Weekly Rainmaker Activity 11/24/09: Give thanks for referrals

It is, perhaps, a bit of a cliché to focus on gratitude during the United States Thanksgiving week.
  Nonetheless, the theme is so important to business development that, cliché or no, that’s the focus for this week’s Weekly Rainmaker Activity.

I’ll begin today’s lesson with a story.  After I’d been in practice for several years, I referred an acquaintance to a lawyer who was a family friend — let’s call him Keith.  I wasn’t expecting anything more than a quick “thanks for the referral” and a good representation if my acquaintance hired Keith — the most I’d received for other referrals I’d previously made to other lawyers.  Instead, I received a “thank you” email, a handwritten note, and (on 9/12/01, a date when anything kind was a welcome distraction) a lovely gift basket.  And periodically over the next few months, when Keith and I crossed paths, he would mention something about my acquaintance’s matter — nothing invasive, of course, but an aside that the matter was proceeding, that he enjoyed working with my acquaintance, and so on.

When the matter concluded, Keith sent me another note to let me know it had ended and that he appreciated the opportunity to work with my acquaintance.  Meanwhile, my acquaintance let me know what a terrific lawyer Keith was and how much she appreciated being in his capable hands.  I felt fantastic about that referral!  Not because of the multiple forms of “thank you” that I received — though I certainly did appreciate them — but because the matter was handled so skillfully.  I’ve referred other matters to Keith over the years, and every single time, the response has been similar.  I absolutely love referring people to him!

A story for contrast.  About the same time, a member of my family (also a lawyer) referred a matter to someone I knew very well professionally.  My family member (let’s call him John) didn’t receive any direct thank you, though the lawyer to whom he’d referred the matter (whom we’ll call Lawyer X) asked me to tell him thank you.  No big deal, but it struck me as peculiar, especially in view of the multiple forms of thanks that I’d received for my referral.

What came next was astonishing to me.  Lawyer X not only didn’t let John know how things were going, but he also didn’t pull out any stops to take good care of the client who’d been referred to him.  Yes, the representation was competent, but nothing more.  When John checked in with the person he’d referred (who was, in fact, his client referred out because of a conflict), he learned that the client felt unnoticed, as if he had to make a lot of noise before getting Lawyer X’s attention.

And during the course of the representation, a few things even slipped through the cracks.  Nothing big, as far as I know, but a few promises went unmet, and some pieces of the matter didn’t happen in a timely manner.  All of this information went back to John, who was appalled.  He felt that he had made a bad referral that not only had the potential to harm his client but also to harm his client relationship.  Within a few months, John had vowed never to make another referral to that lawyer.  And, indeed, he never did.  My guess is that Lawyer X has no idea, to this day, how poorly John (and his client) felt the referral went.

These two stories go beyond expressing gratitude for referrals and into client service, but let’s focus for today on how to thank someone for a referral.  Sending an immediate thank you, followed by another thanks (perhaps with a gift), and yet another with a larger (but still appropriate) gift sends a clear message of gratitude.  Equally importantly, keeping the referral source updated on the matter, while protecting your new client’s privacy, allows the referral source to be confident that the matter is being handled well.

Today’s assignment: create your own plan to thank those who send you referrals and to continue the flow of information.

Don’t blow it!

Lawyers who are or aspire to be leaders must learn to self-manage.  Especially when stressed or under pressure (and who isn’t, at least part of the time?).  It’s easy to let self-management slide in the face of provocation.  Some attorneys I know offer a blanket apology to staff and colleagues — something like, “I’m feeling stressed, so please excuse me if I blow up or yell at you or throw things, ok?””  I don’t recommend that approach; it’s better than nothing, I suppose, but it’s actually announcing that bad behavior is coming, apparently largely unchecked.

Let’s be real:  attorneys are often faced with statements, actions, arguments, behavior, etc. that is galling in the extreme.  It’s a common practice among some litigators to find their opponents’ hot buttons; push the button and out pops an ugly intemperate person — not someone a jury would respect or believe.  (Same goes for witnesses, too, and in non-litigation contexts.)  So how can you handle it when faced with provocation that would make the Buddha quiver with rage?

