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Contrary to the proverb, what you don't know can and will hurt you, especially if you don't know that you don't know. What does this have to do with lawyer business development?

For more than 20 years, until the Great Recession, lawyers enjoyed the longest sustained bull market ever seen. Demand was such that lawyers didn't even understand how easily they got business (compared to their clients' longstanding experience in fiercely competitive markets). As a result, lawyers were lulled into thinking that marketing and sales were either the province of "naturals," or a simple undertaking that didn't require real training or experience -- certainly not like law. 

“Unconscious Incompetence”

This is known as "unconscious incompetence," the state of not knowing what one doesn't know, or even that there's something to know. It's characterized by overconfidence about one's innate ability to do the thing in question, based on one's ignorance of what it actually takes to do the thing. For example, at that stage, I might innocently observe of golf, "How tough can it be? The ball isn't moving; it just sits there and waits for you to hit it. Everybody has to be real quiet so you can concentrate. There's no shot clock, and nobody's trying to block your shot. How tough can it be?" Everything looks easy to the unschooled.

Once out on the course, I'd learn just how much actually is required to hit a golf ball the desired direction and distance. This is the beginning of my transition to "conscious incompetence." I'm now aware of a deficiency. Only then am I receptive to training. 

The law business is becoming much more competitive. (Trust me, lawyers are only seeing the gentle beginning of the kind of competition their clients are accustomed to, and that will become the arduous norm for them over the next 10 years) Lawyers are finding that their intuitive assumptions about marketing and sales activity and capability don't align with the actual task. 

Marketing and sales are mission-critical business functions that require knowledge, skill, and the wisdom and judgment borne of experience. These functions are not the domain of the dilettante or dabbler.

Real world example

I saw this phenomenon up close and personal in the early '90s when I was in the sports marketing business. Prior to 1991, selling athlete endorsements and event sponsorship to corporations was pretty easy. Coinciding with the emergence of ESPN specifically, and cable TV generally, sports experienced an explosion of exposure and demand. Companies were only too happy to put up big money to associate their brands with high-engagement events and high-profile athletes. It seemed like the decision was driven largely by ego, i.e., the CEOs desire to be on TV, standing on the 18th green handing an oversize check to the winner.

Sports marketing agencies were accustomed to hiring former college athletes with law degrees, who merely had to document the deals that flowed in so reliably. 


In 1991 the industry experienced oversaturation. There were simply too many tennis and golf tournaments and players, relative to the number of companies who could pony up the inflated sponsorship fees (along with roughly an equal amount to promote the sponsorship). Now, mere exposure to the right demographic wasn't enough; the sponsorship had to measurably drive (gasp!) product sales. 

Sports agencies found themselves with a serious problem. Nobody knew how to sell. Everyone was accustomed to overwhelming demand, which required them only to present the property and write the order. Now, they had to actually justify the expenditure as an investment, and relate it to the company's strategy and marketing aims. The changed game required different skills that few had. As a result, lots of sports marketing agencies failed or were acquired.

Sound familiar? It should; it's almost identical to what happened to law beginning in 2008 and continues apace.

Change your mindset

Accept that business development is a profession for which you're not yet qualified, but can become so. Once you do, it will be easier for you to accept that you don't know what you don't know, and not expect that you should have some innate capability. You'll have to learn that profession, and make mistakes, and gain experience.

Mike O'Horo

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