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What does it take to acquire a book of business sufficient to make you financially- and professionally independent, safe from the vagaries of changes in firm policy or compensation decisions?

It’s been almost ten years since hoping for the best worked at all. What does today’s tumultuous legal service market require?

In a word, “skill,” which diligently applied over time leads to experience, acumen, and judgment. You know, the same way your lawyering skills developed. Was the process of becoming a valuable lawyer easy, or simple, or inexpensive? Not at all.

You spent three years and tons of time and money grinding your way through law school, and maybe even accumulated heavy debt. When you got hired, you put in long hours, made mistakes, and stayed up late to correct them or redo the work. You sacrificed nights and weekends to learn your craft. You attended seminars, lectures, and CLE. Your work was reviewed by accomplished lawyers, who critiqued, advised, and coached you -- and dressed you down when you didn’t perform.

Marketing and Sales are professions, which are usually defined as occupations “that involve prolonged training and a formal qualification.” Yet, too many lawyers conduct themselves as if business development disciplines were merely a sideline, the province of dilettantes, something that anyone can innately do occasionally, without any special preparation.

How’s that working out so far?

Here’s the unpleasant news that you saw coming: Becoming skilled in this career-critical domain will not be free or painless, and it won’t occur by osmosis while you sleep. If you want to control your work, your income, your status, even where you work, you have to make it your mission to acquire and apply these skills.

Last week, in Rain-makers vs. Rain-havers, I said that we tend to view our aspirations through the “already” lens. We want it already to be true, without having to go through all that it takes to get it. We want to fast-forward to the good stuff, the outcome. We want all that effort and investment to be in our rear-view mirror.

This leads me to some wisdom from Jay Harrington, one of my favorite bloggers. In his post Want to Get More Done? Think Big and Act Small, he offers this:

It’s called “hard” work for a reason. Any time you’re trying to learn a new skill, or attempting to build something worthwhile, it’s hard. Most of us start enjoying something only after we get good at it. And it takes practice and hard work to get good. Take playing the guitar, for example. Practicing guitar is painful (physically and emotionally) and frustrating for several months until enough work has been put in to build up calluses and learn the basics. Once someone earns their calluses and their skills improve, however, guitar starts to become fun and satisfying. Resilience is built up during the painful periods of any worthy endeavor, and serves as a bridge to the other side. If you want to do something that’s satisfying, most times you have to do it when it’s not.

Jay continues:

...the best way to tackle something big and important is to: Minimize as many distractions as possible in order to create space and time to work intensely and consistently on one’s most important priorities.

Notice that this formulation consists of three elements which can be summarized and categorized as follows: (1) minimize distractions, (2) do intense, consistent work, and (3) establish important priorities.

BD as a priority

Compare this to how you probably pursue business, i.e., squeezing it in as a afterthought, in between billable work, meetings, etc. In contrast to minimizing distractions, you conduct yourself as if the business development activities were the distraction. This certainly precludes any chance of doing “intense, consistent work,” and it’s far from a priority.

You’re probably thinking, “Who has time for that? I have all this billable work to do, client obligations, responsibilities to the firm, and a family that I see too little of.” I accept that time-based billing creates its own set of structural obstacles. However, unless you make meaningful time for business development, you’ll never achieve the rewards and security that you deserve.

Fire yourself

One way to reapportion your calendar and make time for BD is to fire yourself from any job or task that can be performed by someone else. That means taking a hard eye to your billable work, identifying work that doesn’t absolutely require your personal participation. Review the committees you serve on. How many of those have diminished in importance relative to your current responsibilities. Couldn't someone else replace you?

Take a look at your time sheet for last month. For each entry, ask yourself, “Did this absolutely require me to do it, or was it simply habit, or anxiety about having enough hours?” The answer will depend on your seniority, but if you’re senior enough that business development is something that defines your future today, you’re probably senior enough that every billable task isn’t the best and highest use of your time, attention, and judgment. Many things can be done by others. Can they do it as well as you can? Maybe not, but that’s not the correct standard. You have to oversee them and help them develop to the point where they can satisfy the client’s standards. “That takes time,” you say. True, but unless you want to be in this same boat a year from now, you’ll have to make the teaching-time investment in your subordinates. Over time, the list of tasks that you can delegate will grow, as will the amount of time you can reallocate to business development.

Delegating work is one of two main changes that will enable more business development time. Next week, we’ll address the second one: Time-shifting.

Mike O'Horo

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