The RainmakerVT Story (so far)

I never set out to train lawyers to market and sell.  

Like much of many of our careers, it was serendipitous. If David Falk hadn’t left ProServ to set up his own sports marketing agency, taking with him Michael Jordan and a stable of other NBA stars and, therefore, a big chunk of ProServ’s cash flow, I might never have done any of this.

In 1991, while working at ProServ, a prominent sports marketing agency of that era, I sold a tennis sponsorship to then-ascendant (now-defunct) Howrey & Simon, through a Washington, DC law firm marketing consultant who was rebranding the firm. Shortly after Mr. Falk’s departure from ProServ for greener fields, many of us recognized the impact of that and saw that it would soon be time to find something else to do for a living.  

Over lunch, the consultant said to me, “Here’s a problem you might be interested in. The managing partners of all these law firms I work with tell me that they have partners who know everybody, who have Golden Rolodexes, but don’t bring in business.”  

Astonished, I clarified, “You’re telling me that these people can get their calls returned at the top, can get in the right room, and don’t bring in business? This is too easy. We can fix this by tomorrow.”

I interviewed a number of his clients to get a handle on the cultural “look and feel,” then built my training mousetrap and we went to market. From the beginning, it was a very intimate, customized one-on-one coaching relationship that produced dramatic results.

Over the years, as I became much more familiar with what it meant to practice law, my training philosophy evolved, becoming much less corporate and much more akin to law practice. Eventually, I got to where I based everything on a litigation analogy. It got so simplified that we declared that the lawyers didn’t have to learn any new skills; in their law practice they already had mastered every skill needed.  All they had to do was apply those skills to the business acquisition challenge, i.e., before they got hired, in exactly the same way they applied them after they’d been hired.

Sidebar: I’ve always been a process-oriented person, so I created standalone process modules for many of the solutions I devised in real-time in response to a lawyer’s immediate challenge during a coaching call. During the dot-com boom of the late ‘90s, I heard Cisco’s John Chambers describe e-learning as “the killer app that will make email look like a rounding error.” This aligned well with my modular, process-orientation. With the help of some local distance-learning developers, I built my first e-learning prototype using coaching avatars, decision triggers, etc. The conceptual architecture of that early effort is visible in RainmakerVT. Unfortunately, while Chambers’ rosy assessment may yet prove true, in 1997 the legal market wasn’t ready for e-learning.

Two casual remarks by clients initiated the thinking that ultimately led to creating RainmakerVT.

The first, perhaps 15 years ago, was made by the marketing director at a huge Chicago law firm, who said, “Mike, I love your training, but we have 1000 lawyers.  You can’t train 1000 lawyers.”

The second occurred more recently, when, after hearing my answer to what I did for a living, my new acquaintance casually quipped, “Oh, you make rich lawyers richer.”  

That one stuck with me.  

Don’t get me wrong; I’m proud of the results we produced together, but the ignoble truth was that helping a lawyer raise his or her annual pay to $800,000 from $700,000, while certainly appreciated by the lawyer in an abstract way, wasn’t going to change his or her life meaningfully.

Fast forward to mid-2009.  

Bored with the static nature of BigLaw, and the paucity of strategic discourse (despite the industry undergoing the most wrenching, seismic change in its history), I closed my training consultancy and, in desperate need to get myself back into the idea stream, I set out to investigate “innovation.”  That was truly stimulating.  You can’t imagine how much you look forward to each day when you’re studying electric vehicles, solar roadways, sustainable construction and renewable materials, the convergence of entertainment and mobile computing, etc.

Coincidentally, a former client, Craig Levinson, had, at the same time as I, left his job at JAMS to find something more interesting to do.  We traded ideas and concepts. We’d been successful in our two previous collaborations training partners at his firms, so we harbored the hope that we could create something worthwhile together.

In the course of my intellectual meanderings, one day Fred Wilson, a VC in NY whose blog and comments a friend at Google had suggested I follow in case I needed to raise money some day, wrote a blog post about The Monster in Your Head, a blog by Jerry Colonna, a VC-turned-life/executive coach.  Jerry’s post included an excerpt from Soul Dance, by Bill Plotkin, titled, “The Survival Dance and The Sacred Dance:”  

Each of us,” writes Plotkin, “has a survival dance and a sacred dance, but the survival dance must come first. Our survival dance, a foundational component of self-reliance, is what we do for a living—our way of supporting ourselves physically and economically…Everybody has to have a survival dance. Finding and creating one is our first task upon leaving our parents’ or guardians’ home.

