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Why do such a small percentage of lawyers participate in business development? Despite the constant drumbeat since 2008 about declining demand, price pressure, new forms of competition, and a clear pattern of income shifting from those who don’t to those who do, why do so many lawyers effectively remain on the sidelines?

Part of the answer lies in their preferred terminology: “business development,” which is the preferred euphemism for “marketing” and “sales.” Well, actually, they’re OK with “marketing” but “sales” still produces clammy skin and twitching eyelids. Two weeks ago, in The bright line between marketing and sales, I addressed the issue of euphemistic language as an avoidance mechanism.

Take a look at the activity spectrum below. The two comfort-zone triangles converge where Marketing shifts to Selling. Notice that neither Marketers nor lawyers are comfortable there. Lawyers are all in favor of the first three categories -- Planning, Awareness, and Lead-Gen -- because that’s somebody else’s job. They’re OK with Client Development because they think of that as relationship-building. Selling? Yikes! No thanks.

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I suspect that much of lawyers’ Sales reticence is based on the outdated belief that selling means engaging in behaviors that they and many of us have experienced as consumers and consider repugnant, or at the very least beneath a lawyer. If sales success actually required you to be pushy, coercive, marginally honest, or any of the other sales stereotypes, lawyers’ reluctance would make perfect sense.

Another factor is the fear of closing. The risk that the big Moment of Truth will result in a “no,” and all their effort will be for naught, and they’ll feel rejected.

However, the good news is that none of those feared things is necessary.

The better news is that buyers prefer an approach that looks very similar to how you interact with your clients, where you’re trying to help them make good decisions that align well with their business needs and career interests:

  • Ask astute questions to understand the business problem that’s causing them to need a lawyer
  • Elicit from them the strategic-, operational-, and economic impacts of that problem
  • Help them decide if any action at all is required (sometimes doing nothing is optimal)
  • Develop a picture of the desired outcome
  • Explain their solution options and the ramifications of each
  • Begin exploring how best to implement the chosen solution

Helping someone figure out what to do. Doesn’t that sound a lot like how you’ve practiced law so successfully all these years? You’re already good at that. That’s your comfort zone. The only comfort zone you have to abandon is the one that has you clinging to outdated beliefs that produce such anxiety.

Mike O'Horo

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