  1. Keep your attention on the motivation behind the provocation.  Is the person who’s enraging you doing it intentionally, or is it a by-product of words or behavior that he likely thinks perfectly appropriate?  If it’s the former, don’t give him the satisfaction of knowing he succeeded.  If it’s the latter, consider whether displaying annoyance would stop the behavior or simply let your opponent know that he’s found a soft spot.
  2. Breathe.  This is great advice for just about any situation, but it’s especially good for dealing with anger.  You can react, which implies knee-jerk emotional feedback made without any reflection, or you can respond, which implies feedback that follows a pause and analysis/reflection to determine the best way to address the provocation.  It’s far better to respond than to react.  There’s no reason why you can’t fall silent for a few seconds (which may feel interminable to you and your opponent) while you work through your options.
  3. Speak softly.  Most of us tend to raise our voices when we speak in anger.  Therefore, it’s disarming to do the opposite and to speak more quietly.  The effect is to appear reasonable and controlled (especially helpful if your opponent is ranting and raving and seemingly out of control) and to force your opponent to listen carefully to hear what you have to say.  I’ve been told that in Japanese culture, when two parties are arguing, the one who raises her voice first loses.  It’s a difficult tactic for many of us to master, but if you can speak softly in the face of provocation, you will stand a much better chance of controlling your anger.
  4. Vent.  Express your anger in some forum that poses no risk of exposing it.  Writing can be helpful, but especially if you write an angry response to an email, be sure that you don’t accidentally send it!
  5. Exercise.  That’s physical venting.  When feasible, get up and take a walk instead of marinating in a situation that makes you angry.
  6. Selective release of anger.  Sometimes, it’s absolutely appropriate to express your anger at the person whose behavior has caused it.  But consider the consequences of such an expression.  Will you disrupt the relationship?  Do you stand to lose ground?  Will your expressed anger cause the person to react in a way that will cause you even more trouble?  And when you do choose to display anger, consider doing so through your words only but continuing to speak in a low, even tone of voice.  That will reinforce the gravity of your words.

And, despite our best efforts at these tactics, all of us lose our tempers sometimes.  Especially in time of frustration and stress, it’s easy to let it slip, despite best efforts.  When that happens, don’t be afraid to apologize and admit to being human.

Weekly Rainmaker Activity 11/16/09: Get accountable

Last week I was in Greenfield, CT, attending my business mastermind meeting.  Once a quarter, I meet with 12-16 other entrepreneurs and business owners working in a variety of fields, and we spend time working on our businesses.  These meetings have helped me to look beyond the day-to-day work and have prompted the development of various programs and products — not to mention the challenge to write The Reluctant Rainmaker.

Who helps you to step back from your day-to-day work and look at the development of your practice?  This is a key function served by coaches and consultants, but you can also get help from dedicated colleagues or even from a set time on your calendar that you carve out for business reflection.  Especially as we head into a new year, make sure you set some time aside to check this year’s progress and to set next year’s plans.  And schedule time once or twice a month to focus on the business of your practice.  You’ll find that the results (especially if you work with someone who can give you feedback, resources, and new ideas) is well worth the investment.

In addition to getting good ideas and feedback from my fellow mastermind members and the mentor who leads the group, I enjoy working with other business owners because it’s just plain fun.  Law is, in many ways, such a competitive profession that it can feel lonely (as a sole practitioner or a member of a megafirm) to work on one’s own practice.  But when you’re in touch with others who are doing the same thing, it creates momentum, offers encouragement, and often produces tight professional relationships.  It also helps to eliminate the “lone ranger syndrome” that so many lawyers (me included!) suffer from.

Your assignment: identify who can hold you accountable and work with you on your business development (or other) goals.  Set specific times to meet and, if you’re joining a peer group, a format that calls for rotating leadership and responsibility for keeping the group on track.  If you’re so inclined, investigate coaches or consultants who work one-on-one with lawyers, or search out professionally-directed groups.  Getting support may be just the kick to keep you moving forward.

High Altitude Leadership: What the World’s Most Forbidding Peaks Teach Us About Success (J-B US non-Franchise Leadership)

High Altitude Leadership:  What the World’s Most Forbidding Peaks Teach Us About Success (J-B US non-Franchise Leadership)
by Chris Warner and Don Schmingke

High Altitude Leadership, published late last year, seems to have hit the market at precisely the right moment.  Drawing on observations made during mountaineering expeditions (including Mount Everest ascents, the authors identify eight dangers that climbers and business leaders face.  Although the observations are phrased in business terms, they’re certainly applicable to legal practice as well.