Once you have your survival dance established, you can wander, inwardly and outwardly, searching for clues to your sacred dance, the work you were born to do. This work may have no relation to your job. Your sacred dance sparks your greatest fulfillment and extends your truest service to others. You know you’ve found it when there’s little else you’d rather be doing. Getting paid for it is superfluous. You would gladly pay others, if necessary, for the opportunity.”

That struck a resonant chord.  

I had mastered my Survival Dance, but remained clueless about my Sacred Dance. That explained much of my pattern of success-and-dissatisfaction throughout my many careers. While each venture initially was intellectually stimulating while I figured out the new puzzle, each also failed even to lightly brush up against anything resembling a Sacred Dance.

I shared Colonna’s blog post with Craig, and was happy to see that it resonated with him in as big a way.  We decided to make sure that during our search for our next Survival Dance we would remain particularly alert for signs of Sacred Dance components, or at least an evolutionary path to it.

In the course of using LinkedIn to connect with those who might shed light on our journey, we noticed a fatal flaw in LinkedIn’s introduction scheme, one that guaranteed that it couldn’t work as intended. As it turned out, one of the principles of my sales methodology contained a reliable solution to that, so we set out to fix LinkedIn. The potential Sacred Dance element was in the form of connecting, much more effectively and efficiently, unemployed or under-employed workers with those needing their skills. If we could do that, we could have a positive effect on US unemployment and the attendant “misery index” of those anxious about their professional- and financial futures.

While seeking a technology partner to build what we envisioned, I visited a company who offered a robust virtual training platform.  Looking closely at their product, I realized that we were having the wrong conversation. I told them, “Depending which source you believe, there are between 600,000 and 900,000 US lawyers practicing solo or in firms of ten or fewer. They couldn’t afford to hire me, and I couldn’t afford to sell to them. With virtual training, we can build a scalable solution and bring proven training to them for coffee money.” At that moment, we pivoted, and RainmakerVT was born, at least in concept.

The most significant event for us, though, occurred a few months later when we hosted a focus group lunch for solos to learn how they were going to market now, what they spent their marketing dollars on, and how well or poorly that worked. During the discussion, we listened to stories of spending thousands of dollars on radio, TV, print ads, events, etc. Most sadly admitted that such expenditures produced few prospects or, worse, prospects that couldn’t afford legal fees.

Craig and I made eye contact across the table and it was clear that we both were thinking the same thing:  “How sad that these lawyers were getting so little return from so much investment when there were so many more effective strategies and tactics, many of which were free if you put in some consistent time applying them.” We felt resentful that they were being exploited so egregiously, and unnecessarily. Since it was an intelligence-gathering lunch, we had to resist the powerful urge to go into training mode, telling them, “Do this, and this, and this...” (We did, however, invite those present to call us for complimentary personal coaching.)

At that moment, we knew that we were doing the right thing with RainmakerVT.

I continually update research about how much money solos make in different parts of the US. Ignoring outliers at each end, the center of the bell curve suggests a modest-to-comfortable living (appx $75k), with little cushion for life’s setbacks or for children’s college education.  It’s been observed that most people in the US are one missed paycheck away from disaster. I don’t know if that applies to solo lawyers or not, but it’s hard to imagine that most are sanguine about their financial prospects. And that’s in return for having to hustle for business every day. Unlike many of their BigLaw counterparts, for solos, “business development” is no abstraction, i.e., something for which one gets a gold star for doing occasionally, but suffers no immediate tangible penalty for not doing at all. For solos, there is true immediacy; these lawyers are at the pointy end of the stick every day.

Returning to Plotkin for a moment:

“…The first step is creating a foundation of self-reliance: a survival dance of integrity that allows you to be in the world in a good way—a way that is psychologically sustaining, economically adequate, socially responsible, and environmentally sound. Cultivating right livelihood, as the Buddhists call it, is essential training and foundation for your soul work; it’s not a step that can be skipped.”

Our mission is to give solos and small firm lawyers that “foundation of self-reliance,” in the form of the business development skill and virtual experience they need to reliably get sufficient business to eliminate financial anxiety. If we manage to do that, we have a decent chance of finding our Sacred Dance.

My late father, a lifelong salesman not given to dispensing advice, offered me one bit of wisdom that sticks with me: “Conduct yourself in such a way that you can walk down the street with a potential client, bump into a former client, and leave them alone together for a half-hour without worry.”