Why isn’t it working?!

A potential client called to discuss how I might help her with her business development activities, and I asked what she’d tried. As I often discover in those conversations, she’d tried a number of approaches, all to no avail. On her list: writing articles, teaching seminars, advertising, attending networking events, posting her profile on various social networking sites, and so on. But she had no results to report.  Not surprisingly, she was ready to conclude that she wasn’t meant to be a rainmaker.

If you see no results, it’s easy to conclude that it’s time to throw in the towel. It’s discouraging to work at something — especially something as important as business development — and get poor results.

This inclination to accept failure is even more common for those who believe that rainmaking is a skill reserved for a few special lawyers.  (As a sidenote, ponder this: not every lawyer will be a superstar rainmaker. But every lawyer can be a “mist-maker,” and depending on your practice setting, that may be all you need to shoot for.) But should you accept failure as permanent and give up business development activity?  No.

Three mistakes are often responsible when a lawyer has worked hard at rainmaking without generating meaningful results:

  1. The lawyer is measuring the wrong thing. New business is the clearest measurement of rainmaking success, but that’s like starting a diet and measuring success only by reaching goal weight. There are all sorts of midpoints that indicate success: making new contacts, developing relationships, building a strong reputation in your field, and so on. These “interim successes” indicate forward movement — assuming, of course, they’re measured as progress toward the ultimate goal of bringing in new business and not as an end in themselves.
  2. The lawyer hasn’t brought in new business. . . Yet. “Patience and perseverance have a magical effect before which difficulties disappear and obstacles vanish,” John Quincy Adams observed. In other words, don’t give up before an activity has had time to produce results. Networking is a key place where lawyers fall short.  A single conversation is incredibly unlikely to generate new business, and mere membership in a group without any real involvement is equally unlikely to be successful using any measure. Whether it’s networking or another activity, hopping from one activity to another generates a lot of motion but very little forward movement. Choosing one or two marketing tactics is almost certain to bring better results — unless. . .
  3. The lawyer is doing the wrong things, or doing them in the wrong way. No matter how persistently the task is undertaken, if it’s fundamentally flawed, it won’t work. Let’s take networking again. If your idea of networking is attending meetings, talking incessantly about yourself, your skills, your qualifications, and your experience, plus pressing your business card on anyone who happens within an arms’ length, you are destined to fail. That’s networking at its worst and it’s unattractive to just about everyone. Similarly, well-performing activities that don’t involve talking directly with potential clients and referral sources likely won’t produce business. Bottom line: good activity done wrong doesn’t work.

Your task this week: are you making any of these mistakes? Check especially to see how you’re measuring your success. Because lawyers are trained to focus on the end game (here, landing the new business), this is one of the key mistakes that I often see among new clients.

How to determine whether a rainmaking expense is a cost or an investment (and why it matters).

I once talked with a client who was upset at the prospect of paying nearly $1,000 for equipment required for making a presentation to a group of her ideal clients.  She confirmed my expectation that she’d be able to use the equipment again for similar presentations, and I suggested that she view the financial outlay as an investment rather than a cost.

“What’s the difference,” she sighed, “call it cost or investment, that money is just plain gone.”  You spend cash for both costs and investments, true, but the distinction is critical in making smart decisions about rainmaking expenses.

A cost is defined as “the amount or equivalent paid or charged for something;” an investment is “the outlay of money, usually for income or profit.”  The difference?  No matter how beneficial, a cost is money paid or time spent that doesn’t produce further profit or income.  An investment, however, is intended to be recouped and, if the investment is well chosen, to bring in more money than you originally paid. Big difference!

You must understand this distinction so that you can evaluate opportunities that come your way.  When you are presented with a chance to do something, whether it’s sponsoring some sort of event, speaking to a group, or enhancing your own professional development through training or coaching, you need to be able to discern whether you’ll be paying a cost or making an investment. Both have their place, but you have to budget differently for each kind of expense.

For example, in the last few years, I’ve made an annual 5-figure investment in working with business mentors, and those investments have paid off handsomely.  The feedback I’ve received and the ideas generated have brought in substantially more than the sums I paid.  I decided to make those investments after following the mentors and carefully evaluating what was offered.  I would not pay the same amount as a cost that I didn’t expect to recover—but I’ll happily invest any amount of money when I know that it will produce a multiplied return in new income.