  1. Fear of Death.  You might understand immediately why a mountain climber would fear death and how that fear could create paralysis and, ultimately, cause exactly the feared result.  In business (and in the practice of law), fear stops action.  To avoid falling victim to this danger, accept the prospect of failure and act anyway.
    I envision this as the action that allowed some large law firms to avoid the worst of the recent recession by seeing the problems early and moving to mitigate those circumstances rather than becoming paralyzed by the fear of what might happen.
  2. Selfishness.  The authors analogize business selfishness to the precarious situation created when a climber eager to make an ascent ignores warning of danger and by doing so threatens the safety of an entire team.  In business terms, the authors explain that selfishness produces DUD behavior:  Dangerous, Unproductive, and Dysfunctional.  The solution?  Crafting a compelling saga that speaks to purpose and mission and creates the passion that will overcome selfishness.
  3. Tool Seduction.  Tools — whether ropes and oxygen to assist in mountain climbing or leadship and business development systems — are important.  Overreliance on tools, however, produces people without the foundational skills necessary to survive.  When I was a child, my parents made sure I could tell time with an analog watch before permitting me to wear a digital watch.  The principle here is similar, as is the solution:  learn the underlying skill and how to use the tools wisely.
  4. Arrogance.  Although more than 13,000 people have attempted Mount Everest, 73% failed to reach the summit and 208 died in the process.  Warner and Schmincke claim that arrogance always lurks behind failure, showing up in poor planning, poor execution, or the belief that ordinary rules are inapplicable.  Humility tempers the ego and avoids failure.  Where have your observed arrogance vs. humility in the legal field over the last couple of years?
  5. Lone Heroism.  Those who refuse needed help, who really believe that “if you want something done right, you have to do it yourself,” are suffering from lone heroism.  Warner recounts the story of a climber who desperately wants to make an ascent the purist way, without oxygen, even though his body was shutting down.  In business, lone heroes refuse good advice and hamstring talented team members.  Developing partnership and allowing partners to take the lead when appropriate avoids lone hero syndrome.  (As a sidenote, lone herosim — which I call “lone ranger syndrome” — slows the progress of would-be rainmakers who refuse help and guidance.)
  6. Cowardice.  Just as fear of failure/death stops forward motion, cowardice keeps climbers and business leaders stuck in place.  They may unenthusiastically continue work on a project knowing it’s doomed, or they may fail to uncover a weak or arrogant member of the team because someone might criticize them.  The solution, of course, is developing a sense of bravery, which is encouraged by an atmosphere in which everyone is expected to speak the truth and to admit to problems as step one toward correcting them.
  7. Comfort.  The best climbers and the best leaders are comfortable being uncomfortable.  Sure, it’s easier to climb a mountain or to lead in rosy times.  But strong leaders know how to persevere even in unfavorable circumstances — and they know that sometimes perseverance means stepping back when changed circumstances make a strategy infeasible.  Choosing to step into a calculated risk may be uncomfortable, but it’s also how progress gets made.
  8. Gravity.  Even carefully laid plans sometimes fail due to erroneous assumptions, brand new obstacles, or others’ failure to adhere to commitments.  Bringing skill to climbing and to business will avoid many problems, but challenges are sometimes unavoidable.  High altitude leaders recognize the role of luck:  sometimes you can do everything right and fail anyway.  Just ask those who have suffered through the law firm layoffs of 2008-2009.

The analogy of mountain climbing is surprisingly applicable to business, as the authors note:

On big peaks, we tell clients that the first mistake they made was joining the expedition.  They are now in an environment where things can go terribly wrong very quickly.  If they are going to make it home alive, they have to be more disciplined, more giving and more humbled than ever before.  Everyone has to scan the horizon.  Everyone has to examine themselves and each other for signs of weakness.  Everyone is responsible for their own safety and the safety of everyone else.  They have to prevent the small mistakes from adding up to a catastrophe.

High Altitude Leadership is a compelling book with a strong business message.  We’ve all seen the pull that business places on the practice of law in recent months, and High Altitude Leadership will be helpful for lawyers who are seeing the business side of practice in a new light.

Writing for Rainmaking Success

Before you agree to speak or to write an article, you must ensure that your time will be well invested.  Ask yourself the following questions:

  1. Am I writing for the right audience?  Writing for the wrong audience (meaning, an audience composed of people whom you do not serve) will not bring enough benefit to justify the investment of time, so ask this foundational question before you begin.  Your business development plan will define the right audience.
  2. How much time will this require?  Short, practical articles (done well) will deliver good results in a reasonable time.  Longer articles can be valuable in building your credibility, but they take a greater investment of time.  Be realistic in your estimate — before you begin.
  3. What results would make the expenditure of time worthwhile?  As with any business development activity, you must measure the results that you get.  What’s more, you must know, before you begin, what results would make it worthwhile for you to have written this article.
  4. How does this activity, the writing or speaking compare to more immediate high-yield activity?  Regardless of how terrific your article is, and regardless of the subject matter and the kind of results that you achieve, writing is a slow-yield opportunity.  It is incredibly unlikely that you will write an article, have it published, and have your phone ring with a potential client calling you only because they saw that article.  So, you must consider, before you begin, whether you would be better advised to invest your time in something that is a higher-yield activity.

Writing can be a simple way to increase your professional reach, or it can be a time-consuming and ineffective approach.  Going through these questions will help you to make foundational decisions that will get you on the right track — before you begin writing.