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In The BigLaw Partner LotteryStephen Harper describes the BigLaw experience as two-step lottery, with few winners. In the Comments, a poster says,

“Young, newly admitted attorneys need to learn how to market their firm, run the daily operations, administer a support staff and work as a team to accomplish goals. Most new firms I encounter cannot survive beyond 12-18 months.”

In today's environment, for lawyers without marketing and sales skills, I'd say a 12-18-month life span seems generous, especially in reference to newly-minted lawyers with heavy law school debt and no capital. I don’t know how they’d finance themselves for even that long, even if they returned to their Ramen-heavy undergrad diet.

It’s not only green lawyers who lack – and desperately need – the skills to get and keep clients. (I won’t comment on operations because I’m no authority on the topic.) On their own, few seasoned lawyers would survive 12-18 months unless they’d built up a cash hoard elsewhere first.

A year ago we moved into a community of very nice homes that abuts a golf course. Two neighbors in our cul-de-sac appeared to be noticeably successful professionals. One is a financial advisor and the other an architect who had designed a number of notable structures in our city. Each had lived here for the entire 16 years the community existed. Each had multiple cars, kids in private schools, membership at the exclusive golf club, had traveled extensively, the whole American Dream.

Recently, the architect acknowledged that his once-100-person firm had shrunk to 12, and his income had declined by 75%; the financial advisor’s home is now awaiting a short sale.

What happened? Did these two smart, successful, nice guys suddenly get stupid, lazy or incompetent? No. As many lawyers did, they rode a 25-year wave of unbelievable demand that ended in 2008; business just came to them. When that went away, they didn’t have the know-how, skills or experience to compete for business. Worse, they didn’t know that they didn’t. Like many lawyers, they confused a sustained high tide with business development capability. It’s understandable. If you’ve “generated” a lot of clients for two decades, you must be good at it, right?

IMO, this ignorance kept them in denial for the past four years, convincing them that the cause was either a business cycle or a personal slump. Either way, they saw it as a temporary decline that they could ride out. They never entertained the idea that the new conditions were permanent, or that they lacked a capability absolutely required under those new conditions.

Similarly, lawyers have not admitted that marketing and sales is an acquired skill set, so they’ve not gotten serious about learning how to get business in a permanently competitive buyer’s market. Does that suggest similar ignorance or denial of what many now call “the new normal”?

If, somehow, macro forces conspired in a way that, suddenly, lawyers were confronted with the requirement that they also practice medicine or accounting, would they assume that they had those skills, too? It’s equally unsupportable to assume that one has business development skills if one has never learned or cultivated them.

The good news is that these skills are not difficult to learn.  In fact, if you approach it correctly, you’ll find that your “lawyering” skills are all you need.  You just have to use them a little differently.

Mike O'Horo

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