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Why “Me-Oriented” Conversation Guarantees Failure At Networking Events

Stop Networking. Start Hunting.

What’s the True Cost of Traditional Networking?

Networking: What's the best way to introduce yourself?

Networking: Avoid introduction faux pas

Networking: How to disengage from a dead-end networking conversation

Networking: What to do when (gulp) someone is trying to disengage from a dead-end conversation with you!

Bonus article:

Rainmaker Development- The Journey From Ignorance to Mastery

Many lawyers have asked me to give them some perspective on how long it will take to become really good at business development, and what that journey will look like. This article explains all. 

Why “Me-Oriented” Conversation Guarantees Failure At Networking Events

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In a Buyer’s Market, talking about yourself and your practice is a losing strategy. I mean…what are you going to say that a prospect hasn’t heard a thousand times from other lawyers?

Stop talking about the solution and start inquiring about the prospective client’s problems and issues.

Watch this video to hear verbatim quotes from legal service buyers who are sick of lawyers blowing their horns about experience, expertise, etc. 

To learn an effective process for mastering networking events — one that you’ll feel comfortable with, and that the client will welcome, come and experience some training in our interactive world. You’ll get to guide an avatar through a simulated networking event — from walking in the door to exiting, having scheduled a call with a viable prospect. This is included in your Networking Essentials course package.

Stop Networking. Start Hunting.

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As many have correctly observed, holiday times are the most intense business socializing periods of the year. Many see this as a networking opportunity. After all, we'll have an opportunity to meet a lot of people we don't know, some of whom might be prospective clients or referral sources.

This may be a shock to your system, but you should be hunting, not networking. Compared to hunting, networking is a waste of time. To use a favorite Chris Rock expression, "That's right; I said it."

Let's start with two definitions of "networking," from Wikipedia and Webster's:

Wikipedia: Business networking is a socioeconomic business activity by which groups of like-minded businesspeople recognize, create, or act upon business opportunities.

Webster’s: net·work·ing noun

“the exchange of information or services among individuals, groups, or institutions; specifically: the cultivation of productive relationships for employment or business”

The key words are "productive relationships," and " opportunities." This is very different from "any relationships" and "hoping there's somehow an opportunity."

Observing what typically happens at networking events, these definitions seem to have been interpreted as "gathering a bunch of people at a venue and hoping to encounter an undefined 'someone' possessing undefined characteristics who, for undefined reasons, will want to give us business of some undefined type, at some undefined time in the future."

How could that possibly work?

With everything so undefined, how could this possibly work? This is well beyond long-shot odds. No wonder most lawyers come home disappointed and discouraged.

  • Without a specific purpose, how can we declare success for the evening?

  • Without specific, objective, easily-confirmed characteristics, how could we know if those we meet are the right ones or not?

Is everyone and anyone equally opportune for us? Of course not. So, if "anyone who can fog a mirror and order business cards" is a bit too broad a description, who do we want to meet at this event? What objective, easily-revealed characteristics would allow us to recognize a productive connection?

Without knowing what we're hunting for, not only can't we find it, but we also don't know where to hunt. That assures that we'll waste a lot of time going to gratuitous events.

Tennis, anyone?

Let’s put this in a dating context. Let’s say you're a skilled and passionate tennis player. You've learned that your passion for playing tennis means that having a skilled tennis player as a mate is really important and that, conversely, having a spouse who's not a serious player will be a source of friction because of the amount of time and money you spend playing tennis. There's no point going to a generic mixer. After all, only 10% of the US population plays tennis, only 20% of those are considered "frequent players," and less than 30% of those are serious players (USTA skill rating 4.0 or higher), so your odds of meeting a serious tennis player at a generic event is roughly 6 out of 1,000. Long odds, indeed.

So, you go to an event that's for tennis players. That raises your odds of finding a frequent player to 20%, and a skilled player to 6%. Assume that they're evenly split by gender, and you've got a 3% chance of meeting a serious player of the desired gender.

This person you're chatting with likes and plays tennis but isn't a serious player? Move on. Your purpose is to find serious players, not people who merely enjoy playing. Time spent with other than serious players doesn't further your goal.

If you find yourself at a generic mixer, as soon as possible after saying hello, you find a way to learn whether or not this person plays tennis, and how seriously. If he or she doesn’t, you have no reason to invest time cultivating them in the unfounded hope that somehow, someday, they’ll start playing tennis, and will quickly be able to play well. You’ll move on, looking for serious tennis players. Non-players, or not-serious players, are irrelevant to your purpose.

Why don't we apply that same reasoning to our pursuit of the right business contacts?

Law practice example

If you're a corporate lawyer with expertise in helping family-owned businesses deal with the challenges of transitioning ownership and control from the "founder generation" to the "successor generation," you're looking specifically for owners of family-owned businesses. So, instead of going to your town's generic business networking functions, you're better off seeking out a local chapter of the Family Firm Institute. It's populated exclusively by owners of family-owned businesses.

Now, the odds that whomever you meet has a family-owned business approaches 100%. All you have to do is pose the business problem that drives demand for your expertise, and invest time only in those who have a reason to care about that problem.

The side benefit of associating with a demand-triggering business problem is that it makes it easy for others to recognize who you should be connected to. They hear their friends and colleagues talking about ceding control of the family business to their sons or daughters; they rarely hear them talking about legal services.

Every time I post something like this, I get flamed by people offended that I'm saying there's no value in meeting people and getting to know them. On the contrary, it's thoroughly enjoyable to meet new people and learn about them. However, that's not why we go to business networking events. As the definitions remind us, we're there seeking opportunity, not acquaintances.

Lawyers simply don't have the time to indulge an egalitarian approach to meeting people. Most spend an hour or two per week on all forms of market outreach, not just networking. They can’t bet on long shots, wandering aimlessly, hoping for the best.

IMO, lawyers would be better off dumping the idea of “networking,” with its implied randomness and hoping, in favor of “hunting,” i.e., knowing exactly who would have a reason to need someone with your skills, and under what conditions. Knowing this, you only attend events with a high likelihood of being populated with such people. You spend your time filtering the room, briefly discussing the problem that you solve, looking for those who acknowledge having that problem, and disengaging from others as quickly and graciously as possible.

Too much of lawyers’ business networking consists of hanging around with no purpose, happy to talk with anyone who can fog a mirror, thinking that coming home with a business card from anyone who can fog a mirror constitutes some type of success.

Do that after you retire. For now, know what you’re looking for, and make it your purpose to find it.

What’s the True Cost of Traditional Networking?

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For all of the almost 30 years I’ve been training lawyers to market and sell, I’ve heard the mantra, “It’s all about relationships.” By “relationships,” most people mean “personal relationships,” which really means “friendships.” According to the common wisdom, you’re supposed to go to networking events, meet people, and initiate a personal relationship with them. OK. Let’s say you do just that. Then what?

