If lawyers are honest with themselves, they’ll acknowledge that the practice they have today is, at best, just OK, and at worst, disappointing. As Einstein observed, repeating the same actions and expecting a different result is insanity. Here’s what you’ll need to do differently.
When asked what builds trust and credibility early in a relationship with this CEO of a $12 Billion company, he said, "I can always tell how experienced and insightful a prospective lawyer is by the quality of his questions and how intently he listens. That's just how simple it is." Here’s how to apply this.
During the legal service Golden Era, 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. They could insert themselves into the conversation at the moment of purchase. Now, if you wait until the moment of purchase, you're too late. Here's how to create opportunity instead of waiting for it.
Ultimately, the meek may inherit the earth. But history suggests that, in the meantime, meek salespeople will waste time, money and energy and miss out on the opportunities awaiting those with the vision and courage to take bold action. Legal service selling isn’t changing; it’s being born. Any similarities between what was and what will be is coincidental. Get ready for the future.
It wasn’t all that long ago that lawyers’ concept of turnover was limited to showing empathy when their corporate clients bemoaned its disruptive effect and insidious cost. A client moving down the street was rare. Like other symbols of the cherished days of expanding demand, what American Lawyer magazine called the Golden Age of law firms, client turnover is now a daily threat.
These days, the name of the game is "attract and retain." Here are the obstacles.
Don't understand the client's business
This is the biggie. In survey after survey, and GC panel after GC panel, clients consistently bemoan their primary outside law firms’ lack of knowledge about their business. This frustrates clients because they expect these firms to bring fresh thinking and creative ideas to the table; that’s hard to do when you don’t understand the game the client is trying to win. That also translates into direct overhead as clients must pay those lawyers by the hour to learn how to be relevant.
Most firms’ messages are variations on the “Quality Legal Services/We’re Great Lawyers” theme, and too many firms assiduously avoid attracting attention, preferring to look just like the other “quality” firms. Research indicates that corporate buyers think all established firms are of relatively equal quality, and can’t appreciate the minor distinctions that lawyers cite in intramural discussions.
Too few lawyers selling
A small group of rainmakers brings in most of the business. Most everyone else services those clients and assumes that enough business will continue to show up somehow – after all, it always has. This “rainmaker,” “rain-catcher,” “mist-maker” culture is costly, especially now that rainmakers are demonstrating their willingness to move to greener pastures where their book will yield them a bigger piece of the profit pie.
Chasing fool's gold
All sales opportunities are not created equal. In fact, research reveals that, in 30 percent of selling situations, nothing is purchased, no decision is made. No law firm has a 30 percent market share, so we lose to competitors far less frequently than we lose to “No Decision.” Few lawyers know how to qualify and avoid investing precious time on a stillborn sales initiative. Fewer still have much of an appreciation for the concept of cost-of-sales.
Pitching is telling a prospect all about your firm, your services and yourself, and hoping that the innate attractiveness of your firm and its services will motivate the prospect to go through the cost and dislocation of replacing an incumbent, or at least reallocating the existing pie.
Selling means using the questioning and listening skills that made you a great lawyer, in a disciplined way, to learn which of this prospect’s many problems and challenges are not being solved satisfactorily. Learn which problem this prospect already wants to say “Yes” to having help with.
This means looking for business only in your own practice area, e.g., tax lawyers looking only for tax work, employment lawyers seeking only employment work, etc.
One corporate lawyer, seeking to groom biotech startups, had begun a relationship with a university’s business incubator. During a coaching session, he complained of a recent meeting at which the department heads kept steering the discussion back to a technology transfer problem. Exasperated, this lawyer told me: “But I wanted to talk about getting into the incubator’s startup stream.” Accepting technology transfer as the easy entry point and bringing in his IP colleagues didn’t occur to him.
Failure to cross-sell
Studies show that, on average, firms’ top 100 clients buy only a handful of the two dozen services typically offered. Tunnel vision is a major cause of this failure, but so is the product-orientation that prevents lawyers from seeing that demand for their services is based on the importance of the underlying business problem that the client must overcome or control, not on how skilled they are as lawyers.