When you’re making a decision about spending (including whether the opportunity is an investment and whether it’s the right one for you), consider these questions:

  1. What benefit can I reasonably expect from taking part in this opportunity?  Consider not just financial or business benefit but also the ancillary relationship benefits that may accrue.  For example, if attending a meeting holds little direct benefit to you, but one of your best clients has asked that you attend, you might find that the benefit of meeting your client’s request will merit the investment of time.  If the only benefit is emotional and unlikely to lead to a business benefit—your own enjoyment or development of a social relationship—then you should consider the opportunity to be a cost rather than an investment and make your decision accordingly.
  2. What’s the likelihood of reaping the anticipated benefit?  You may not be able to predict with mathematical certainty the probability of attaining the benefit that you’re seeking, so a qualitative estimate is all you need here.
  3. What’s the magnitude of the anticipated benefit? I look for at least a 2-to-1 payoff for financial investments. For instance, when I had the opportunity to travel to Los Angeles a few years ago to speak at a conference, I weighed the $2000 travel and hotel bill against the lifetime value of getting at least one additional client.
  4. What will I need to put into this opportunity to increase the likelihood of getting the benefit?  Especially when an investment is primarily financial, it’s important to recognize that you may need to put in additional time and energy — and perhaps additional money — to get the results that you want.  That isn’t necessarily an indication that you shouldn’t make the investment, but you need to know what you’ll need to do before you commit. To continue the previous example, in addition to the financial expenditure, I knew it would take several days to craft and practice my presentation.
  5. Am I able to make the necessary investment of money, time, and energy?  When’ve defined the scope of expenditure you’ll need to make to get the benefit you’re seeking, determine whether you can make that investment.
  6. Am I willing to make that investment?  As I often tell my coaching clients, if you want things to change, you will need to change.  Even if an opportunity carries no financial cost, be sure you’re willing to invest your time and energy, since no benefit flows without some sort of investment.

Use these questions in making your own decisions, and use them to help your clients see the benefits of investing in working with you on financial and other levels.  In many substantive areas of practice, a clear need often precedes an engagement, and convincing is unnecessary.  When your work is characterized as planning or arranging something (estate planning, for example), you may get more business when you’re able to demonstrate how investing will pay off, in reduced taxes for your client’s estate (financial benefit) and in reduced stress for your client’s survivors (emotional benefit).

How do you use the language of cost vs. investment in your own business and in making your own decisions?  Your assignment, if you choose to accept it, is to notice the ways you think about the outlay of money, time, and energy.  Are you making the right investments?

Beyond Strengths and Weaknesses

Recently, I spoke with a client who was struggling with his business development activity.  Nate (as usual, the name and identifying details have been changed to protect his privacy) had experienced great success in converting acquaintances who heard him talk about the kind of matters he handles into clients, and he decided that if speaking casually to small groups works well, speaking formally to large groups would deliver even better results.

As it turns out, though Nate is a spellbinding speaker in small, informal groups, something happens when he steps onto a stage.  Nate transforms from an assured, confident, knowledgeable lawyer who can chat at length about his clients’ legal issues and possible solutions into a stiff academician who says “therefore” and “whereof” entirely too much.  He becomes (I hate to say it, but I’ve seen it firsthand) dull.  When he speaks to large groups, nothing good comes of it.  The audience gets restless, and no one calls Nate for help afterward.

This isn’t news to Nate.  I gently broached the subject after I saw him speak, and before I got very far, he beat me to the punch – sort of: “I know, I know, I was a terrible speaker last time.  But I’ve figured it out, and the crowd next week is a new group of people, and this time, I’m going to impress them!”  Nate recognizes that speaking to large groups is not his strength, and yet he continues to use that approach, thinking each time that he’ll finally nail the presentation.

The problem is that we tend to talk about strengths and weaknesses as if a weakness is just an undeveloped strength.  Not so.  Sometimes, a weakness is an inability, pure and simple, that can be corrected only by bringing in assistance from another resource.  Here’s what I explained to Nate (with thanks to Don Blohowiak, a coaching colleague who shared this useful framework):

Potential refers to your native capabilities than can be (but have not yet been) developed.

Strengths refer to the capabilities that you execute competently to masterfully.

Limitations refer to the capabilities that you have in short supply.  Some limitations can be developed, and others will require replacement from another source.

Absences refer to the capabilities that you simply don’t have.  There is no shame in lacking capabilities.  No one has all of the capabilities possible.  Instead, the task is to find someone whose capabilities are complementary to your absences.  (If, for instance, you are leading a client service team and complex accounting is an important part of the matter, if you lack masterful accounting skills, you must find someone who can bring that competency to the team.)

Weaknesses refer to the capabilities that you pretend to have but cannot actually execute.

Using this model, Nate’s speaking to a large audience is a weakness (as he recognized) but because he pretended that he could correct it, the weakness could not be eliminated.  Nate was failing at business development because he was leading from a weakness and pretending it was a strength.