Presumably, if you initiate a relationship, you intend to sustain it long enough for it to produce some benefit. However, few people define the expected benefit beforehand. Instead, they take it on blind faith that relationships are inherently valuable. “You never know what might come of it.” Well, that part’s true, anyway.

Relationships come with obligations

Relationships don’t sustain themselves. That means overhead. Each relationship requires you to invest time, attention, effort, and creativity. Those are serious investments for lawyers who operate in a time-based economic system, where time literally is money. And those investments are based on little more than the unsupported expectation of vague, unspecified benefit at some unknown time in the future, following some unknown amount of investment.

Would you invest your money that cavalierly?

So, how much investment could we be talking about? Let’s take a stab at quantifying that.

The traditional networking approach is based on establishing and cultivating personal relationships first, and pursuing business second. You collect business cards from those you meet, and send each person the obligatory email saying “Nice to have met you last night. Let’s get together some time.”

Be careful what you ask for; you might get it

What if each of the five replied, “Great idea. I’d like that. How about lunch next week?”

Will you make time for five lunches, the value of which is unknown and, because of that, is a “someday, maybe” proposition at best, or will you claim to be jammed or put it off in some other nice way, and never revisit it? If you choose to blow it off, you wasted your time at the networking event initiating something you won’t carry through. If you choose to cultivate these relationships, it’s actually far worse.

Let’s say that you’re willing to make the long shot bets and invest in the five lunches. Even if the restaurant is in your office building, you’re still committing to an absolute bare minimum of 5-7 hours over the course of, say, two weeks. What percentage of your business development time budget does that represent? For most lawyers, the answer is “all of it.”

Unless you’re an outlier, 2-3 hours per week is probably your total weekly time allocation for business development. How wise is it to expend it all on five strangers, about whom you have no objective evidence that they’re legitimate business prospects, all in service to some abstract “relationship building” aim?

Relationship math

Continue the relationship math. You can’t develop much of a relationship over one lunch, which means that you’ve got to continue contact with these five people via phone, email, and lunches. How often? Nobody knows for sure, but let’s say you have to be in touch at least every other month to have any expectation of a productive relationship, and any chance at the result you want. Let’s assume that your cultivation activity looks like this:

  • 25% of your touches will be over lunch (1.25 hours each);

  • 25% by phone (20 minutes each); and

  • 50% by personalized email (10 minutes each).

Since it makes no sense to go to one networking event, get five business cards and quit, let’s further assume that you go to a networking event twice monthly, and meet five new people each time for a total of 10 new contacts per month.

Good news, bad news

Sounds great, right? Maybe not. Here’s what that would look like over 18 months:

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The good news is that you’ll have added 900 contacts. The bad news is that you’ve added 900 “relationship obligations” — for contacts of unknown utility or value. Each of these will require meaningful time investment to develop.

Over the course of just Year One, you’ll have invested roughly 200 hours staying in touch with, and trying to develop some kind of relationship with, 420 people whose only initial qualification for such investment was being nice to you at an event and handing you a business card. At a billing rate of $250/hour, that’s an opportunity cost of $50,000. At a 40% gross profit (which is very, very good for a law firm) you'd have to generate $125,000 worth of work from those contacts -- just to break even.

There’s no “off” switch

Because you’re building relationships, there's no basis for a decision that would allow you to disengage. These people will remain in your pipeline indefinitely, creating a cumulative cost that will bury you. Take a look above at how this really ramps up in Year Two (blue highlight).

Consider, too, that at the 18-month mark, you’ll only have had 2-3 touches with each of the people you met in the first six months of Year Two. Those relationships are immature, so you can’t count on them for any kind of business or referral results just yet. Combine those with the carryovers from Year One, and you’re on the hook for another 230 hours of relationship overhead in just the first six months of Year Two.

Applying the same hourly rate to calculate opportunity cost, that translates into $57,500, which is more than your relationship cost for all of Year One. Using the same gross profit numbers, you’ll have to generate an additional $143,750 to break even for the first six months of Year Two.

Break-even total for 18 months: $168,750

That's just to break even on the relationship overhead. You still won’t have made a nickel of profit.

The marketing/sales budget norm for many lawyers is roughly 200 hours per year, so you’ll exhaust all of that and more developing relationships with random contacts. (This doesn't count the 50 or so hours you’ll have spent at 24 networking events each year creating this huge obligation.)

The rest of the bad news is that this time overhead doesn’t include time required to sustain and grow relationships with current clients. You’ll have to choose between neglecting them in favor of attention to these random strangers, or boosting your time budget by an amount that isn't possible.

You'll do neither. Instead, you’ll make random, infrequent contact with some of these networking contacts, and ignore most of them.

Why do it at all? 

Why begin something that you know you can't sustain or see through to a productive end?

Today, the personal vs. business relationship sequence is reversed, i.e., business relevance, demonstrated through electronic distribution of your ideas (and the occasional speaking gig) earns a virtual relationship between many people and your ideas.

  • A percentage of those people will agree with your ideas and choose to remain in virtual contact with you.

  • A percentage of those will experience the idea or problem that you’ve associated yourself with and attribute to it consequences that require them to take action.

  • A percentage of those will discuss the problem with you, and

  • a percentage of those will hire you.

Over time, as you do a good job for them, a personal relationship or friendship may emerge, but it’s not required. You can have robust “idea relationships” and economic relationships with people you’ve never met, in places you’ve never been to, and they’re just fine with that.

So, let’s gore the “relationship-first” sacred cow now, and replace it with a much more discerning and rational approach in which you

  • know precisely who you’re looking for,

  • know how to quickly reveal whether or not they’re investment-worthy, and

  • spend your time at events filtering the crowd, connecting only with those for whom you have objective evidence that it’s worth your time to cultivate them.

Reminder: You’re not attending the event to make friends. If you are, then call that time “entertainment,” not “marketing.” 

Networking: What's the best way to introduce yourself?

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Following a post about networking, one of my readers asked, “What’s the best way to introduce yourself at a networking event?” 

How you introduce yourself is determined by your purpose in attending the event.

Let’s first consider the other party. Most people adhere to the traditional networking philosophy, so their purpose is simply to meet people, collect business cards, send a follow-up email, and hope for the best. 


As I’ve argued throughout my coaching career, your purpose is to filter the crowd to

  • identify people who acknowledge experiencing the business problem that triggers demand for your service, and who are willing to discuss that problem with you outside of the event, and

  • arrange that discussion.

That means your goal is to have short qualifying conversations, tee up subsequent contact with those who qualify, quickly and graciously escape from those who don’t, and hunt for the next Suspect.

