The Natural.jpg

First, let’s please dispense with the argument that certain lawyers are “natural rainmakers.”  That’s like suggesting that a really successful lawyer is a natural lawyer.  That insults the hard-won skill and experience of all successful lawyers. There are no naturals at the top levels of anything.

In many fields, some people begin with natural advantages, e.g., young athletes who are stronger, faster, more coordinated than their peers. Or musicians who pick up an instrument and play it.

Studies cited in Malcolm Gladwell’s books says that there are no natural anythings, that becoming an expert requires 10,000 hours of “focused practice, coaching and feedback.”  Natural proclivity is fine for hobbyists, but to make it as a professional, where only a small percentage can succeed, requires the 10,000-hour process.

As Dan DiPietro, head of Citi’s law firm group, is widely quoted of late:

  1. Demand for legal service is trending downward, especially for full-price US law firms
  2. Billing rates are trending downward
  3. Cost-reduction strategies (by which PPP levels were sustained in 2009-2010) are exhausted and not repeatable.

This means that far fewer lawyers will succeed at rainmaking than did for the past 20 years. In a fiercely competitive market for legal service, amateur rainmakers will be crushed by pros, as amateurs always are when they compete with pros in any field.

Rainmaking” is a charming word that boils down to “selling.”  Selling is a profession that requires knowledge, skill, training and experience, just like law or any other.  For 20 years, putative “naturals” thrived in a perfect storm of demand, and business conditions so favorable that one need merely show up consistently.  No disrespect intended, but running around in a storm with a bucket is not making rain.

That’s why I argue that, before 2009, there was no such thing as a rainmaker.  (I feel a bit like Chris Rock, i.e., “That’s right. I said it.”)

Amid this type of sustained abundance, “competition” is an abstraction because there’s plenty for everyone.  If you don’t get this case or deal, you’ll get another one.

The only real competition was over the talent to do the work that came in.  How else to explain the mad rise in salary for new law graduates that culminated at $160,000/year for people who had no experience and couldn’t do anything?

Things have flipped upside down.  Competition for rookie lawyers is nonexistent, but competition for business is as real as it gets.

Now, there’s no such thing as “Oh, well…we’ll get the next one.”  There may not be another one.   The case or deal you don’t get is a real loss.  Before, you had 100 lawyers “competing” for a share of 150 cases.  Now, you have 150 lawyers competing for 100 cases.  Do the math.  For many putative rainmakers, their “share” will be zero.

What we’re seeing now is narrow demand at the top based on what I’ll call “fulfillment preference.”  Demand for the top-tier stars who command what a WSJ article said was a 12:1 pay ratio vs. their partners is not due to their marketing/sales ability, but to a perceived scarcity of their specific flavor of legal knowledge and judgment, i.e., a rare ability to solve high-stakes, high-value problems reliably and, when necessary, artfully.  It’s the tiniest slice of legal service consumption, and irrelevant to most lawyers, who now face a world where their skills are indistinguishable from competitors’.

The future belongs to firms and lawyers who master the ability to establish, evolve and protect differentiated market positions, and win head-to-head sales competition.  If you doubt that, look at the top consulting firms, whose service offerings are indistinguishable.  What capability does McKinsey have that Bain doesn’t?  In mature categories, marketing and sales prowess determine competitive success.

Many lawyers behave as if they think the recession will end soon and things will return to “normal.”  The business press argues that this is the “new normal.”  Law is a mature category, which means a permanent shift from a seller’s market to a buyer’s market, subject to the harsh competitive reality that lawyers’ clients have wrestled with for decades.

Mike O'Horo

If you want to be great, you have to get trained, and you have to practice. RainmakerVT is the best and most affordable way to do both.