For successful law firms and lawyers, polished business development skills are essential tools of the trade. Law firms who want to invest in teaching their lawyers how to generate revenue often face challenges in making business development education, training, and coaching available in ways that are both effective and perceived as fair.

From management’s perspective, it’s logical and reasonable to allocate development investment to lawyers who are predisposed to learning and using the training. The selection schemes, though, often suggest to other lawyers that partners who are already successful at developing business, and who would appear to need training the least, are given priority access to it.

Forget “pilot” programs

For reasons of fairness, internal harmony, and return on investment, let’s depart from the typical “pilot” program in which a business development training program is awarded to a group of hand-picked lawyers. This too often produces two predictable outcomes:

  • Too many of the chosen lawyers waste the investment

  • Those excluded suspect that the selection process was an insider game

It’s a rare firm that can predict who will perform and who won’t. (Think about the poor results that are widely reported with lateral partners, in whom management invests serious time and money.)

In my interviews with law firm leaders, and a survey done for me by ALA, the reported percentage-of-waste ranges from 20-90%, with a huge concentration at 80%. Those percentages remain pretty consistent irrespective of the type of firm or the method of choosing the lawyers to be trained and coached. Surprisingly, the highest waste percentage is associated with lawyers who explicitly requested the training. So much for predicting motivation or performance.

Begin with a radical notion: universal inclusion

Business development skill-improvement resources should be available to all lawyers who earn it. However, the concept of earning it instead of awarding it requires a change in mindset.

Provide basic BD education to everyone. You can assemble an accessible library of articles, white papers, ebooks, etc. at no cost, or subscribe to a commercial one for a trivial amount.

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Demonstration is better than prediction

A program can be structured so that it’s available cost-effectively to all highly-motivated lawyers The key is replacing prediction with demonstration.

Education, the least expensive of the three learning components, should be made universally available first, with individual performance measured.

Training, which is the actual skill learning component, is somewhat more expensive, and so becomes available only to lawyers who fully exploited the Education component.

The scarcest, most expensive resource, Coaching, is reserved for those who demonstrated consistent commitment and seriousness of purpose at both Education and Training, according to whatever objective standard the firm assigns.

Attrition is expected, and welcomed

There will be considerable attrition along the way. Business development skills aren’t intuitive, and aren’t easy for all to master. The unpleasant truth is that most lawyers simply don’t want to be business generators. Oh, sure, they want to have business, but going through the effort and time commitment to get business by developing and polishing the necessary capability? For too many of your firm’s lawyers, that answer is, “No, thanks.”

Here’s the radical notion: That’s OK. Law firms have already tried to enforce compliance with training programs. For the most part, they’ve failed, as you’ll see below. The BD-payoff carrot is too fuzzy and distant for many lawyers, and the stick largely nonexistent. Accept that only a small percentage of your lawyers really want to get good at BD, and direct your investment in them only. The problem has been identifying them.

The three-stage Education/Training/Coaching approach suggested above accepts this reality. It anticipates and embraces fact that 80% will never opt-in at the Education stage, or will opt-out before making enough progress for the firm to justify more investment in them. If 80% of the lawyers you might have mistakenly invested many thousands of training/coaching dollars in instead disqualify themselves fairly quickly for relative pennies, you’re way ahead. Now, you can commit a larger, but still modest (say, a few hundreds of dollars), amount in online training for the 20% who passed Stage One muster, to see who’s willing to sustain their rigor through Stage Two. Those who perform at both stages will have demonstrated that they’re serious about learning BD skills.

Don’t bet on being lucky

Sometimes we get lucky. Serendipitous market opportunities sometimes get created by legislative change or litigation. But, in the past two decades (at least), successful business development has required lawyers to be able to navigate a rigorous process of identifying business problems that are significant enough for prospects or clients to warrant taking action, while positioning themselves as advisors and problem solvers rather than self-interested salespeople. Not the stuff that is learned in law school, or that reveals itself to us intuitively.

Acquiring business development skills is a progressive mix of education, training, and coaching. A successful skill development program will offer both theory and practice, in that order. Lawyers who are motivated to master education (through self-study and demonstrated proficiency) can then move on to training and practice.

As noted earlier, Education is trivially inexpensive and can be self-paced. The eager learner can repeat lessons until the “penny drops” and he’s ready to progress. Lawyers can review earlier lessons until they’ve acquired proficiency and confidence. With knowledge in hand, “real life” practice with, and guidance from, a skilled coach will help a lawyer plan out an effective strategy and feel confident in an approach that will take practice (much practice!) before it feels comfortable.

But the results are well worth the effort.

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.