practice until you can't get it wrong

By now, even if you haven’t read “Outliers,” Malcolm Gladwell’s best-seller, you’ve at least heard of what’s commonly referred to as “the 10,000-hour rule.” This concept, drawn from research that informs the book, basically says that greatness at anything requires ten thousand hours of practice, feedback, and coaching.

It turns out that’s been inaccurately simplified. K. Anders Ericsson, whose research is the basis for Gladwell’s conclusion, clarifies that the most important distinction between what Gladwell popularized and what Ericsson's research showed is that it's not about the number of hours of practice, it's about deliberate practice. "That's a kind of practice where you're not actually doing your job, you're actually taking time where you're focusing in on trying to improve," Ericsson says. "In particular, when you do that under the guidance of a master teacher, so the teacher would be able to actually tell you what is going to be the next step here in your development. That is the kind of practice that we talked about as being essential to reach the highest level of performance."

Gladwell himself acknowledges that “There is a lot of confusion about the 10,000 rule that I talk about in ‘Outliers.’ Practice isn't a SUFFICIENT condition for success. I could play chess for 100 years and I'll never be a grandmaster. The point is that natural ability requires a huge investment of time in order to be made manifest. Unfortunately, sometimes complex ideas get oversimplified in translation.”

In "So Good They Can't Ignore You," author Cal Newport says that what makes ridiculously successful people so successful is they're experts at practicing — they can push themselves to the exact limit of their skillset and thus expand their abilities day after day.  

What does all this have to do with lawyers developing business?

Most lawyers allocate the barest minimum of time to business development, and only after they’ve completed all their billable work, firm committee work, and any other tasks they can think of to avoid BD. They devote zero time to improving BD skills, to practicing.

I don’t believe they eschew practice because they affirmatively think they’ll get better simply by doing. I believe they don’t think about getting better, period. As a result, they don’t set aside time to work on getting better. No practice = no improvement.

Mere practice itself, though, isn’t good enough. A quote often attributed to the legendary NFL coach, Vince Lombardi, is “Practice does not make perfect. Only perfect practice makes perfect.”

To get good at BD, you also have to get good at practicing BD. But where can lawyers practice? Doing it on “game day,” i.e., in front of real prospects, is a bad idea. Poor performance there has real consequences. There are many ways to practice. In descending order of effectiveness:

  • Work with a professional coach who has experience as a commission salesperson. Your firm may have BD coaches available to you. If not, there are plenty in the legal service marketplace.
  • Practice virtually, using sales simulations and other online tools. They’re inexpensive, and available 24/7 in the cloud.
  • Consult with successful salespeople who might be willing to help you out from time to time as a favor.
  • Enlist colleagues who also want to improve -- the "BD buddy" equivalent of a workout buddy. Conduct role-play discussions where you trade off playing the buyer and seller.

Years ago, when I was an avid tennis player, I attended an adult tennis clinic. The first thing they taught us was how to practice. I was a better than average player, played frequently, yet had never given any thought to practice. I’d rally with a comparably-skilled player, grooving strokes (I thought). Or, I’d do that typical minimum warmup before a match, then get on with the match as quickly as I could. A warmup isn’t practice, either. The clinic taught specific practice techniques for your serve, ground strokes, volleys, footwork, etc. When I embraced it, I couldn’t believe how much it improved my game.

The point is, if you recognize that BD is a critical component of modern law practice, why struggle as an unskilled amateur? Get serious about learning that important craft. Set aside time to practice, and learn how to practice in a way that helps you improve. Find someone to give you feedback and help you improve.

Mike O'Horo


RainmakerVT’s interactive simulations enable you to learn, conduct practice sessions, get immediate virtual coaching, and prove to yourself that you’ve actually learned. Check out the course offerings.