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If lawyers are honest with themselves, they’ll acknowledge that what they have today is:

  • Uncertainty about where their next client, case, or transaction will come from

  • Increasing downward pressure on rates

  • More competition for business that previously was theirs alone

  • Greater difficulty collecting the full amount billed, timely

  • Pressure from their firms to generate more business, but no idea how to do it

How attractive is “more of that”?

Yet, too many lawyers persist in the marketing and sales behaviors and methods that have produced just that.

“If you do what you’ve always done you’ll get what you’ve always gotten.”

Variations on this adage have been attributed to lots of people, and the message is simple. If you want something different or better, you’re going to have to do different things, and do them better.

“If you have…” “You’ll have to…”

If you have too little business, you’ll have to change how you go about getting it.

Or, maybe you have plenty of business, but you want better business, different clients. If so, you’ll have to change how and where you pursue them.

If you want more financial security, you’ll have to solve higher value problems and deliver more perceived value so you can charge more and have clients willingly pay it.

If you want to spend more time with your family and have a life, you’ll have to change what you’re doing.

If you’re tired of wasting your time at unproductive networking events, you’ll have to change how you interact with your market.

If you’ve invested in and built lots of relationships, but don’t have a lot of business, maybe it’s time to reevaluate that whole “It’s all about relationships” mantra.

If you’ve been a good soldier, doing great work for others’ clients and keeping those clients relatively happy, but have few or no clients and little work of your own, and read about how similarly situated partners are being marginalized or discarded, it’s definitely time to rethink what you’re doing.

Something different

Most of us don’t want more of what we have today. We want something different.

No matter how confident you are about your methods, they haven’t delivered the results you claim to want. What will suddenly make them more effective?

What would allow you to develop the kind of practice you really want and stand out from the crowd? And how can you do it fairly quickly, not at the turtle pace that gets you there at retirement?

Surviving vs. thriving

Too many solo practitioners and small firms compete based on price to win low-end clients. Not intentionally, perhaps, but that’s too often the product of the harsh reality of having to cover the monthly overhead of an office and a home. You feel the pressure to take any client or matter that comes along because it means cash flow.

Being able to survive is an admirable, and necessary, trait. However, over time it can also become an unconscious mental habit, with mere survival the unstated expectation. It’s hard to think of thriving when survival isn’t assured.

Thriving? Not universally

On the other end of the spectrum, you read about large firms that seem to be thriving, able to charge what seems like impossible amounts of money for what are perceived as high-end services. However, that’s true of only a small percentage of the lawyers in those firms. I’ve coached thousands of lawyers in big firms, including elite firms. Few of the lawyers in those firms are operating in such rarified air.

The survival problem for some of those big firm lawyers isn’t as literal each month as for their small-firm brethren at the pointy end of the stick, but it’s just as acute. They’re always at risk of being de-equitized, of having their compensation gutted. Some are at risk of being asked to leave their firms.

The massive middle

In between these poles are tens of thousands of lawyers in mid-to-large firms of every description. They’ve done reasonably well, doing good work, keeping clients reasonably satisfied, bringing in a client here and there, and keeping happy the influential partners from whom they get most of their work (and from whom they hope someday to inherit clients).

Without being conscious of it, they’ve relied on the rising tide of demand for traditional legal services continuing to lift all lawyers’ boats, as it reliably did for so long. However, that tide of demand flattened out in 2008 and has been slowly but steadily declining since the permanent shift to a buyer’s market from the longtime seller’s market.

Modest results will always be available, right?

That depends on how long you intend to, or must, practice law based on your life expectancy and your ability to finance your life in retirement. If you’re in good shape financially, and will practice 10 or fewer more years, you’re probably OK. There will probably be enough work arriving in unknown ways from unknown sources to let you hang on that long, although the experience will degrade as the factors cited at the beginning of this article worsen.

However, if you’ll practice longer than that, things get dicier. Clients are changing their legal service mix to the detriment of lawyers in traditional law firms:

  • Insisting on greater cost certainty

  • Enlarging in-house legal staff to handle mature work at fixed cost

  • Entrusting work to smaller firms that previously only went to top firms

  • Embracing alternative legal service providers and law companies

  • Adopting technology-based legal solutions

  • Embarking on a committed path to Artificial Intelligence

  • Integrating all of the above

Which will it be: The same, or better?

Setting aside these developments, even if your status quo isn’t threatened, we began by asking, do you want more of what you have today, or something better? If it’s the latter, it’s time to make a commitment to yourself to get serious about changing how you position yourself and pursue business.

The first two steps are:

  1. In specific measurable terms, define what “better” means to you. This includes what you want, how much of it, by when, and from whom.

  2. Ask yourself why it’s so important to have that, what consequences you’ll experience if you don’t produce that outcome, and whether or not those consequences are tolerable.

Number two is critical. Lawyers often declare pro forma goals to satisfy some requirement by their firm, but that aren’t the product of any real thought and don’t matter that much to them. When that happens, it’s easy to defer required actions in favor of comfortable old habits.

Mike O'Horo