouldn't be trying to get clients.
That was a nice sequence when young lawyers had the luxury of getting hired out of law school for a healthy salary and learned how to practice law under those fortunate auspices. That's no longer the case, and young lawyers now must simultaneously gain experience while finding a way to survive economically, which means finding a way to attract some kind of client who will pay you something.
The quoted remarks reveal deep ignorance about 1) markets; 2) sales; 3) social media; and the skill and strategy necessary to become adept and produce results from any of it.
1) The comment about expertise suggests that there's some absolute bright line, on one side of which a lawyer is legitimate, and on the other, useless. This ignores the concept of "good enough."
Anyone with any understanding of business history recognizes that markets offer an array of solutions from minimal to exotic. Each buyer decides what level of relative quality or sophistication is good enough for their immediate need and means. Just as a Formula One race car is overkill for commuting to work, hiring a super-expert lawyer for more mundane tasks is equally absurd.
It seems to be OK for green lawyers to do pro bono, helping low-income tenants offset their landlord's power, or navigating the byzantine maze of the bureaucracy trying to get benefits to which they're entitled, and many more forms of critical assistance.
Are we saying that it's OK for inexperienced lawyers to help the poor, but not people of means? Apart from the social ugliness of that implication, isn't that decision up to the legal service consumer? As long as the lawyer represents his or her credentials accurately, it's the right of anyone to decide that that level of preparation is good enough for them, at this time, for this problem.
2) On what would one base such a facile conclusion about sales?
Could it be that, across the global economy, skilled salespeople are in incredible demand because of scarce supply, and therefore tend to be among the highest-paid people in most companies? Are salespeople scarce because it's so easy that everyone has gotten really good at it?
Or, perhaps you compared the percentage of lawyers whose work is billable and collectible (and therefore must be considered good enough at some aspect of the law) vs. the lawyers who generate the overwhelming percentage of that billable work.
No, such a comparison would lead one to the opposite conclusion, i.e., that it's far more difficult to become very good at sales. Given its economic value, if selling was simple or easy, more lawyers would be good at making rain, rainmakers would be in abundant supply, and they wouldn't earn multiples of what their worker-bee colleagues earn.
This is especially true in recent years, when declining demand has made law a more competitive business, a condition that one might conclude would motivate more lawyers to get good at getting business. If selling is so easy, why have lawyers not been able to pick up this simple skill in the four years since the recession began? We still have constant news of layoffs and compensation cuts affecting lawyers who don't have sufficient business.
Don't equate the putative rainmaking from 1990-2007 with sales ability. It was an unparalleled period of optimal conditions, i.e., massive demand growth (that AmLaw called "the Golden Age of Law Firms") accurately characterized as the rising tide that lifted all boats.
3) Characterizing participation in social media as self-promotion reveals complete ignorance of the medium and its purpose.
Social media success requires one to acknowledge that markets are conversations. Just as in any social interaction, conversation isn't driven by talking about oneself; nobody is interested in that. It's about adding something relevant to the conversation.
There are only two ways to add something relevant
- know what you're talking about
- participate as an acknowledged novice who's trying to learn about the topic, and ask good questions of those who are more knowledgeable.
At least some of those more knowledgeable people will conclude that you're relevant, i.e., you're interested in the topic and, based on your contributions over time, you seem to be committed to the issue and progressing in your understanding of it.
Some of those who perceive you as relevant may decide that you show potential, and give you a chance to be useful, i.e., work with them. Others may decide that you're smart and know what questions to ask, and may give you a chance to perform some research or other small tasks. You've now climbed two steps up the Impact Ladder, which begins with Relevance, then progresses to Useful, to Valuable, to Indispensable.
Other than constantly trying to improve, don't worry about shortcomings you can't do much about immediately. Focus on your relative advantages. You may have just graduated from law school. Yes, you're green as green can be, but you still know more about solving legal problems than do 99% of your fellow citizens.
In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king. In terms of legal knowledge, you're the one-eyed man. Be relevant and useful to those whose ignorance of legal relief makes them feel blind.
You won't get rich, but you will get started.
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