Even today, despite a decade of evidence of the criticality of business acquisition, some newly-minted partners still awaken belatedly to the harsh reality that partnership includes developing business, whether the firm and they have prepared for it or not.
Law firms are premium-priced manufacturers of custom products tailored to client needs. But needs change. Nothing is in demand or commands a premium price forever. Lawyers must learn how to recognize emerging needs that yield great value and command premium prices.
Winning is a great learning tool
Despite three decades of marketing evolution, some law firms still fear that bold, assertive sales and marketing will alienate their clients. But, those same corporate clients invest billions in sales and marketing. They know it’s critical, and they know it works.
Law firms have always sought the best people. Now, the definition of “best” has changed. Besides top legal skills, the best need marketing and sales skills that once were a luxury, found only in what were (falsely) perceived as “natural” rainmakers. What was once the ceiling is now the floor. Lawyers know the importance of these skills, and they know they must acquire them—either at their current firm or at another one.
Education, training, coaching
Progressive law firms are overcoming obstacles to attracting and retaining clients through proper business development education, training and guidance.
Education provides the knowledge and a common language with which to propagate it.
Skill-building requires coaching and continuous guidance while the skill is practiced. Ideally, lawyers apply sales and marketing lessons in real situations, guided by the unseen hand of their coach.
Today, marketing, sales and client service training is a strategic tool that, used consistently, delivers dramatic results. And, winning is a great learning tool. Learn now. The first-est get the most-est.
In the years it takes before your lawyering skills develop to where you can produce work product that clients will pay for, it doesn’t mean that you can’t deliver a different form of value and earn the attention of the partners who will decide which assignments go to which associates, and which ones they’ll devote time and attention to mentoring.
Lawyers are hard-wired to be precise in written and spoken expression, and while practicing law they honor that precision rigorously. However, when it comes to interacting with their market, their language discipline fades. Here are some common examples I encounter in my coaching conversations, with suggested alternatives.
Apparently, the "I want" disease is persistent. In my previous post, I shared my experience with a fellow named Steve, who contacted me April 22 and 24 via LinkedIn. Well, Steve clearly isn’t a ResultsMailVT subscriber, because since then he sent me three more LinkedIn communications, each one a poster child for the “I want” disease.
When it comes to communicating with Suspects and Prospects, lawyers suffer the same self-inflicted injuries that all salespeople do: causing recipients to shut down on you from the first moment of encounter because you’re talking about what you want.
Your friend introduced you to a colleague whom she believed to have a legal issue you could help with. You discussed whether she thought he would welcome your contact and how he might benefit from meeting with you. The introductory phone call went well, narrowing the focus on his current problem, and you agreed to meet to discuss it in depth. Here's what to do next.
When lawyers email a contact they consider a candidate to give them business, most extol their firm’s or their expertise and experience, or some solution they believe will persuasively cause the recipient to want that. Ironically, this approach causes the lack of progress that lawyers call me to coach them to overcome. Here's a better approach.
Despite the legal service business undergoing the greatest change in its history, the industry still clings to an outdated definition of relationships that doesn’t map to today’s reality. This includes our worldview of relationships. It’s time for us to invest in “idea relationships” and rethink our personal and professional ones.
As Lao Tzu, the Daoist philosopher, said, “The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.” The problem with becoming a rainmaker is that we don’t know if the journey is 1000 miles, 100 miles, or more, or less. It turns out that nobody knows how long it takes law firm associates to develop business development skills. That means you should begin now. Here's how to take your first steps.
A lawyer who gains mastery over the practice of law isn’t necessarily guaranteed great success as a lawyer. Indeed, it depends what “success” means in this context. For many, success is measured by compensation, autonomy, professional freedom. As skilled as you may be as a lawyer, if you don’t generate significant amounts of business for yourself and other lawyers in your firm, then your earning potential is capped. You have a choice to make.