Review your business development plan, your professional development plan, your career strategy plan – any plan at all that reflects your goals – and ask these questions:

  • What are my strengths?
  • How are my strengths reflected in my plan?
  • How can I develop my potential so I can deploy those capabilities in my plan?
  • What weaknesses am I denying?
  • Do my priorities coincide with my strengths?

If, like Nate, you lead from weakness, you will produce only frustration.  Spend some time in honest self-reflection and look for opportunities to shift what you’re doing based on your natural and developed capabilities.  And, if (like Nate) you find that you’ve been pretending that you are developing your weaknesses, stop pretending.  Shift your approach.

What’s your problem?

We all face challenges in the business of a law practice. We were taught in law school that we have to ask the right questions in practice to get the necessary answers for our clients.  (Litigators, you especially know what I mean!) But somehow, we forget what that means for our own businesses.

I recently spoke with a lawyer who was looking for help in landing new business, who told me that she needed to improve the way she asked for business. That’s hardly unusual, but I wanted to be sure that she was presenting the right problem, so I asked about her sales conversations. When we dug into it, I discovered that a very high percentage of would-be clients she met actually hired her. The diagnosis of her sales problem?  None. She needed to have more sales conversations, not better ones.

Another client once told me that he just didn’t have time to get everything done. After checking into his daily activities, I realized that lots of little tasks were eating up his time and he wasn’t effectively using the resources at his disposal. His problem wasn’t a lack of time. His problem was a lack of focus on his top priorities.

Sometimes seeing the right question is as simple from shifting from “why won’t those cheapskates pay my fees?” to “how can I make my fees more affordable and still deliver value?” Or it can be as murky as recognizing that the problem isn’t your elevator pitch but rather that you hate networking so much that you unintentionally send out signals that you want to be somewhere, anywhere else – or perhaps even that you would prefer to practice a different kind of law or to do something else altogether.

What challenges are you facing right now? What have you told yourself about those problems? What are you missing? And, more specifically, who can help you see the truth of your challenges?

And if you’ve been trying to solve a problem, remember Einstein’s observation that “No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.” Just like it’s difficult to scratch your own back, it’s difficult to step outside a situation in which you’re intimately involved. It’s critical to have a trusted colleague, a mentor, or a coach (ideally, a full “board of directors”) who can help you to examine your challenges so you know you’re working to answer the right questions.

Personal contacts: the foundation of every successful legal business development plan

I clerked for a federal judge in my first job after law school. Among the many lessons Judge Forrester taught me was to look for the existence of a “Q” case, the source from which the rest of the precedents would flow. In practice, I learned that some questions require the thorough search that would lead to the Q case, while others simply needed “quick and dirty” research to get to the right answer.

When it comes to business development, there’s one “Q” activity: making personal contacts. Although not every activity truly flows from making personal contacts, contacts make every other activity much more effective.

As Bob Burg, author of Endless Referrals, wrote, “All things being equal, people will do business with and refer business to those people they know, like and trust.” In other words, the more people who know you and think well of you, the more likely you are to receive business and referrals.

While you might argue about whether all things are ever equal, think about how you select any service professional you hire. Whether you’re looking for a dentist, a house painter, a baby sitter, or a lawyer, chances are that you check with at least one or two or your contacts to get a referral, and a significant number of clients who seek your services will do the same. Knowing more people increases the chance that someone in need of your services will find out about you.

Likewise, your current and former clients know and (let’s hope) like and trust you. They also have had the experience of working with you, so they know how you serve clients and may be able to evaluate, to some extent, your legal ability. As a result, current and former clients may be even more likely to refer business to you and, where your practice is amenable, bring you additional work themselves. 

Even discounting the possibility of landing new business, knowing more people increases the chance that you’ll be invited to speak, to join a relevant Board of Directors, to attend events that your ideal clients might attend, and so on. The more people you know, the more you’ll be in the flow of information that may benefit you—and the more you’ll be in contact with people whom you might be able to serve or help in some other way.

So, the bottom line is that the more people you know, the more likely you are to bring in new business. And it follows naturally that, without knowing any information about your specific practice or your strengths, the “Q” activity for growing your law practice is to work on consistently and strategically increasing your network of contacts.

Consider these questions to kick-start your networking:

  • Are most of your clients referrals, or do clients contact you directly? (Should you look to increase your network of potential clients or potential referral sources –or, more likely, both?)
  • Where do your ideal clients congregate?
  • Where do your ideal referral sources congregate?
  • What organizations offer a natural fit for your practice, by virtue of subject area or membership, and how can you get involved?

No matter what your business development plan might be, personal contacts are a foundational activity for any rainmaker.