When you introduce yourself, say the minimum about yourself, and quickly get the other person talking about herself. This is easier than you might think, since you have a fair amount to go on:

  • You’re both wearing name tags, so you don’t have to announce your organization

  • Given their typical format (Surname, Surname, and More Surnames) law firm names are often obvious, and the odds are pretty good that she’ll guess you’re a lawyer, so you don’t have to offer that

  • You’ve chosen the event because it’s attended by people whose circumstances make them likely to face your demand-triggering problem.

Let’s say you’re a Trade Secrets lawyer, and the problem that triggers demand for you is that of talent moving from one technology company to another, taking with them proprietary information stored in their brains. You know that the biotech industry is exploding and, therefore, faces acute shortages of engineers and salespeople. Companies are constantly recruiting each other’s talent, making it almost a certainty that they’re facing your problem now, or soon will.

Here’s how

A glance at her name tag tells you that Jane Seymour is VP of Sales at Integrated Biometrics. You offer a friendly, “Hi, Jane. Rachel Yates. Nice to meet you.” Because your name tag says you’re a Partner at Surname, Surname, and More Surnames, and a fair number of lawyers attend these events, she’s already figured out that you’re probably a lawyer. You immediately begin the qualifying process by asking Jane to talk about her company and herself.

Rachel: “I’m not familiar with Integrated Biometrics, Jane. What kind of business is it?”

Jane: “We’re an early-stage company that manufactures and sells biometric identification systems. You know, those touchpads that read your fingerprints to grant access to secure facilities like research labs, pharma companies, defense installations, and so forth.”

Rachel: “Sounds exciting. I hear that’s really heating up as companies recognize the importance of securing access to sensitive areas of their facilities. I think I read something about a talent war in your business, with lots of poaching back and forth.”

Jane: “You bet. Because this industry is relatively new, there's an acute shortage of experienced engineering and sales talent. Competitors recruit from each other intensively.

Rachel: ““It seems like in hot categories like yours, those people moving between competitors take important knowledge with them.”

Jane: “Absolutely. It’s in their heads, so even if they’re really high-integrity professionals who try to do the right thing, that knowledge has to show up in their future work, if only subconsciously. After all, that’s why our competitor hired them, and why we hire people from them.”

Jane has confirmed that her company faces Rachel’s demand-triggering problem.

Rachel: “I see this all the time, so I understand. I’m a lawyer who helps tech companies protect their innovations and breakthroughs against the inevitable instances of key talent walking across the street to a competitor. There’s good news and bad news. The bad news is that there are more types of risks than generally recognized. The good news is that there are also more ways to protect the company than most people were aware of.” 

Jane: You said there were more types of risks than are generally recognized. What did you mean?

Success! Jane wants to know more. It’s time to offer a short bit of categorical evidence that a solution exists, then make your exit.

Rachel: “Well, the people you recruit have other companies’ secrets in their heads, too, right? And their former employers are watching your progress for signs of their trade secrets appearing in your products and marketing.”

Jane: “I hadn’t thought of that side of it. So, what can an early-stage company like ours do?”

Rachel: “I’m afraid there’s no 30-second answer, but let me just offer that the typical exit interview by HR can actually cause you to forfeit certain rights. But I’ve tied you up long enough. Rather than monopolize your time here or discuss sensitive information in public, does it make sense for us to reconnect by phone sometime over the next few days?”

Graciously, you won’t impose on Jane’s networking time, but you also don't want to get trapped with one person all night, no matter how opportune it might seem. Jane doesn’t really want to get into any detail about sensitive topics in public rooms, so she'll appreciate the suggestion.

Now, all Rachel has to do is arrange a date and time to chat (making sure that she’s initiating the call), and begin hunting for the next Jane.

Why did Rachel delay declaring her value so long? 

Because unless Jane acknowledges having the talent-leaving-with-trade-secrets problem and demonstrates that it’s one she must care about, there’s no point. Unless there’s a specific reason to move forward, Jane isn’t likely to remember Rachel or anyone else she meets tonight. How many times have you gotten to your office the next day, looked at the business cards you picked up the night before, and struggled to remember anything about any of those people?

Networking: Avoid introduction faux pas

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The business meet-and-greet scene is fraught with potential pitfalls, even for the most confident among us. Here’s how to reduce the risk of encounters at networking events, receptions, etc.

Have we met before?

Professional social encounters pose a handful of risks that we can group under “Am I supposed to know this person?” It takes a few cringe-worthy forms that I’m sure we can all relate to:

  • I think we’ve met, but we haven’t

  • I don’t think we’ve met, but we have

  • I recognize your face, but I don’t know if we’ve met

  • I know we’ve met, but I can’t remember your name

  • We bumped into each other earlier at this multi-day event, and I can’t remember your name

  • Another person connects you, and explicitly assumes both must know each other. You don’t know if that’s true or not, but it could be.

To avoid all of these, I play it safe by eliminating the specifics. Whenever I approach someone, I scan their name tag while extending my hand and saying my name: “Hi, Denise. Mike O’Horo. Nice to see you.” By not saying “Nice to meet you,” or “Nice to see you again,” I eliminate all risks in the met-previously category. 

Sometimes, people will respond with, “I remember you, Mike. We met at [event].” To which I reply, “You have a good memory. I’m flattered.” Or they may say, “We met at last night’s cocktail reception.” My reply: “I’m flattered that you remember, but I’ve learned not to assume that, so I always say my name in case you forgot.”

Colleagues can help each other

If I’m making the rounds with a colleague, we make a mutual-non-embarrassment pact: “If someone approaches and I don’t know them, I’ll initiate an introduction. If I know them and remember their name, I’ll initiate. If I don’t initiate, that means I should but I can’t because I don’t remember their name. If so, bail me out. Stick your hand out and introduce yourself so I’ll hear them say their name.”

Sometimes, people remember me enthusiastically, and greet me before I can insert my name as above, but they get my name wrong. “Hey, Mark! Great to see you again. It’s been since the last conference, right?” If there are others present, I don’t correct them. It’s not that important, and there will be an opportunity to do so privately another time. Or, if we get into conversation, another person may say my name, or they may notice my name tag (see below) and correct themselves. Either way, everyone will notice that I’ve been gracious. 

If this happens when we’re alone, I’ll correct them with a casual, “Actually, it’s ‘Mike,’” and immediately move on in conversation to avoid any awkwardness.

Status differences

A riskier situation is encountering someone of higher status, whom we’ve met before and wish to cultivate, but because of their station we realize that there’s a pretty good chance that they don’t remember us. In that case, I give them everything they need to at least act like they remember. “Hello, Ms. Johnson. My name is Mike O’Horo. I won’t expect you to remember, but we met briefly a year ago when you spoke at [forum]. I thought you made an important point about [topic].”

