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From time to time, lawyers are directed, nay, commanded, by firm leadership to create a business-generation plan. Most respond with an arbitrary list of unconnected activities that bear a striking resemblance to the previous year’s plan that they never followed or updated.

With the lawyers I coach weekly, I thought that shrinking the focus to a week would be effective. However, too many coaching calls were largely wasted with them explaining why they were too busy, or were otherwise unable to do what they’d set out to do.

Overwhelmed by success

One lawyer, whose performance over our coaching relationship has convinced me that he’s very serious about business development, nonetheless found himself overwhelmed by his success. A case heats up here, a client demand emerges there, you get a new engagement, you lose a team member, and so forth.  

We realized that we had to accept the fact that his success had created time obstacles that would never go away, so we resolved to identify discrete things that he could do whenever short, interstitial chunks of time presented. These had to be things that didn’t require “think time” to complete, because think time is what’s most scarce. However, if you’ve already thought through what you’re going to do, and you’re sufficiently prepared that all you have to do is execute, then you can exploit that short interval effectively. 

Habits are important

Unlike professional salespeople, lawyers have no business development habits. They’re accustomed to reacting to developments as they occur. To be effective, business development has to become hygiene, i.e., something you do every day, without fail.

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In the interest of forming habits, we began focusing only on tomorrow, defining what the lawyer would accomplish the following day, no matter what. If you have only 2-3 things to accomplish, and each will only take 10-15 minutes, there’s really no excuse for doing nothing. You can squeeze out 10 minutes here, 15 minutes there, and get a fair amount done. More importantly, you’ll form the habit of accomplishing something every day, which will build your confidence. As you become more consistently successful on a small scale, you’ll slowly begin to increase the time you devote to BD -- probably without realizing it. 

Activity vs. outcomes

As we went down this path, it became clear that the primary obstacle was lawyers’ orientation to activity rather than outcomes or results. When I’d ask, “What will you accomplish tomorrow,” without thinking, the lawyer would reply, “I’m going to do A, B, and C.” I’d point out that those were activities, not outcomes, and ask him to express the outcomes he’d produce the next day. It took a few tries to make the shift from declaring activity to declaring outcomes.

The critical "Why"

Next, you test each outcome’s worthiness by asking why it’s important to have it.

Once you’ve defined your “Why,” it’s harder to sacrifice that outcome to something that pops up, and it’s easy to define the activities required to produce those outcomes. Beginning with the outcome makes planning much easier because, as Simon Sinek urges in one of the most-viewed TED Talks of all time, when you begin with the Why, the What and the How flow naturally from that. Sinek’s perspective was that the Why is the only thing your market cares about, but it applies equally to yourself as the market for this time allocation.

The final step with these training-wheel mechanisms is for the lawyer to send me an email at the end of each day that lists:

  • The outcomes he produced today, and what it did for him
  • What he didn’t accomplish, and what obstacles prevented it
  • The outcomes that he’ll produce tomorrow
  • Why those outcomes are important enough to maintain priority

My job is to pay attention to the obstacles, and notice when one appears chronic. Then, we use the next coaching session to come up with a way to eliminate, or at least mitigate, the obstacle.

If you don’t have a coach, serve as your own. Prepare the imaginary email each day and review it critically. Or have a family member do it for you. Or, perhaps a colleague and you could do it for each other, holding each other accountable, and helping each other form reliable habits.

Mike O'Horo

Are your requests for training or coaching falling on deaf ears at your firm? Does your firm struggle with more requests for help than money to honor them? If so, you're not alone. 

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