“Holiday Marketing” vs. Strategic December Business Development

About this time each year, law industry publications are rife with advice about “holiday marketing.” The advice tends to be about gift-giving protocols and using social events to network and create relationships. Here’s a much better way to use the last few weeks of the year.

What are you doing to improve your BD skills?

Today’s fiercely competitive legal service market requires far greater marketing and sales skills than ever before. Couple that with a dizzying rate of change in every aspect of business, and it becomes clear that standing pat on one’s skills is a path to failure. Here’s what to do.

The only 3 things partners need to develop business: Who, What, Why

Despite law firm management’s vociferous declarations that those with no business are in peril, out in the capillaries lawyers behave as if they still believe that billable tasks obviate what should be a survival-driven focus on finding a way to make some type of contribution to revenue generation. Here’s how to get your biz dev effort to the hygiene level.

The importance of “BD activity ratios”

How much time do you have to commit to marketing and sales activity to be successful? Unless you’ve established ratios, you don’t know, and it’s easy to tell yourself that whatever you’re doing is good enough. Here’s how.

I meant to brush my teeth, but I was too busy (reading time: 3 mins.)

Despite law firm management’s vociferous declarations that those with no business are in peril, out in the capillaries lawyers behave as if they still believe that billable tasks obviate what should be a survival-driven focus on finding a way to make some type of contribution to revenue generation. Here’s how to get your biz dev effort to the hygiene level.

Only 27% of a rainmaker's book is portable. So what?

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Earlier this year, my friend Jordan Furlong published a post in his excellent Law21 blog: How Powerful Are Rainmakers Really? In it, he shared data that suggests that the rainmakers whom firms fear as 900-lb gorillas, and treat as divas, may weigh a more manageable 225 lbs.

Why would this matter to lawyers who aren’t on their firms’ Compensation- or Management committees? Because the data shows that even very successful lawyers’ books of business are more precarious than they might think, and therefore there’s no room for complacency.

The data

“Acritas recently surveyed a wide range of partners who had laterally moved from one firm to another. Those partners had expected that about 70% of their client business would move with them to their new firm. You know what percentage of business actually moved? Twenty-seven percent.”

You may be thinking, “OK, I get that lateral movement might be riskier than presumed, for both the departing rainmaker and his destination firm. But I’m not planning on going anywhere. Shouldn’t I be secure?”

Maybe, but as that great philosopher, Dirty Harry, urged, ask yourself, “Do I feel lucky?”

Absence of complaint ≠ satisfaction

Don’t mistake a lack of complaining from clients as a sign of satisfaction. Research indicates that most clients won’t express feelings of dissatisfaction; they’ll just leave.

This is particularly true for consumers of services, who are less likely to complain than those who purchase a tangible product. For every client who does give you an earful, research indicates there are 26 others you won’t be hearing from. Ten of their friends and associates, however, will be told about their unpleasant experience with you and your firm in high-definition detail.

It could be that making a lateral move is the catalyst that enables dissatisfied clients to cut the cord because they have ready-made explanations that are hard to rebut: “Changing firms is too disruptive.” “We don’t want to forfeit the rest of the rainmaker’s team, who aren’t moving with her.” And so on.

But, all those factors were in place long before the lateral move. Which means they’re likely in place for you, too. Or maybe not. Maybe you’re an outlier, not reflected in the data that says that only 25% of clients would refer their top outside law firm.

If you’re still feeling sanguine, consider that the 2015 Lexis Nexis Bellweather Report highlighted another perception gap between firms and clients-- 80% of lawyers responded they’re good at client service while only 40% of clients said they received good service from their lawyers.

Where might you be vulnerable?

From Mark Cohen’s article in Forbes, “A recent study of the British legal market commissioned by LexisNexis and Judge Business School at Cambridge University contains a stark finding: ‘There is unambiguous evidence of a significant and persistent disconnect between law firms and their clients.’ The disconnect has resulted in a steady migration of work from firms to corporate legal departments as well as a growing client receptivity to service providers and other non-traditional sources for legal services.

A stunning 40% of clients in the LexisNexis survey noted that senior partners of their law firms lacked more than a basic knowledge of their businesses.”

This last item is where your opportunity lies.

Pursue relevance

What business issues, problems, and challenges are your clients and prospects concerned with, and talking about? Better yet, which ones are emerging, that they’ll have to be concerned with before long?

Learn your client’s business so you’ll know what’s important to their future, not their past. That way, your ideas and you will be relevant to them, and they’ll have a reason to pay attention to you and include you in their internal discussions because they perceive you as someone with something worthwhile to contribute.