This tells them that you did, in fact, meet, and even if they don’t recall it at all, gives them something to work with. “Oh, yes, Mike. That was quite an event, wasn’t it? Lots of interesting perspectives, as I recall.” Then, you can proceed to what you wanted to speak with them about. (You can also use this with a well-known person you didn’t actually meet previously, but want to now, and have a “content anchor” such as the “made an interesting point” example above.)

These have served me well, and have allowed me to appear far more socially adept than I may have felt at those moments.

Name tags

According to Scientific American, between 70% and 95% of humans are right-handed (I don’t know why the range is so broad), so it’s only natural to pick up your badge with your right hand, which makes your left lapel the easiest place to attach it. However, handshakes are always right-handed, so for the badge to be easily visible to the person you’re meeting, it must be in line of sight as they face you. Make sure to put it on your right-side lapel.

Many conferences have the name tags on lanyards that go around your neck. The default is that they’re at maximum length when you get them. Unless you’re very tall, this puts your name out of easy view, and raises the odds that contact with your legs while walking will cause it to spin around and not be readable at all. Shorten the lanyard to raise your name tag to the height it would be if affixed to your lapel.

Now that you can avoid all introduction faux pas, relax and make the event work for you.

How to disengage from a dead-end conversation


We’ve all found ourselves trapped in a dead-end conversation at a networking event. Someone drones on about a topic in which you have no interest. Or, it’s simply someone you don’t like. Or, there’s nothing wrong with the topic or the person, but you know that it’s not prudent to spend that much time with any one person. 

You need an escape that doesn’t require you to be rude. Before I give you some tricks to manage this situation, let’s first take a look at why this happens, and how you can avoid most of it.

This problem is often the result of aimlessly talking with anyone and everyone about almost anything, because you have no clear purpose. Since you don't know what you're trying to accomplish, you’re neither screening conversation partners nor directing the conversation. You’re guaranteeing irrelevant or indulgent chatter. 

Randomness also causes you to go to the wrong events, populated by too few people of the type you want to meet. When you go to an event simply because it’s available, you’re taking the Fogameer Approach, i.e., speaking with anyone who can fog a mirror.

Don’t network; hunt

The solution? Change your approach from networking to hunting. My definitions of the terms are intentionally stark, perhaps even a bit harsh:

Networking: You hang around any available event, with no purpose, chatting with as many people as you can, initiating “relationships,” thinking that coming home with a business card from anyone with a pulse constitutes some type of success. 

Hunting: You know who you want to speak with, and more importantly, who you don’t. You have a specific profile of who would need someone with your skills, and the conditions that trigger demand for those skills and expertise. You only attend events with a high likelihood of being populated with people who match that profile. You spend your time filtering the room, briefly exploring the problem you solve, testing for those who acknowledge having that problem, and disengaging from others as graciously as possible.

When you arrive and pick up your badge, take a look at how it’s formatted. Where does the company name appear? Is it easily read from 5-6 feet away? If so, you can scan badges to identify the wearer’s likely industry affiliation, and avoid those who are irrelevant. (In your profiling exercise, you’ll have deduced which industries have high concentrations of companies experiencing your demand-triggering problem.)

Your escape plan

Even so, you’ll still occasionally get trapped. When that happens, the way to escape graciously is to first test whether or not the person acknowledges that her company is experiencing, or faces, your demand-triggering problem.

You (reading her badge): “Hello, Jane. Mike O’Horo (extending your hand). Nice to see you.”

Jane: “Jane Newman. Nice to meet you, too, Mike.”

You (pointing to her badge): “Integrated Biometrics? I’m not familiar with your firm, but it sounds like you might be in the secure access business. How close am I?”

Jane: “Good guess. We make biometric identification devices that secure sensitive areas for hospitals and defense contractors.”

Jane’s company matches your target profile

You: “From what I see in the business press, that’s a very dynamic business these days.”

Jane: “Oh, yes. It feels like the technology changes monthly. It borders on chaos.”

You: “Besides the pace of technical innovation, it seems like biometric security companies are also wrestling with [your demand-triggering problem]. You’re in the business. Tell me, am I on track, or way off base?”

Jane: “You’re pretty close, but [Jane modifies your understanding of the problem].”

You: “Thanks for clarifying. That makes sense. I’d love to chat with you about some ideas I have for dealing with that, but I don’t want to monopolize your attention. You’re here to network. Would it make sense for us to explore this by phone over the next week or so?”

Jane: “Sure, but this week is a bear for me.”

You: “I understand. Mine’s a bit jammed too. (Pull out your phone.) Want to put something on our calendars now, and confirm it tomorrow?”

Jane: “No, Mike. Too many things are fluid right now. Send me an email next week and we’ll see what can work.”

You: “Ok. May I get your card?” (Don’t say, “Here’s my card.” By doing so, you give up control of the contact to Jane. You always want to be the initiator. You know you’ll email Jane; you don’t know that Jane will email you.)

Jane’s company doesn’t match your target profile, but is related to it

You (pointing to her badge): “Integrated Biometrics? I’m not familiar with your firm, but it sounds like you might be in the secure access business. How close am I?”

Jane: “Close, but not close. We aggregate the data that those devices collect, and analyze it for activity patterns.”

You: “Interesting. Do you partner with the device companies?”

Jane: “Sure.”

You: “I’m writing an article about how [your demand-triggering problem] affects the biometric security business. Do you think any of your partners would be willing to have a brief call with me to get a quote from them?” 

Jane: “I don’t see why not. They might welcome the exposure.”

You: “Would it be an imposition for me to ask you to introduce me to a few of them?”

Jane: “Not at all.”

You: “Thanks so much. I don’t want to monopolize your attention here. How about if I send you an email to arrange a time for a brief call about who might make the most sense?”

Jane: “That’s fine. Here’s my card.”

Jane is a dead-end

You: “So far tonight, I’ve been wrong on most of my badge guesses. Oh, well. Jane, I apologize, but I’ll have to excuse myself. One of my clients is in the middle of something time-sensitive, and I can feel my phone buzzing in my pocket, so I’d better find a quiet spot. It’s nice to have met you.”

What to do when (gulp) someone is trying to disengage from a dead-end conversation with you!

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Previously, I wrote about how to extricate yourself gracefully from unwelcome conversations at networking events. Recently, a reader asked how to handle the reverse situation, i.e., when you’re the one being ditched. 

Hopefully it’s rare, but we’ve all experienced that non sequitur when someone with whom we’re chatting suddenly must attend to something, right now, and it hits us: “OMG! They’re trying to end the conversation and get away from me!”

