Everyone is familiar with the Law of Unintended Consequences, defined as “outcomes that are not the ones foreseen and intended by a purposeful action.” In this case, the purposeful action is law firms creating business development training geared specifically for women. The potential unintended consequence is perpetuating the idea that BD is about the seller in any way.

Last December, a consultant friend in this industry asked her peers to recommend “thought leaders to interview about business development training geared toward supporting women.” She acknowledged that “there is always a question of whether men and women should have particularly focused training in this area.” Most of what follows I wrote then, in a private response to her.

I wish I had published this when I wrote it. In today’s atmosphere, gender topics take on greater sensitivity. Please accept that this is technical advice, not social commentary.

Foundation principles

Throughout my 25 years coaching thousands of lawyers of every description, I’ve found that these principles help lawyers keep things gender-neutral:

  • If you adhere to the outdated "relationship first" approach, you'll rely on social interaction. Men and women socialize differently, which raises the risk of gender-based discomfort.
  • Interactions based on relevance, i.e., business topics that are important professionally to the other party, are inherently gender neutral. If it's not about you, there's less risk of gender sensitivity.
  • If you ask questions instead of making declarations, it's less about you.
  • If your suggestions are phrased as questions, e.g., "Would it be helpful if..." or "How do you think this might work...?" you're unlikely to be perceived as talking down to someone.
  • To enable effective skill development without the need for gender-specific training, first rethink the presumption that a personal relationship is prerequisite for getting business.

A personal relationship is not prerequisite for getting business

The longstanding belief about how lawyers get business is, “It’s all about relationships.” Based on that, it’s understandable to perceive that training for women should be different than that for men because women form relationships differently -- where they interact, and also the language and pacing of those interactions.

The “relationship first” approach worked during the seller’s market that ended in 2008. In a buyer’s market it’s outdated. The critical factor today is “relevance.”

Today, buyers don’t have time to develop relationships with would-be sellers. There are too many aspirants, and most buyers already have a job-and-a-half.

If you doubt this, think about the poster child for all this traditional relationship-building investment. You know what I mean. You like and respect each other, and enjoy each other’s company. Over time, you’ve done enough of this that it’s grown into a friendship. You have a history of “catching up” lunches. I call this “personal intimacy.”

However, more recently, you notice that those lunch invitations are accepted with declining frequency, it takes a lot longer to get on someone’s calendar, and you’re cancelled or rescheduled more often. It’s become much harder for your friend or contact -- even your best client -- to justify diverting time and attention from her job-and-a-half to indulge in lunch with you.  

She doesn’t like you or trust you any less. She’s busier, and forced to judge her availability by different criteria. While spending time with you is personally enjoyable, a social lunch is an interruption of her day, not an addition to it. Your friendship isn’t relevant to what she’s obligated to focus on. 

The other rebuttal to the “relationships are everything” claim is simple math. During the seller’s market, everybody was buying, and buying a lot. That meant that buyers had the luxury of buying at least a little from all of their lawyer friends. There was no need to invest time generating demand; the demand was already there. There wasn’t much need to master the process of getting decisions, either. Prospects had already decided to buy; you were merely getting “your share.”


It’s very different today

Now, buyers are shifting a growing percentage of their legal spend away from traditional outside law firms, building up their internal capabilities and making use of non-traditional alternatives such as offshoring, boutiques, professional service firms, and technology solutions. Buyers have more friends than outside-counsel budget. No relationship can protect you from that trend, so why invest in bucking it? Your friends might feel bad about not buying from you, or not being able to have lunch, but they have little choice.

Studies show that B2B buyers primarily use web-based sources to inform themselves now, and as a result usually have advanced 70% of the way through the traditional sales funnel on their own before being willing to consult with a seller. This is all happening without you, at least in the person-to-person sense. 

Whether or not people like you or would enjoy spending time with you isn’t germane. These new relationships, which I call “professional intimacy,” form the same way that friendships form, cumulatively over time, as a result of frequent exposure. However, the exposure is now mostly electronic, where they consume your thinking and become more familiar and comfortable with it, and trusting of it. They allocate time and attention to your thoughts because you’re relevant, maybe even provocative; you contribute to their ability to deal with the challenges they face every day.

The new relationships are not between individual buyers and you, but between organized groups of buyers (such as an industry) and your ideas.  

By the time they decide to speak with you directly, or consider you for an assignment, they already know you -- at least, they how you think about the issue in question -- and you’ve already created demand for yourself by contributing value with your thinking. They don’t know you, the person, but you the relevant contributor.

If you eliminate the assumption that demand is based on a personal relationship, and accept that “idea relationships” are based on people opting into consuming your published content, gender becomes irrelevant. When you read a provocative article about a business issue you’re obligated to care about, do you even notice the author’s gender, other than as a passing afterthought that has no bearing on the content’s relevance and usefulness?

Converting interested inquirers into paying clients isn’t about you, either. It’s about your ability to facilitate a good decision, independent of your self-interest, that will survive subsequent scrutiny. Decision-making among many stakeholders is difficult. Few organizations are good at it because most lack a reliable decision process. The seller who facilitates a reliable decision process brings differentiating value to those stakeholders. (Like you do with them after you’re hired.) That usually translates into strong reasons to hire you.

decision triangle w-explanation.jpeg

Before you embark on gender-specific BD training, ask yourself, “What is it about establishing and reinforcing a differentiated market position, and facilitating buying decisions, that is gender-specific?”

Mike O’Horo

Acquiring and mastering business development skill is a three-part mission: Education, Training, and Coaching. Each produces a different outcome, and should be accomplished using different tools at appropriate cost.

  • Education produces understanding, awareness, context, but no skills. Like law school. The Dezurve content library lets you accomplish this easily, conveniently, and at trivial cost.

  • Training is the actual doing. It produces practical skills available to you when you need them in the real world. RainmakerVT online simulations and video courses let you learn and make your mistakes privately in our virtual world, at modest cost.

  • Coaching produces tangible success by guiding you to apply successfully the skills you learned.

Click on the links to learn more about each component. Contact me to discuss your situation and options.