This level of understanding enables the kind of provocative discussion that The Challenger Sale revealed as most effective. In this approach, the seller leads with insight and challenges client assumptions. To have any chance at that, you have to understand the client’s business, if not better than they do, at least as well.

Industry focus

“How could I possibly know all my clients’ businesses that well? They spend all day, every day in that business. I have clients in many types of businesses. That’s just not possible.”

You’re right, of course. Nobody can have a thorough understanding of multiple industries and businesses. Therein lies the problem and the solution. Your current mix of clients is the product of years, maybe decades, of random client acquisition, where you probably limited your attention solely to the nature of the legal matter in front of you.

That’s not going to work any longer.

Now, any proactive marketing and sales should be concentrated in a single industry that houses a high concentration of the business problem or situation that drives demand for your most valuable service. That way, you have only one business to study and keep up to speed on. Sure, companies within the industry have different circumstances, but there are more similarities than differences.

An example

Let’s say you’re an Employment lawyer, and most of your work is helping companies protect themselves against departing employees making improper use of proprietary knowledge at their new employer. With intellectual property now making up a huge percentage of almost any company’s assets, the old mindset would say, “I can help any company. They all have this problem.” True, but only after you’ve been found and chosen.

Instead, take a look at the Regulatory Technology space. RegTech is emerging, growing rapidly, and has tentacles throughout regulated industries. What if you focused on the banking/financial service industry? Your firm likely already has historical relationships with banks. All of them are embracing FinTech, which intersects inexorably with RegTech. Now, all you have to do is keep up with developments in financial services. That’s one industry, and essentially one business.

The variations aren’t that important. No more so than my business is focused solely on law firms. There are different sizes and types of firms, and while their circumstances cause them to address problems differently, and at different scale, they all face essentially the same problems. I have only one business to keep up with.

Mike O’Horo

Make it easy for prospects to recognize that they need you


How do those who buy what you sell recognize that they need you, that you’re relevant to their world and might just know something that would help them and make some part of their professional life better?

The easy part is identifying what won’t do that: Legal-service nouns. You know, the ones you identify yourself with without thinking. “Litigation.” “M&A.” “Corporate.” “Employment.” And so on.

A concrete example

Many years ago, I was working with the Products Liability practice of a big firm. At the outset of one of our meetings, a partner from the Banking and Finance practice stopped by and asked if he could take a few minutes to let them know what B&F was working on these days.

This was an attempt at cross-selling. I’m sure his expectation was that when he explained his group’s current focus, his partners would respond with suggestions of clients they should connect him with.

Instead, when he concluded his summary of current activity and focus, he got crickets. Nada. Silence. To me, it was an awkward moment, like when a comedian’s joke falls flat.

Triggering relevance

I happened to be sitting right beside him, and I was feeling for him. I said, “I’m not a product liability lawyer, and I’m not a banking/finance lawyer. In fact, I’m not any kind of lawyer. How would I recognize who needs you?”

He graciously answered me, offering examples of situations and problems that companies face acquiring capital and operating funds. “Well, Mike, when a company’s short-term borrowing surpasses 20% of their outstanding debt, to control capital cost they need to restructure the debt to…” He gave three or four different examples of situations that drove demand for B&F services.

Flipping the switch

It was like a switch had been flipped. Suddenly, the chatter started around the table, with his partners saying, “Oh, yeah, I should introduce you to Client XYZ.” And so forth. In just a few minutes, they produced a pretty impressive list of perceived opportunities they were confident it was worth exploring together.

Gone was the introduction-reluctance that’s too often an obstacle to cross-selling. These lawyers had heard their clients talking about those situations, challenges and problems. They recognized that their B&F colleague was relevant to their clients, that the introduction would reliably be welcome.

A pitch vs. help

Consider the difference in the traditional approach: “Hey, Ms. Client, I’d love for you to meet my Litigation partners. They’re really top-drawer.” What did the client hear? That you want her to put up with your colleague pitching for work. Nobody wants to hear a pitch. Should there be any surprise that colleagues don’t want to do make those lame introductions?

Now, think about the difference when you approach your electric utility client with, “It seems like utilities with nuclear generation facilities are facing an acute shortage of nuclear workers due to the shrinking of the nuclear Navy, which has been the primary training ground for those skills for decades. Is that something that your company is wrestling with?”

