Much has been written about lawyers’ anxiety regarding their ability to generate business in today’s brutally competitive legal-service market. In order to determine how anxious or confident lawyers are, we conducted a U.S./Canada survey.  

An overwhelming number of attorneys (70%) ranked themselves low on having a steady stream of high-quality leads, yet 58% ranked their business development confidence level at 6 or higher (1-10 scale with 10 highest). According to research psychologist Dr. John McCabe, this may be due to what is known as “self-presentation” theory.


"Impression Management"

The implication here is that while answering the specific questions about business development efforts, and grading themselves fairly low on the confidence scale, the impression they want to give the marketplace is quite different.  This “self-presentation” concept is part of the larger “Impression Management” theory that individuals and organizations must create and maintain the desired public perception.

In another example of this dichotomy, those lawyers who had fewer years of experience tended to demonstrate a strong sense of security about their futures. Yet only 26.0% of the respondents ranked their ability to bring in the type and amount of business they want a 7 or above (1-10 scale with 10 highest).

An examination of other responses from the 175 respondents further demonstrates this dichotomy.

  • In response to the question about having a steady stream of high-quality leads, 70% ranked themselves a 5 or below (1-10 scale with 10 high), and only 6% stating they had this high level of leads.

  • 64% indicated they do not convert 100% of invitations/sales opportunities into paying clients. Again, only 6% rated themselves a 9 or 10.

  • 9% of the attorneys responding stated that they are “constantly asked to write articles and speak at industry conferences,” with 63% at a 5 or below. As might be expected, those from firms larger than 501 attorneys were significantly more likely to agree with this prompt compared to solo practitioners or those from firms of 2 to 10 people.

  • When asked if they had a robust referral network, 44% stated they did not and only 5% said they did. In fact, those who had expressed overall confidence in their business generation abilities were highly likely to agree that they had a robust referral network. There was a strong correlation between these two survey questions.

  • 31% of the attorneys ranked themselves “not well positioned” in a growing market segment; only 4% gave a strong “yes” that they're well positioned. Within this group, those with 9 to 20 years of practice were significantly more likely to agree that they are well-positioned than those with 4-8 years of experience.

  • And curiously, 56% of the attorneys stated they're committed to spending a minimum of two hours per week to learn and practice business development skills. If this is so, based on answers to the questions above, their time is not being productive.

It appears from these survey results that lawyers face underlying challenges in generating new business or converting sales efforts while putting forth a “good face” (self-presentation) to the marketplace. Larger firms may have more professional development programs to assist their attorneys in bringing in new business, but they're either ineffective or not being utilized. And while there is a relatively high expression of overall business development confidence, it's not reflected in answers regarding specific business development tactics.  


Confidence vs. Functional Capability

We may unintentionally have triggered two different assessments. Respondents’ overall rating may be their measure of business development confidence, as intended. However, responses to the individual questions may be more a self-assessment of functional capability, e.g., the ability to 

  • attract prospects,

  • convert prospects to clients,

  • entice editors to publish them and organizations to choose them as speakers, and

  • motivate contacts to refer them.

One possible explanation may be that lawyers are not qualified to self-assess their tactical capability. Part of this has to do with lawyers being at the first of the four stages of competence: Unconscious Incompetence. Whenever we confront something new, we begin at Unconscious Incompetence, which means that we don’t know what we don’t know, and we may not even know that there’s something to know. Typically, at this stage we exhibit overconfidence in our innate ability to perform because of our ignorance of what it actually takes to perform.

Whatever experience lawyers may have had generating business was effectively erased in 2008 when conditions shifted to a Buyer’s Market from the 20-year Seller’s Market. Such a fundamental shift renders all previously successful strategies and tactics ineffective, and everyone reverts to being a beginner, which means unconscious incompetence. It’s akin to what happens in a newly-deregulated (and therefore newly competitive) industry. Students of business history will remember the clumsy initial marketing exhibited by the deregulated airline, banking and telecommunications industries, to name just a few. It took time for those industries to learn how to compete, and it will take lawyers some time, too.

If you don’t understand the what, why, and how of marketing and sales strategies, tactics and skills, it’s pretty hard to assess how well you’re doing, and that’s not a formula for confidence.

According to Dr. Larry Richard, generally acknowledged as the authority on lawyer personality, lawyers score very low on Resilience. They don’t like uncertainty. Their confidence is based on predictability. What could be more unpredictable and less certain than an industry long accustomed to a level of service demand that permitted lawyers to get business without knowing anything about marketing or sales, but that now faces declining demand and increased competition? Everything that was true about getting business for so long is no longer true.

We should probably be surprised that lawyers' expressed confidence is as high as it is.

Here's a breakdown of the survey demographics: