The Essential Little Book of Great Lawyering

What does “great lawyering” mean? To many attorneys, great lawyering means possessing enormous technical expertise, good judgment, and years of experience in which to develop those attributes. That’s what we all seek to develop, and it’s usually what we admire in others.

But what do clients mean? That’s the question that really matters. Approval from colleagues only goes so far toward building a successful practice. If clients hold different views as to what matters, there’s a disconnect in perspective. That disconnect can slowly hollow out the practice, without the satisfied clientele necessary for practice growth – and perhaps without that support necessary even for survival.

James Durham has done the groundwork to discover and summarize what clients want and published the results in one of my all-time favorite books, The Essential Little Book of Great Lawyering. The book is aptly named: at just 52 pages (including the title page, copyright, and table of contents), you’ll need less than an hour to discover the essential skills of great lawyering.

According to Durham’s client interviews, a great lawyer is one who knows the law and has “become a lawyer that people trust above all others, and . . . to whom they turn when they (or people they know) have any kind of problem.” In other words, a great lawyer is one who knows and responds to her client’s needs, desires, and preferences. Durham’s research revealed that 90% of clients say that they like lawyers who are responsive and who really know their client’s business, but they seek even more. Great lawyers also communicate clearly, build relationships with their clients, provide remarkable value, and are loyal to their clients.

The Essential Little Book manages to go beyond those generic words to offer specific examples of what lawyers must do to succeed fully in practice. Durham suggests, for example, that a lawyer must know what his client wants to happen throughout the engagement. I would take that suggestion a step further and offer that a great lawyer would ask what specifically his client wants through the representation. (Examples would include determining how much communication is helpful and in what form, how advice might be presented most usefully, etc.) Nevertheless, Durham’s point is well-taken: great lawyers pay attention to what their clients want and need, perhaps even more than the clients do.

One of the key mistakes I see lawyers make is believing that “being a great lawyer” (as measured by technical expertise) is all that’s necessary to build a successful practice. Durham addresses this same problem and offers that being a great lawyer (as defined by clients) is the foundation of a successful practice. I couldn’t agree more.

The Essential Little Book should be required reading for lawyers. Before the end of the year, set aside an hour to read the book. (If you’ve read the book before, read it again. This is one of those books that meets you wherever you are in your practice.) Take another half-hour to set some goals to implement what you learn. You’ll build a much stronger practice as a result.

Stop Chasing the Silver Bullet

I’m on a rant.

Last week, I spoke with a potential client who shared that his practice has been shrinking in the last few years. We discussed his obstacles and his opportunities, and there’s quite a bit he can leverage. The problem became apparent, though, when I asked what he’s tried. One brief example of the problem: he’s tried to networking using LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, and he’s now shifted to Google+.

But he doesn’t really use any of the platforms. He’ll start with one, then the next becomes the latest and greatest and so he shifts, but a new latest and greatest pops up, so he shifts to that one. And it isn’t social media: he’s jumping around with face-to-face networking groups and even types of activity, always believing that his jump will get him to something easier and more effective.

But here’s the truth: Chasing the silver bullet, in social media or anywhere else, will undermine your rainmaking efforts and trash your confidence.

Innovations will come up over and over. Some will be complete game-changers (the advent of the Internet and websites), many will be a quick flash and then gone (, and some will be slow-growers that prove useful over the long-term (LinkedIn, apparently). Jumping to the hottest new thing will leave you tired and frustrated. But you can’t overlook all the great new stuff that’s coming out. What to do?

When you spot the next new thing, here’s what you must consider before jumping in.

Is this really new? Is there some advantage in being an early adopter?

If not, what spot does it fill? For example, Google+ fills a social media activity spot, and more broadly, it’s a type of networking. Are you already active in that spot?

Are you consistently doing all of the activity that you’ve planned to do as a part of your business development approach?

If your answer to question 3 is no, STOP. Absent a compelling reason, you’re chasing a silver bullet that’s just as likely to be made of tinfoil. Stick a toe in if you answer both parts of question 1 with yes OR if your answer to question 2 is no, but don’t go deep unless the new thing fits into your fully implemented plan.

For example, I’ve advised my clients to create a Google+ profile even though they’re already active on LinkedIn because there’s an advantage in being an early adopter in a Google-sponsored social media platform that’s hit a tipping point. I have not advised them to be active because, in most cases, there’s more work to be done on their business development plan. They’re just sticking a toe in. Get the easy benefit (and add a +1 to your website and blog, for extra “dipping” benefit) but concentrate on what’s proven to work well.

Back to the potential client I mentioned. When we talked about his taking on new activity, he was clear that he’s of a “newer is better” mindset. He was unwilling to take my suggestion of focusing in on a handful of proven approaches, and so I was unwilling to take him on as a client. I hope he’ll prosper and prove me wrong. Unfortunately, my hunch is that he’ll conclude at some point that business development just won’t work for him. And that’s the worst outcome of all. Don’t make his mistake.

Congratulations on your failure!

