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With a nod to an iconic 1988 ad campaign, let me state that the 2019 law firm rainmaker is “not your father’s rainmaker.” In fact, any resemblance between pre-2008 rainmakers and what’s required today is pure accident.

In the decades leading up to the 2008 Great Recession, the period that The American Lawyer called “the Golden Age of law firms,” nobody gave much thought to defining the skills, traits, and personal disciplines required to be a reliable rainmaker. Most people adopted the shorthand that they were “naturals.” They just did it, whatever “it” was.

The “Golden Age” label referred to the most advantageous set of sustained demand conditions ever seen in any industry. It’s been described as a perfect storm of increasing business complexity, global reach and dynamism, coupled with a widespread environmental awakening, and more populist political winds that facilitated greater claims to rights among segments of the population previously denied them.

Hence, relative heaven for law firms and lawyers, whose firms grew, and whose rainmakers grew rich, riding that powerful current. In the words of a New Republic article,

“Of all the occupational golden ages to come and go in the twentieth century—for doctors, journalists, ad-men, autoworkers—none lasted longer, felt cushier, and was all in all more golden than the reign of the law partner.”

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Amid such optimal conditions, calling someone a rainmaker was a linguistic convenience. The small percentage of partners who brought in virtually all the business that funded the firm and everyone in it could more accurately be called “rain-catchers.” No disrespect intended. Everything they did made perfect sense under those market conditions. If you have dozens or hundreds of thirsty family members and you live at a time of ark-building deluge, you go outside with a large bucket every day and catch it.

That was then, this is now

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The Great Recession proved to be the macro tipping point that accelerated the permanent shift from the longstanding Seller’s Market to the Buyer’s Market that, if business history is any indicator, will govern lawyers’ lives for the rest of their careers.

That means dealing with competition of the type and intensity that your clients have faced for their entire existence.

In these conditions, the old norms, e.g., using social interaction to develop personal relationships slowly over time as a prerequisite to doing business, and pitching for a share of the ongoing legal spend, among others, not only won’t get it done, but risk alienating buyers who have more friends than legal needs and simply don’t have time for all that anymore.

The new rainmaker profile

Earning business in today’s market requires a comprehensive set of skills, processes, and disciplines. How many of these traits of the complete modern rainmaker do you possess?

  • Avoids “pitching” behaviors in favor of helping buyers make informed, considered, self-interested decisions about problems of significance.

  • Possesses meaningful business acumen and awareness of current business trends and realities.

  • Avoids “product-centrism,” i.e., an orientation to the merits of the firm’s service products, and the resulting inclination to seek demand primarily for one’s own practice specialty.

  • Engages conversations based only on Demand-Triggering business issues, i.e., for which there is objective evidence suggesting strategic, operational, or economic consequences of sufficient impact to require decision-making, embracing risk, taking action, and committing investment.

  • Recognizes the likely existence of multiple stakeholders in this problem, at different organizational levels. Is adept at exposing their full complement of self-interest relative to the DT problem.

  • Conducts a disciplined, objective investigation of the strategic, operational, economic, and personal consequences of inaction against the DT problem (Cost of Doing Nothing)

  • Draws out each stakeholder’s perception of the perceived ROI obtainable from successful solution. Uses the aggregate ROI to earn and maintain premium prices and margins.

  • Has mastered the process of Stakeholder Alignment, leading to a reliable group decision.

  • Develops relationships based on Professional Intimacy, viewing Social Intimacy as a pleasant plus if it occurs, but not required.

  • Earns business, and manages expectations, in a way that allows delegation of work as the rainmaker deems strategically appropriate.

  • Envisions a larger practice in the future, and anticipates its resource requirements and management burden.

  • Doesn't wait for service-product obsolescence, but anticipates product/price maturity and looks beyond today’s demand to prepare for a different future. Initiates sales investigations that cannibalize today’s declining-margin services in favor of initiating demand for future premium-priced services.

  • Has established a defensible position in an organized market sub-sector containing growing companies with healthy profit margins. Aligns with decision-makers who recognize that only two out of the three elements of the “Value Holy Trinity” (Speed, Impact, Price) usually are available at any one time, and who are in position to value the first two over any other two-element combination.

  • Identifies contributory roles that enable team members to grow.

  • Institutionalizes the client, avoiding the bottleneck of too much having to flow through her.

  • Shares credit – and client responsibility and access – freely to enable her to diversify her portfolio, and to attract and retain key talent.

  • Through personal vigilance and leveraging team members’ contributions, maintains robust awareness of trends and emerging issues in key industries and sectors, to the point that he is prepared to offer an informed, current, cogent opinion – extemporaneously.

  • In support of the above, consistently seeks candid feedback from clients, team members, and contacts regarding service satisfaction, demand trends, and macroeconomic social and political factors that influence and shape current and future demand.

That’s a lot of capability to acquire

However, if you were to create a similar list of what it takes to be a successful lawyer, you’d likely come up with more than 18 bullets above. That’s because any profession (and business development absolutely is a profession) demands high standards. Not of the casual practitioner, but of anyone who aspires to greatness.

The takeaway is to accept and appreciate that your father’s (or mentor’s) rainmaking regimen won’t get it done now. It’s time to embrace a commitment to lifelong incremental learning in this domain.

Mike O’Horo

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