Unless this client is an outlier, she knows that this is a real issue that has real ramifications. Most people in her position would welcome speaking with a lawyer who offers fresh thinking about ways to deal with the problem.

Now, think of how your partner’s former reluctance to introduce you is replaced by eagerness as he anticipates the client thanking him for the introduction. This is the power of relevance.

Your action item

Think about what 80% of your work looks like. Now, engineer backward from the legal issues to the prime movers, the underlying business situations or problems that drove demand for that legal service. Replace your habitual use of legal service identifiers with those words. Begin identifying yourself as the person who solves those specific problems.

Think about how different your introductions and networking exchanges will sound, and how people will react. Instead of, “I’m an Employment lawyer,” consigning yourself to membership in a club of tens of thousands, you say, “I help utilities deal with the problem of a shrinking nuclear workforce.”

Your referral sources now know who to connect you with, and why. They, too, will be more willing, anticipating a positive reception.

Now, instead of “matter” being a noun, it’s a verb, as in, “You matter.” That’s how easy your life can become.

Mike O’Horo

Your biz dev coach is your “accountability partner” (reading time 3 mins.)

The biggest obstacle lawyers must overcome to achieve their business-generation goals is the ease of abandoning a BD-activity commitment in favor of non-BD responsibilities, e.g., billable work, firm demands, etc. It turns out that a couple of simple mechanisms can make a big difference to honoring our commitments to ourselves.

Your first sale should be "clarity" (reading time: 2 mins)

When selling, lawyers get anxious about how to obtain a sufficient understanding of a prospective client’s problem, and share enough of their knowledge to motivate her to hire them, without giving away the store or over-investing in what could turn out to be a dry hole.

Based on how often I’ve been asked this question by lawyers throughout my decades in BD coaching, this seems a pretty universal problem. Here’s how to make lemonade out of those lemons.

Nail that meeting with your prospective client

A prospective client has identified three lawyers whom she believes possess the expertise and standing to solve her problem. The good news is that you’re one of them, and 10 minutes from now she’ll be sitting in your office to interview you.

The less-good news? You don’t know much about her beyond whatever dry information a Google search and her LinkedIn profile revealed. Here’s how to raise the odds in your favor.

Eleven weeks from tomorrow

Eleven weeks from tomorrow, Wednesday, November 23, the end-of-year clock starts ticking as people travel the US to be with family and friends for the (US) Thanksgiving holiday. What does that have to do with business development?

Do you want more of what you have today, or something better?

If lawyers are honest with themselves, they’ll acknowledge that the practice they have today is, at best, just OK, and at worst, disappointing. As Einstein observed, repeating the same actions and expecting a different result is insanity. Here’s what you’ll need to do differently.

Good questions are more powerful than any answers (reading time: 4 mins.)

When asked what builds trust and credibility early in a relationship with this CEO of a $12 Billion company, he said, "I can always tell how experienced and insightful a prospective lawyer is by the quality of his questions and how intently he listens. That's just how simple it is." Here’s how to apply this.

To identify new opportunity, learn how to connect many disparate dots

During the legal service Golden Era, demand was explicit, i.e., companies were actively seeking legal services, and expressing that demand in legal service terminology. Opportunity was obvious, and lawyers had the luxury of waiting until the conversation sounded like they sound. They could insert themselves into the conversation at the moment of purchase. Now, if you wait until the moment of purchase, you're too late. Here's how to create opportunity instead of waiting for it.

The future of law firm business development belongs to the bold

Ultimately, the meek may inherit the earth. But history suggests that, in the meantime, meek salespeople will waste time, money and energy and miss out on the opportunities awaiting those with the vision and courage to take bold action. Legal service selling isn’t changing; it’s being born. Any similarities between what was and what will be is coincidental. Get ready for the future.

How to attract and retain the clients you really want

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It wasn’t all that long ago that lawyers’ concept of turnover was limited to showing empathy when their corporate clients bemoaned its disruptive effect and insidious cost.  A client moving down the street was rare. Like other symbols of the cherished days of expanding demand, what American Lawyer magazine called the Golden Age of law firms, client turnover is now a daily threat.

These days, the name of the game is "attract and retain." Here are the obstacles.

Don't understand the client's business

This is the biggie. In survey after survey, and GC panel after GC panel, clients consistently bemoan their primary outside law firms’ lack of knowledge about their business. This frustrates clients because they expect these firms to bring fresh thinking and creative ideas to the table; that’s hard to do when you don’t understand the game the client is trying to win. That also translates into direct overhead as clients must pay those lawyers by the hour to learn how to be relevant.