Look to the beginning

The solution, as with most problems, lies in its origins. In the previous article, we identified some causes of finding ourselves in conversation with the wrong person. I’ve expanded that list below, but here’s the basic causal framework:

No purpose → Wrong event → Wrong people → Irrelevance → Must escape

No concrete purpose for attending this event. This is a common problem for those whose goal is to initiate relationships with almost anyone, due to the misguided belief that all relationships are potentially beneficial. When you’re indiscriminate, you’re driven to satisfy a selfish need. Unless you happen to be talking with someone who has the same vague purpose as you, this approach raises the odds of being at the...

Wrong event. It’s said that, absent a clear destination, any road is as good as another. Without a clear purpose, you don’t know who you’re trying to locate, and you’re at risk of choosing events for their availability or convenience. You’re also more likely to choose broadly-attended events rather than those focused on an industry or issue. You’ll be surrounded by the…

Wrong people. With no common factor guiding the choice of event, statistically you’re likely to experience a high percentage of people who are unlikely to be prospective clients or able to refer you to such. In that environment, you’re almost guaranteed to experience...

Irrelevance. Without a clear purpose, at an event populated by people unconnected to your interests, you’re talking just to talk. Again, you’re unlikely to match interests with many. I’ll grant that there’s probably a small percentage of networkers who are able to be genuinely interested in everyone they meet. However, most people go to networking events to further a business purpose, and they aren’t interested in meeting just anyone. You represent...

Filtering overhead. Your irrelevance usually won’t be immediately apparent. Plus, we’re obligated to begin with a little innocuous warm-up chat. It can take more than a few minutes of probing to recognize that there’s no “there” there. You’re both eating up time unmasking the “no point” hidden under the “nice person.” However, clarity triggers the “Escape!” response.

This is the common, and relatively benign, causal chain that results in someone plotting their escape. I say “benign” because you’re not doing anything to offend, you’re just not a match. If you encounter the person elsewhere, they won’t shun you. 

The greater risk is when we are a match, and we overplay our conversational hand in the following ways that we have to be aware of and assiduously avoid. 

Monopolization. This has many causes, with genuine enthusiasm being the most benign. The one to watch out for is what sociologist Charles Derber has termed “conversational narcissism.” Derber observes that, “during a conversation, each person makes initiatives. These initiatives can either be attention-giving or attention-getting. Conversational narcissists concentrate more on the latter because they’re focused on gratifying their own needs.” 

No timer in your head. Networking events are for quick connections and next steps, not deep conversations. People go to meet people, plural, not a person. They’re for exploring mutual business interests, not investing in deep friendships. Nobody should spend a lot of time with any one person, no matter how interesting or opportune the connection may seem. If the opportunity is genuine, it will be just as genuine a few days from now in the right setting. You need a timer in your head that pings you after a few minutes. 

It can be hard to know the limits. NPR’s radio host Marty Nemko suggests a “traffic light” framework:

  • You get a green light during the first 20 seconds. "Your listener is liking you, as long as your statement is relevant to the conversation and hopefully in service of the other person."

  • Yellow light for the next 20 seconds. "Now the risk is increasing that the other person is beginning to lose interest or think you’re long-winded."

  • At the 40-second mark, your light is red. "Yes, there’s an occasional time you want to run that red light and keep talking, but the vast majority of the time, you’d better stop or you’re in danger."

A minute is longer than you think, particularly if you’re the person waiting for it to end. You always want to be the one to disengage.

Ignoring cues. Sometimes, we keep on talking because we’re truly engaged in the topic and person. Others try to save us from ourselves, offering cues that they want to say something, or they want to leave, but we don’t notice, and they feel stuck.

Can you see how a combination of these could easily trigger a flight response?

How do we recognize that it’s time to wrap up?

Writing in Harvard Business Review, Dorie Clark, author of Stand Out, and an instructor at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business, suggests that we “make sure to be alert to the movement of their eyes from your face to their phone or watch to check the time. Glance down at their feet to see if they are still facing towards you.” If they’re not, she says, “it’s a sure sign they want to move on.”

Don’t take it personally, she writes. "They may simply need to head to the restroom, and you don’t want to tarnish an encounter by having them think of you as the person they couldn’t get away from." 

The biggest escape trigger is irrelevance, which is easily avoided by these simple steps:

  • Define a clear purpose, driven by the Door-Opener problem that drives demand for your service

  • Profile those whose interest aligns with yours

  • Choose to attend only those events populated with people who match that profile

  • Provide a filter. Make it easy for others to assess your relevance quickly. When you introduce yourself, identify what impact you produce, and for whom. “I help business lawyers create the right kind of sales opportunities, and convert them into the right kind of clients.” 

Facilitate their escape

If, despite our best efforts to be relevant and sensitive, we’ve still managed to overstay our conversational welcome, how do we facilitate the other person’s escape in a way that minimizes their discomfort, and preserves a shred of dignity for us?

First, acknowledge the faux pas. “I’m sorry to have gone on so long. I let my passion for [the topic] overcome my manners. You’re here to meet people, and I’m preventing that. Please excuse me.” You’ve blown it; shake hands and make yourself scarce. If they offer you an olive branch, say that if they’re in a forgiving mood, you actually do want to hear their views when it’s convenient.  

The questioner who triggered this Part Two also asked how to do this in a way that preserves our opportunity for follow-up. The only way to do that is to not let it happen. If someone had to escape from us, they’re unlikely to want another dose. However, if their interest in the issue was real, and your remarks were of value to them, they may offer you another chance, and some continuity, “Oh, don’t worry. I respect your passion and knowledge. I do have to get moving now, but I’m open to exploring this further in a better setting.”

Other than that, it’s a loss. Chalk it up to the cost of experience, and a lesson you’ll likely remember.

Rainmaker Development: The Journey From Ignorance to Mastery

What it actually takes to turn a lawyer into a consistent business developer

Reading time: 16 mins.

Ignorance to Mastery.jpg

Lawyers’ business development challenges are predictable. Unfortunately, they create many themselves, due to well-intended but undirected activity that reflects ignorance of what it actually takes to generate the right kind of opportunities, and to convert those opportunities into high-margin clients of the type that lawyers find professionally and financially rewarding.

As a result of an outdated conceptual framework, lawyers have incorrect expectations about the scale and scope of any training or coaching undertaking, with the result that both lawyers and their firms are reluctant to invest sufficient time or money in training and coaching. 

In simple terms, lawyers expect the business development “fix” to be tactical, painless, and of brief duration, rather than strategic, transformational, and of longer duration.

This means that minor adjustments to their approach, or tweaking some techniques, will rarely get it done. Often, a complete reconstruction is needed, beginning with replacing an outdated conceptual foundation with one aligned with today’s mature, competitive market.

Two main challenges

The law firm business model requires its revenue generators to have a far more comprehensive array of capabilities than do their corporate clients, who embrace far greater division of labor. Here are a dozen major capabilities required of a serious law firm rainmaker, divided into Getting Chosen (converting opportunities) and Getting Found (generating opportunities). 

