Fear can be paralyzing. Today’s guest post is courtesy of Joel Mohrman, a senior litigator in Houston who helps oilfield services companies protect the IP in their production technology. As a result of an “Aha!” moment he experienced during a reference call on my behalf, he offered to share this for the benefit of other attorneys who face similar obstacles.

Recently, I had a conversation with an attorney who was considering working with Mike. I’ve worked with Mike for a while and I highly recommended Mike to this lawyer. The attorney asked me a lot of questions. During the conversation, I opened up to him and told him that previously I had been anxious about business development, both about how to do it and whether one could really be successful at it in this day and age. I was stuck doing the same things over and over again. I also commented that the old methods were not working nearly as well and that I felt something different needed to be done.  

This attorney immediately opened up to me as well and enthusiastically said, “That is exactly the way I feel. I have all these business cards on my desk from people that I have met but I have no idea how to turn them into business.” He related that he felt stuck as well. He and I commiserated for a while about the difficulties of developing business in a legal practice today.

In talking with this attorney and meeting with friends in the ABA and around the country, I’ve seen that many attorneys have almost become fearful about the challenges of business development. They are not only anxious about what is happening in the legal marketplace, they also fear doing anything about it. This fear paralyzes them and causes them to remain stuck in their usual rut. They just don’t know what to do and are almost afraid to move. The call with the attorney I referenced above caused a light bulb to go off in my head and recognize this anxiety.

Mike helped me to get over such anxiety as my business development coach. Step by step, we analyzed all my outside commitments, and he showed me all the ways in which I was wasting time and how I was over-committed. He also showed me what was productive and what was unproductive. I began to move towards doing more productive things.  

Finally, although Mike’s techniques seemed counter-intuitive and very different from the old way, I discovered that many of my skills as an attorney, such as asking questions, lent themselves to the new techniques. More importantly, I found that people were very willing to talk to me and to establish new relationships by phone and email by using these techniques. I am well on my way to a new business development paradigm which has already resulted in new business.

My advice is not to let the anxiety and fear paralyze you, but to take action and move forward. The same old approach simply is not going to get it done anymore.

While I certainly appreciate Joel’s generous endorsement, this really isn’t about me. It’s about the understandable paralysis that lawyers may feel when confronted with the reality that they’ve probably exhausted their time to find creative ways to avoid business development, or to tiptoe around the edges to make it look like they’re getting on with it.

Beginning something new can be daunting for anyone, particularly if it’s something where the stakes are one’s professional and financial future. It can seem like the task is huge and complicated, and you don’t know where to begin. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed.

All professional services have evolved to where market forces mandated that practitioners also become marketers and sales people. The burden for lawyers perhaps feels greater because, for those who established their careers amid the great legal boom that ended in 2009, they must first “unlearn” the habits of that seller’s market boom. Most are accustomed to forming professional friendships first, with legal business emerging from a percentage of those relationships. The huge time investment in building those relationships, and the time lag between initiating them and getting business, made sense when almost everybody was buying. All one had to do was keep adding relationships to the pipeline and you’d be reasonably assured that enough business would come in that you didn’t have to evaluate individual relationships to see if they were worth it.

That’s how lawyers formed the habit of investing time in individual potential buyers for years, believing that their sales cycle was inherently and necessarily many years long.

Now that lawyers face declining demand (and pricing power) for traditional legal services, and an increase in the number of lawyers pursuing those fewer buyers, the odds of any individual relationship becoming an economic client declines. They no longer have the luxury of investing in any old random relationship. Real competition requires different approaches more like those employed by their clients, who have faced serious competition since their formation.

A person who represents himself has a fool for a client.
— Often attributed to Abraham Lincoln

Applying this wisdom to generating business, a lawyer who tries to master a different profession on his own is being foolish. While lawyers may find the expression “business development” more comfortable or palatable, ultimately, it means “marketing and sales,” and those are two distinct professions. What's intuitive is almost always wrong, and what's right is rarely intuitive. These skills and processes must be learned.

Your anxiety and discomfort with marketing and sales is not irrational. It’s an appropriate response when confronted with something you don’t understand. Just as in your law practice your familiarity and experience enables you to reduce your clients’ anxiety regarding a matter with which they have no previous knowledge or experience, there are people who can help you with that in the business development realm.

Whether it’s someone within your firm's marketing or BD department, a qualified friend, or any of the many consultants out there serving lawyers, find somebody you’re comfortable with, get some help, and get on with it.

Mike O'Horo

The 13-part "Not-To-Do/To-Do" series will begin next Tuesday, March 31. I'd planned to start it today, but pushed it back for a week to share this first-person account.