Time is speeding up. I never quite understood the theory of relativity on a visceral level until I thought about it with reference to time a few years ago. Here we are at the end of 2011, and yet it feels like the year has hardly begun.

I’ve been working on my 2012 goals – how about you? (Hint: if you haven’t, you’d better get moving!) I’m using a new tool this year to help me get clear on what I most want to accomplish after seeing a broad field of possibility: SimpleMind. Many options exist for computer-assisted mindmapping, but I like SimpleMind because it’s inexpensive, free for the iPhone, and it allows for level-based coloring and for branches that extend in any direction you’d like. It’s great for viewing options and setting goals, and it also helped me to put together a complicated program proposal in record time.

I don’t encourage failure… Mostly. As I suggested last week, it’s helpful to assess and mitigate the risks of failure when you’re stepping out with a new activity. There’s no glory in the “ready, fire, aim” approach when you have the time and the ability to do some (but not too much) preparatory work that increases the odds of success.


If you’re not failing despite doing some prep work, you’re probably not taking big enough steps. Please, don’t fail because of laziness, intellectual or otherwise. But recognize that if everything is going so swimmingly that you’re not failing at all, you’re leaving something on the table.

As I wrote last week, you cannot succeed unless you’re willing to fail. Be willing to take a risk. The more you do, the higher the risk of failure – and the higher the chances of success.

This video (which happens to be an advertisement for Nike) brings it all home. Take 31 seconds to watch. Yes, now.

By nature and by nurture, we’ve been trained to avoid taking risks. Sure, it’s safer to do only what you know will work (even though sometimes you’ll be wrong about that, too, especially where people are concerned) but you’ll also miss a lot of opportunity.

An example for your consideration. Referrals and introductions often come by email – “Bob, meet Susan, I think she may be able to help with your blah blah blah question.” If you’re Susan, an email is the safe response to that introduction. But a telephone call is often a more engaging and helpful response. There’s risk involved: what if Bob doesn’t want the introduction or the help? What if Bob is too busy and a call is an interruption? That’s a risk I’d suggest you take almost every single time. Sometimes you’ll fail, but (if you handle the calls well) the successes will outweigh the failures.

So, this week, ask yourself where you’re stopping yourself because you might fail even if you prepare as well as you can. Specifically with business development and client service, what might you do differently if you were willing to fail?

Don’t aim to fail. Do take some risks and accept that you may fail before you succeed.

Are You Afraid to Fail?

Failure is often a difficult topic for high performers. After all, those who achieve much do so by making it a habit to avoid failure. More than a few times, when I’ve talked with my own coach, the conversation has ended up with me saying, “Well, that’s fine, but failure just isn’t an option for me. I don’t do that.” How ridiculous – and also, perhaps, how familiar.

I’ve failed plenty of times. When it comes to business, my goal is to fail quickly if I’m going to fail. When a task is important, failure often leads to a better-informed next attempt, which usually leads (directly or not) to success. So, when failure is inevitable, fast failure is the way to go.

And yet, failure is still unpalatable to me. Is it to you, as well?

A few weeks ago, I was talking with a client and out popped what I believe to be a truism: You cannot succeed unless you’re willing to fail. This was reinforced in a story I read recently about a ne’er-do-well door-to-door salesman. He’d march up to someone’s doorstep; extend his finger to press the doorbell, and then pull back, muttering, “She won’t buy anything.” And he’d turn around, guaranteeing his failure on that potential sale. No wonder he was a ne’er-do-well.

Now, most of us don’t do door-to-door sales, but the principle is just the same.You must take a risk to have any chance of success. Whether it’s reaching out to a potential client, asking a current client how they think things are going, or stepping onto a stage (literal or figurative) to make a presentation to some of your ideal clients, if you don’t risk, you don’t get.

Where is your aversion to risk causing you to stop? After I talked with my client, I challenged myself to write down all of the things I’m holding back on doing because I realistically think I might fail, and then to come up with a way to mitigate that risk. I quickly produced a fresh to-do list. Even though I might fail, I also may succeed on my first shot with those items, thanks to this five-minute exercise.

Today, I invite you to do this quick exercise yourself, specifically in the realm of business development:

1. What are you avoiding for fear of failure? List three to five items, both general (attending a networking luncheon) and specific (calling the promising contact you met last week who promised to call you but didn’t).

2. What are the consequences if you do fail? Consider the financial, professional, reputational, and emotional risks. Don’t overstate them; despite your first response, chances are good that you won’t actually die. However, if a misstep could constitute professional suicide (with an ethics violation, for example), you need to get absolute clarity before you move forward.

3. How might you mitigate the risks? Consider steps such as running a limited test, having a conversation to try out your idea on clients and/or former clients, or launching your idea in phases. If you’re not sure what to do, seek help from a mentor or consultant.

4. Choose one or two actions to take, with the modifications you made in step three.

I don’t encourage failure. However, as hockey great Wayne Gretzky said, “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.” Take some calculated risks. If you fail (as sometimes you will), make it your practice to just get back into action quickly, with a better appreciation of what you might do differently so that each attempt increases your chances of success.