Logically we must first improve the lawyer’s ability to get chosen, i.e., to convert opportunities they have now. The opportunities may not be exactly the type the lawyer wants, and there may not be as many of them as she'd like, but the firm and she have already expended time, money and effort to produce these opportunities. (Plus, if they waste opportunities, they sure don’t need more of them.)

This requires shifting their perspective away from their habit of trying to prove the superiority of their expertise and solution and convince prospects to choose them, which triggers buying defenses, in favor of using their existing “lawyering” skills to help a group of decision stakeholders make a trusted decision. 

Once they can reliably convert opportunities, they’ll need to develop a dependable source of new opportunities, but not just any opportunities. These will no longer be random occurrences, but instead will be by strategic intent, and they will be predictable for reasons explained below. You can imagine the positive impact that would have on a lawyer’s confidence, his standing among his colleagues, and her enjoyment of her profession.

Reading the following, lawyers will understand the “what,” but will struggle with the “how,” which requires training and coaching to master the mindset, sequencing, and language for each of these major skills.

Challenge #1

Sales: Getting Chosen, Converting Demand into High-Margin Revenue

Gain an initial stakeholder’s willing participation in a sales investigation that 

  • reveals the strategic, operational, and financial consequences of that problem, and the implications for that stakeholder’s career, then 

  • facilitate them declaring the perceived economic impact, expressed in dollars. Done properly, this Cost of Doing Nothing discussion causes the prospect to conclude that that it’s imperative that they take action to solve the problem, and it sets up a huge ROI ratio that assures pricing power for the lawyer.

Identify other stakeholders that constitute the Sponsorship Group, i.e., the critical mass of decision-making authority, and an internal Champion within that group

  • Motivate your initial stakeholder to identify the Sponsorship Group members and likely Champion

  • Recruit the Champion while preventing the initial stakeholder from proceeding without you

Facilitate and manage a group-decision process among the Sponsorship Group, led by the Champion, that yields a sustainable decision

  • Learn and master the group-decision process

  • Coach the Champion to apply the group-decision process

Specify a solution and cost, establish ROI, and manage or oversee successful implementation 

  • Confirm stakeholder group’s agreement with the Cost of Doing Nothing

  • Before discussing solution details or proposing any solution, test stakeholders’ receptivity to solutions you’re considering proposing

  • Test your pricing strategy/scheme/philosophy before discussing specific pricing

  • Get the stakeholders to co-author your price so that they’re invested in it, feel ownership of it, and will defend it against subsequent challenge by others

Close by using stakeholders’ declarations as foundation/justification, and shift the burden of justification away from you and onto the buyers

Obtain matter performance feedback, references, and referrals, and supply intelligence to the firm to inform marketing strategy and investment

Challenge #2

Marketing: Getting Found, Identifying and Stimulating Demand

Unfortunately, few lawyers have a vibrant sales pipeline filled with prospects who have a concrete reason to buy, or even to make time for additional lawyers, so we must embark on opportunity generation in parallel with opportunity conversion. This is a more strategic marketing effort that progresses more slowly than the sales effort. It’s a rigorous discipline that most lawyers have no exposure to or experience with, so it takes time for them to understand it and get the hang of it. Too many firms and lawyers abandon the training before this can bear fruit.

Identify an opportune market segment based on a prevalent, high-impact problem that the lawyer solves, and that differentiates that lawyer from competitors

  • Discipline yourself to abandon any focus on your firm, your skills, your expertise. Focus instead on the client’s world, problems, opportunities, etc.

  • Recognize and pursue the advantage of relevance, i.e., associating yourself with a problem that buyers must care about, instead of identifying yourself in legal-service nouns, e.g., “litigator,” “M&A lawyer,” etc.

  • Demonstrate “different-ness” instead of arguing “better-ness.” A percentage of prospects will consider your different-ness to be better.

Profile optimal prospects within the segment who have a meaningful stake in that problem

  • Develop sharp focus by segmenting and stratifying markets according to logical demographic criteria, e.g., “larger than $___ million, probably have in-house capability;” “smaller than $___ million, can’t afford us,” “domestic only, no international operations,” “more/fewer than ___ employees,” “growing at ___% per year,” etc.

  • Refine your target using psychographic criteria, e.g., “execs feeling pressure of media scrutiny re: issue,” etc. 

Create provocative, sustained electronic communication that establishes “thought leadership” around the high-impact problem among those stakeholders, and motivates them to pay attention to, and remain engaged with, the thought-leader lawyer

  • Examine your matter history to see if there’s a pattern that suggests an opportunity.

  • Research those clients’ industry to identify emerging problems/issues that look like they may have a long shelf life.

  • Speak with stakeholders to test your problem thesis and modify/refine it while learning industry insiders’ vocabulary and expressions so you’ll sound like an insider.

  • Build a network of insiders who match your specifications by requesting referral to others who can offer informed opinion.

Distribute that communication continuously in channels trusted by profiled stakeholders

  • Use the firm’s PR resources intelligently

  • Communicate with media channels effectively

  • Identify and join relevant LinkedIn groups. Form your own groups.

  • Write relevant articles and blog posts, and syndicate them via social media and in relevant LinkedIn groups

Cause prospects to form “virtual relationships” with the lawyer’s ideas

  • Communicate consistently and frequently to demonstrate your commitment to the market, and your understanding of what’s important to insiders

  • Participate in resulting online discussions to maintain your presence and leadership

Make direct contact with relevant stakeholders to learn the company-specific version of the industry-specific high-impact problem 

  • Approach stakeholders via LinkedIn

  • Email stakeholders to request they share their thoughts about your problem/issue

  • Arrange short phone calls to solicit views

  • Solicit network-building referrals

This list of 41 attitudes, beliefs, steps and skills is representative, but nowhere near exhaustive. 

Few firms or lawyers are aware of these because, during the high-demand Seller’s Market, they weren’t really required. When everyone was buying, social friendships and casual business contact afforded sufficient proximity to be considered for work. Since buyers’ legal service purchasing levels were consistently high, they had the luxury of spreading work around to a number of lawyers with whom they had relationships. This gave rise to lawyers’ belief that “it’s all about relationships,” and the practice of “random acts of golf and lunch.” 

Each of the dozen numbered items is a macro, with lettered subordinate items that require many specific skills to accomplish them. Developing each skill requires: 

  • Education to produce understanding

  • Training to produce functional capability

  • Coaching to apply the skill successfully

  • Sufficient application and repetition to produce experience, reliable capability, and the confidence to apply it in high-stakes situations (and not revert to comfortable habits)

Training Obstacles

To accomplish this complex mission, BD trainers and coaches must overcome formidable, entrenched obstacles:

Ignorance: lawyers’ lack of appreciation of how much the game has changed, and how much they must change in response

Low priority: lawyers’ belief that business development is not a mission-critical component to their job, but an extra, their lowest priority, worthy only of “extra time”

Low activity level: Because BD is a low priority, most lawyers allocate little or no time, and have very little meaningful interaction with legitimate prospects. It’s hard to get good at something that you do little of, and long intervals between opportunities to apply the skills being taught make it hard to develop any continuity or confidence.