No differentiation

Most firms’ messages are variations on the “Quality Legal Services/We’re Great Lawyers” theme, and too many firms assiduously avoid attracting attention, preferring to look just like the other “quality” firms. Research indicates that corporate buyers think all established firms are of relatively equal quality, and can’t appreciate the minor distinctions that lawyers cite in intramural discussions.

Too few lawyers selling

A small group of rainmakers brings in most of the business. Most everyone else services those clients and assumes that enough business will continue to show up somehow – after all, it always has.  This “rainmaker,” “rain-catcher,” “mist-maker” culture is costly, especially now that rainmakers are demonstrating their willingness to move to greener pastures where their book will yield them a bigger piece of the profit pie.

Chasing fool's gold

All sales opportunities are not created equal. In fact, research reveals that, in 30 percent of selling situations, nothing is purchased, no decision is made. No law firm has a 30 percent market share, so we lose to competitors far less frequently than we lose to “No Decision.” Few lawyers know how to qualify and avoid investing precious time on a stillborn sales initiative. Fewer still have much of an appreciation for the concept of cost-of-sales.


Pitching is telling a prospect all about your firm, your services and yourself, and hoping that the innate attractiveness of your firm and its services will motivate the prospect to go through the cost and dislocation of replacing an incumbent, or at least reallocating the existing pie.

Selling means using the questioning and listening skills that made you a great lawyer, in a disciplined way, to learn which of this prospect’s many problems and challenges are not being solved satisfactorily.  Learn which problem this prospect already wants to say “Yes” to having help with.

Tunnel vision

This means looking for business only in your own practice area, e.g., tax lawyers looking only for tax work, employment lawyers seeking only employment work, etc.  

One corporate lawyer, seeking to groom biotech startups, had begun a relationship with a university’s business incubator. During a coaching session, he complained of a recent meeting at which the department heads kept steering the discussion back to a technology transfer problem. Exasperated, this lawyer told me: “But I wanted to talk about getting into the incubator’s startup stream.” Accepting technology transfer as the easy entry point and bringing in his IP colleagues didn’t occur to him.

Failure to cross-sell

Studies show that, on average, firms’ top 100 clients buy only a handful of the two dozen services typically offered. Tunnel vision is a major cause of this failure, but so is the product-orientation that prevents lawyers from seeing that demand for their services is based on the importance of the underlying business problem that the client must overcome or control, not on how skilled they are as lawyers.

New-partner shock

Even today, despite a decade of evidence of the criticality of business acquisition, some newly-minted partners still awaken belatedly to the harsh reality that partnership includes developing business, whether the firm and they have prepared for it or not.

Product-cycle blinders

Law firms are premium-priced manufacturers of custom products tailored to client needs. But needs change. Nothing is in demand or commands a premium price forever. Lawyers must learn how to recognize emerging needs that yield great value and command premium prices.

Winning is a great learning tool

Despite three decades of marketing evolution, some law firms still fear that bold, assertive sales and marketing will alienate their clients. But, those same corporate clients invest billions in sales and marketing. They know it’s critical, and they know it works.

Law firms have always sought the best people. Now, the definition of “best” has changed. Besides top legal skills, the best need marketing and sales skills that once were a luxury, found only in what were (falsely) perceived as “natural” rainmakers.  What was once the ceiling is now the floor. Lawyers know the importance of these skills, and they know they must acquire them—either at their current firm or at another one.

Education, training, coaching

Progressive law firms are overcoming obstacles to attracting and retaining clients through proper business development education, training and guidance.

Education provides the knowledge and a common language with which to propagate it.

Skill-building requires coaching and continuous guidance while the skill is practiced. Ideally, lawyers apply sales and marketing lessons in real situations, guided by the unseen hand of their coach.

Today, marketing, sales and client service training is a strategic tool that, used consistently, delivers dramatic results. And, winning is a great learning tool.  Learn now. The first-est get the most-est.

Mike O'Horo

Hey, Coach, how am I doin’?

We all want to know how well we’re performing. Understandably, lawyers get anxious about their progress as they move down the arduous road to developing biz dev skills, habits, and results. Here’s the eye-opening truth about the journey.

More advice to brand new associates on becoming a rainmaker: Earning partner preference

In the years it takes before your lawyering skills develop to where you can produce work product that clients will pay for, it doesn’t mean that you can’t deliver a different form of value and earn the attention of the partners who will decide which assignments go to which associates, and which ones they’ll devote time and attention to mentoring.