What will constitute a successful year of business-getting for you? Will it be whatever it turns out that you happened to get, or have you set a goal that would represent real accomplishment, and put in place a plan to achieve it?

For the 20+ years I've been coaching them, lawyers have resisted anything that smells like goal-setting, and, perish the thought, planning. Instead, they relegate business development to spare time, as if that existed, and hope that things will work out well enough. At the end of the year, they look back and spin the outcome as what they'd intended.

Recently, consultant and former BigLaw managing partner Edwin Reeser wrote about Squire Sanders's flat 2013 financial results, and how the firm's chair pronounced himself "pleased with the firm’s performance in the face of challenging market conditions."

Reeser suggests the following exercise as a way to cut through the spin.

[Italicized within brackets following each of his points, I'll equate this to individual business development.]

"Take what happened as reported by the firm itself, including what happened and how it was said to have happened, at 100% face value."

["Report" your business-generation results to yourself.]

"Roll back the clock to the beginning of the year and envision a partner meeting at which the leader stands up and presents the actual outcome of the year, in advance to the partnership body for a partnership vote (remember partnership votes?). Then go to the article, lift out the reported facts from leadership and summarize them."

[Present your actual year-end results to yourself as a beginning-of-year projection.]

"Going to the (Squire Sanders) article, here is what we get: 

'In the face of challenging market conditions we will be pleased if we can achieve the following results:

  1. An increase in gross revenue of 0.9%
  2. A reduction in headcount of 2.4%, which will increase RPL by 2.4%
  3. Following a 20% crash in net income in 2012, we will repeat that performance for the     second year in a row, improving it slightly to being only 19.1% below 2012.
  4. Somehow we will work an increase in profits per partner by 1.3%
  5. The net operating margin, or profit pool for the firm, will remain at the same level as last year, which is 14% (Am Law 100 average is about 36%, and in 1985 the firm's margin was 43%).
  6. We will commit time and resources to creating alliances with small local firms in the Ukraine and Indonesia.
  7. We will then launch our next year by commencing merger discussions with a firm that has failed to find a merger partner in at least a half dozen discussions over the upcoming year, all of which will occur before ours, with some of the reason we have a shot at making a deal being concern by the earlier suitors over liabilities that the proposed merger partner may cause our firm to absorb.'"

[Your version might look like this:

  • Keep all the work I already had, with negligible growth
  • Lose a couple of small clients, raising my average revenue-per-client a teeny bit
  • After losing a couple of big clients in 2012 that represented 20% of my profit, repeat that this year.
  • Be roughly as profitable as I was last year, which was only 40% as profitable as my peers.
  • Create some small referral sources in a remote area
  • Discuss joining a firm that has been turned down by a number of my peers.]

 "Lets' have a show of hands of all those in favor."

[Would you be excited about setting out to work hard to achieve these results?] 

"There is a difference between guiding a firm to defined outcomes, and arriving at a destination and proclaiming that is where you meant to take the firm all along.  Even if it is Sulawesi."

[Too often, this is what lawyers conduct their BD effort haphazardly, then accept the outcome.]

Thanks, Ed.

If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there.
— Lewis Carroll

It's time to reverse the habit of evaluating business development results after the fact, and, since they're now a fact and we're therefore stuck with them, declaring them to be OK. Instead,  define the goal and marshal the necessary resources to achieve it. Without a goal, it's impossible to define what it will take to achieve it, which makes investment planning an empty exercise. More practically, though, without a clear goal and plan, any and all marketing and sales activities (and associated costs) seem reasonable because there are no standards against which to evaluate them. They're competing against "do nothing," so they seem reasonable.

Mike O'Horo

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