Lack of accountability: Law firms don’t measure or manage BD performance, other than economic results during year-end compensation considerations. This makes it OK for lawyers to keep putting off intended actions, do the minimum, or do nothing.

Misaligned reward system: Lawyers are rewarded for billable hours and cash flow, which encourages short-term behaviors and discourages investment that doesn’t have immediate payoff, such as skill development.

“Legal-centrism”: Lawyers see the world in terms of “legal problems” and legal services. They struggle to recognize that legal matters derive from business activity or behavior, and are therefore reasonably predictable. Many see them as standalone considerations, which makes it hard for them to interact with, and be seen as relevant by, line-of-business executives. This limits their contact to the Legal Department, which is crowded with all their competitors.

Limited business exposure, acumen: Many lawyers have limited their attention, reading, and exposure to topics related to the technical practice of law. They don’t have much interest in business per se, so they have limited awareness of business trends, operations, or strategy (which constrains their context and perspective, and causes clients to list “lack of understanding of my business” as a top complaint). Despite nominally being business owners, many partners have limited experience with, and framework for understanding, business practices in general and business development principles and practices particularly.

Human nature: All people naturally resist change of any type.

Personality: Lawyers resist change more than the general population. They score very high on the Autonomy and Skepticism scales, and low on the Resilience scale. The combination causes them to be very risk-averse, makes it hard for them to request or accept advice or coaching, and discourages them from trying new approaches and techniques that may not succeed, or that they fear could make them look foolish.

The foregoing describes lawyers who think they want to be serious rainmakers. However, once they know what it actually takes, many decide that they don’t want it enough to pay the price.

The “why” behind the “what” and the “how”

Over the past 25 years, law firms have spent a lot of money, time, and effort trying to mold lawyers into rainmakers. They’ve tried lots of different strategies and approaches, depending their leadership’s seriousness of purpose and commitment.

How well have these investments worked out? That depends on what success criteria you assign, but most knowledgeable observers still estimate that the percentage of rainmakers remains unchanged at 5%-10% of a firm’s lawyers. 

Why has so much money and time produced essentially no additional rainmakers? 

I’ll argue that it’s because most training programs are under-informed about:

  • the actual standards of a legitimate rainmaker, 

  • where the firm’s lawyers are in relation to those, and 

  • what it actually takes to get from where they are to where they want to be.

Rainmaker standards

So, what does it mean to be a rainmaker? At most firms, anyone who generates revenue above a certain dollar threshold, reasonably consistently year-to-year, is considered a rainmaker. However, this simple standard is incomplete. A “rainmaker” is someone who each year produces revenue:

  • above a certain dollar threshold, 

  • at the prescribed profit margin, 

  • from predictable sources, 

  • based on a defensible position in a specific market segment

“ the prescribed profit margin”

Firms compensate partners on gross volume (criterion #1), with no consideration of selling “at the prescribed profit margin.” In any business, this encourages widespread discounting by salespeople. After all, even for sales professionals, it’s easier to offer a discount to get the sale than to establish value. Among untrained lawyers, who don’t know how to sell value, for whom there’s no penalty for compromising profitability, discounting is virtually guaranteed. 

Neither firms nor lawyers measure or manage Cost of Sales, which is an important component of profitability. If they did, they wouldn’t tolerate lawyers’ widespread practice of random marketing and sales activity, little of which has any strategic foundation. Once again, compensation practices reinforce bad habits. Lawyers are rewarded for activity, not outcome, so that’s what firms get. 

Unfortunately, most of that activity is for its own sake, to fill in required fields under the non-billable marketing hours column. I see names in lawyers’ pipeline reports that have been there for years, despite never getting any business from them. 

“Relationship-building” is acceptable justification. This reflects legacy attitudes and beliefs left over from the 25-year bull market for legal service that ended in 2008, when having a relationship often was enough to get work. Since the shift to a Buyer’s market, that correlation no longer exists. 

“...from predictable sources”

Most current partners got their revenue generation experience and success in the high-demand Seller’s Market conditions mentioned above. Firms’ legacy rainmakers (by the volume criterion only) have a random mix of disparate matters from a polyglot of unrelated clients, and little idea where they came from or why, or where future business will come from. They’re just out there forming and sustaining relationships, hoping that things will continue to work out.

As a result, they don’t understand either the nature or degree of change required to succeed in the low-demand, high-competition Buyer’s Market, conditions that will prevail for the balance of their careers. 

“...based on a defensible position in a specific market segment”

Another legacy of the bull market is that most lawyers are identified merely by practice lable, e.g., “litigators,” “real estate lawyers,” or “corporate lawyers.” According to, that makes them one of 300,000 litigators, 180,000 real estate lawyers, or 170,000 corporate lawyers. Practice-area labels communicate no value at all, and provide no differentiation unless you’re already one of a small handful of lawyers who are considered Top Five or Top Ten in your specialty.

To attract and hold clients’ and prospects’ attention, lawyers need to establish relevance, which means associating themselves with a business problem that drives demand for their expertise, and provides them an entre’ into the existing business conversation. Few lawyers understand this concept, or know how to go about doing this. It’s actually simple to do, but it takes time, effort, and coaching.

Lawyers’ capabilities in relation to these standards

Acquiring competency is different than education, which is merely absorbing information without any working application of it. Law school is education; lawyers learn about the law, but not how to apply their knowledge.

Competency requires you to apply knowledge through challenging attempts. It’s the doing of the thing. For example, I can lecture about business development techniques, but unless lawyers practice them, they’ll never be competent.

If we're blissfully unaware of our ignorance, there's little we can do about it, and no reason to care, much less to seek help. Therefore, one of the first steps to acquiring new skills is to become aware of what you don't know. This discovery can be uncomfortable, as is the experience of not being very good at what you're trying to do.

Law firms and lawyers are unaware of these considerations, so they’re both operating in the Unconscious Incompetence stage of the competence cycle, i.e., they don’t know what they don’t know. 

The Four Stages of Competence model a person's path from ignorance to mastery.

Anyone exposed to a new idea or skill begins at Unconscious Incompetence, and must progress through the four stages in sequence. 

One characteristic of Unconscious Incompetence is unfounded confidence in our innate ability to perform, due to ignorance of what it actually takes to perform. Therefore, have no appetite for training or coaching. With no perceived deficiency, why would we need it? 

