One less recognizable characteristic of the legal service Golden Era is that demand was explicit, i.e., companies were actively seeking legal services, and expressing that demand in legal service terminology.
Opportunity was obvious, and lawyers had the luxury of waiting until the conversation sounded like they sound. There was little need to synthesize.
They were able to insert themselves into the conversation at the moment of purchase.
Now, if lawyers wait until the moment of purchase, they're too late; they'll position themselves as mere vendors of a fungible task-based service.
The real selling conversation
Smart lawyers realize that demand now is less explicit, that the real marketing and sales conversation is about the business problem from which legal service demand emerges. That discussion occurs much earlier in the decision cycle, i.e., while the problem is emerging, the prospect is thinking through it, and it's taking shape.
The language has shifted, too, not only because of the change in timing, but because the conversation now extends beyond the Legal Department and includes different classes of stakeholders who don't speak "legal matter."
In the excellent Harvard Business Review article, In a Downturn, Provoke Your Customers, the authors argue that in fiercely competitive markets or conditions, it’s necessary to bring fresh, provocative thinking to the table. You have to be able to synthesize fresh ideas from the situation.
Good news: “Lawyering” skills are sufficient
The best news: The only skills you need are your "lawyering" skills. While you don't have to add new skills per se, you do have to
learn how to apply those lawyering skills to the business conversation;
develop a more sophisticated eye and ear for opportunity, i.e., be able to recognize it in its formative- or precursor stage; and
become knowledgeable about your clients' and prospects' businesses so you'll be welcome in the business conversation from which legal service demand arises.
“Creativity is just connecting things”
The middle bullet above is where your fastest return will occur. Lawyers don't recognize how many seemingly innocuous situations they can actually influence. This is what Steve Jobs meant when he said
Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something.
In her excellent article, The Secret to Creativity, Intelligence, and Scientific Thinking: Being Able to Make Connections, author Belle Beth Cooper argues that knowledge alone is not useful unless we can make connections between what we know. Whether you use the terms “knowledge” and “experience” to explain the difference or not, the concept itself is sound.
Cultural critic Maria Popova calls this “combinatorial creativity.” That is, connecting things to create new ideas:
“…in order for us to truly create and contribute to the world, we have to be able to connect countless dots, to cross-pollinate ideas from a wealth of disciplines, to combine and recombine these pieces and build new castles.”
More from Ms. Cooper:
“In The Art of Scientific Investigation, Cambridge University professor W. I. B. Beveridge wrote that successful scientists “have often been people with wide interests,” which led to their originality:
Originality often consists in linking up ideas whose connection was not previously suspected.
He also suggested that scientists should expand their reading outside of their own field, in order to add to their knowledge (so they would have more dots when it came time to connect them, later).”
That last point about reading outside your field is just as important for lawyers as for scientists, and for similar reasons. That’s what I’ll urge you to take away from this. Don’t limit yourself to reading decisions, cases, and other technical legal material. You’ve already developed the ability to connect those dots. Now, you need to connect dots from very different sources.
To refine your "opportunity eyes and ears," subscribe to Training Triggers, which alert you to situations and challenges you encounter commonly, yet may not have known you could influence at all, much less to the degree that's actually possible.