This is why so few lawyers are eager for BD training and coaching, and why so many training programs fail despite lawyers claiming they want training. They think that, to generate business, all you have to do is show up, form a relationship, and business will come. How hard can it be? 

This may be why longtime Library of Congress historian Daniel Boorstin observed, “The greatest obstacle to discovery is not ignorance, it is the illusion of knowledge.”

They only think they want training -- because they don’t know what training will entail. When the program begins and they realize they have to embrace change, take risks, allocate time, and practice, they opt out or go through the motions. Only those who have concrete outcome goals that matter to them, for specific reasons that they can visualize and explain, exploit the training and succeed.

Many lawyers view the prospect of BD training the way a six-year-old views the prospect of attending First Grade. It's scary and uncomfortable. “I don’t want to go around and meet new kids. I want to hang out with the kids I know.” 

To succeed, or even to stick with it, they must not only have a good teacher, but they also must have support at home, with parents and siblings showing interest in it, and how they’re doing. You can chastise or penalize for failure, but that’s not the same as showing genuine interest in their progress. Otherwise, peer influence reigns. “The kids I know don’t do homework, so I won’t either.” 

In a law firm, that translates to, "All the other lawyers are just billing hours, so that's what I'm going to do." Unless leadership and peers reinforce and encourage progress and commitment, lawyers will drop out of BD school the way ignored kids drop out of school.

Everyone likes attention, interest, and encouragement. When it comes to BD, lawyers aren’t getting any.

Stage 1: Unconscious Incompetence 

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This stage means, "We don't know that we don't know." We’re naive, complacent, unaware that knowledge and skill requirements have changed. We make unconscious errors.

Lawyers have awakened to the criticality of having their own clients, and they know they’ll no longer simply waltz in the door. Reluctantly, they go to networking events, hoping something good will happen, having no idea why they return empty-handed. 

Stage 2: Conscious Incompetence (The beginners’ mind: "We know that we don't know.")

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At this stage, lawyers know that something isn’t working, but have no idea what it is or how to fix it. Often, their trial-and-error experiences bring about this awareness. They’re aware of their problem, and may understand what’s needed, but have no knowledge or confidence in how to get it.

Discouragement shows up here. 

There’s much more to business development than they realized, and they don't really know as much as they thought they knew. Realizing that their actual ability is limited, especially when compared to their previously naive expectations, their confidence drops, and they may feel overwhelmed by what seems to be a vast knowledge area they can't quite grasp.

How long they’re stuck in this state depends on factors such as the degree to which they accept their incompetence, and their determination to learn. Some simply can’t get to acceptance, and they'll abandon the training.

Stage 3: Conscious Competence (Learning, effort, tutelage, and mentorship)

4-stages competence 3-conscious competence.jpg

Through learning, at this level lawyers acquire rainmaking skills and knowledge, put them into practice and gain confidence, and work on refining them. This process often goes in fits and starts as they learn, forget, plateau and start anew. 

After enough effort, training and repetitions, they’ll acquire proficiency, but it doesn’t come automatically. They know what they know, and can apply it as long as they concentrate and focus. They have to think their way through what feels unnatural and foreign. Repetition, practice, coaching, and experience are necessary to advance to the final learning stage. Practice and coaching are key. Without them, they may progress to Stage 3 but will struggle to reach Stage 4, and may regress to Stage 2 or abandon the training entirely, regressing to old habits.

Stage 4: Unconscious Competence (second nature, intuition)

4-stages competence 4-unconscious competence.jpg

In this final stage, the lawyer has internalized the BD knowledge and can apply it without thought or concentration, completing the tasks with grace, speed, and confidence. The skills are so practiced that they’re automatic and come naturally, as second-nature as walking, and the lawyer will know it so well that they can’t articulate it to others. 

A note of caution:

People at Stage 4 can become complacent. Learning ceases and unconscious competence may evolve to ignorance of or blindness to new methods, technologies, etc. The expert loops back to unconscious incompetence.

This describes many successful rainmakers, who acquired their (presumed) unconscious competence under conditions that no longer exist, which makes them unconsciously incompetent relative to today’s more competitive conditions.

As mentioned, there are plenty of people who become so instinctual at a particular skill that they forget the theory -- because they no longer need it -- and as such make worse teachers than someone who has good ability at the conscious competence stage. 

Many expert practitioners who try to become conscious of what they do in order to train others find that their performance degrades, much the way athletes talk about their performance being compromised by thinking about what they're doing instead of just doing it. This is why training and coaching is an uncommon skill, and why it’s rarely a good idea to expect successful rainmakers to train others. Often what you end up with is a lesser business developer and a poor trainer.

Those who can both do and teach occupy a fifth stage, known as "reflective competence," in which you're able to toggle back and forth between the unconscious competence necessary to be an expert practitioner, and the conscious competence needed to be a teacher or trainer, without degrading the practitioner skills.

Mismatched training expectations

Neither law firm leaders nor their lawyers understand and apply all four of the rainmaker standards above, so it's very difficult for either to know what skills are required for lawyers to perform up to standard. 

How then can they specify or qualify a training or coaching program? I'm not a lawyer. Imagine me trying to specify and qualify a litigation training program.

A common scenario is where no training expectations or goals are specified. 


No matter how effective and painless a firm’s training program is, only a small percentage of lawyers have the desire and the will to be rainmakers once they understand what it actually takes. However, many more are willing to contribute, if there was a credible way to do so without going through a transformation or making a big time commitment.

Firms can solve this problem by identifying and offering the opportunity to opt-in to a specific contributory role on a client team or industry team. Think of it as a litigation metaphor, where the primary direct seller parallels the first-chair trial lawyer, and everyone else performs discrete roles that inform, support, or otherwise contribute to the trial lawyer’s ability to manage the case successfully. The key is role clarity.

With pre-defined roles, potential contributors can evaluate the role and decide whether or not they’re interested in it and can succeed at it.

Law firm leaders: What’s the single most effective tool for improving business development performance? 

Study after study shows that coaching improves performance. Your clients know it; 62% of them use it because:

  • 17% performance difference between those coached and those not coached

  • 28% higher win rates.

  • 17% greater annual revenue growth.

  • 88% productivity increase

Shall we schedule a call to chat about your firm’s situation, and see how your lawyers could benefit? 

Lawyers: Are you generating enough revenue to guarantee you the practice and income you want? Do any of these situations describe you?

  • You’ve done OK with good instincts and effort, but you’re not really sure where future business will come from.

  • You’ve done pretty well, but your business development efforts don’t seem to work as well as in the past.

  • You made a lateral move to a new firm, and only about half the clients and work you promised actually came with you. (BTW, this is the norm.)

  • You’re new at this, and realize that it’s time to get started.

Here’s how my coaching program works. Shall we schedule a call to chat about your situation, and see if we’re a fit?