What are you willing to risk to grow your practice?

What are you willing to risk to grow your practice?
 The reality is that reward almost always requires some risk, whether it’s the risk of stepping outside your comfort zone, the risk of putting an investment on the line, or the risk of rejection.

There’s no point in taking foolish risks, but without taking some risk, you’re unlikely to accomplish your goals–unless, of course, you aim too low.  By nature and by training, we lawyers tend to be a bit risk-averse.  This month’s quotes offer food for thought on risk…  How do you decide when to take a risk and what stakes to accept?

It seems to be a law of nature, inflexible and inexorable, that those who will not risk cannot win.  ~John Paul Jones

You can measure opportunity with the same yardstick that measures the risk involved.  They go together.  ~Earl Nightingale

Life is inherently risky.  There is only one big risk you should avoid at all costs, and that is the risk of doing nothing.  ~Denis Waitley

Often the difference between a successful man and a failure is not one’s better abilities or ideas, but the courage that one has to bet on his idea, to take a calculated risk, and to act.  ~Maxwell Maltz

Can’t-Miss Articles

There’s a lot of analysis these days about practice and law school in light of the recession and the recovering economy.  
Most of these articles are focused on large law firms (for a variety of reasons ranging from the better availability of data to the different economic pressures), but the discussions are relevant whether you’re a sole practitioner or working in one of the largest firms in the country.  Practices aren’t fungible, but the “legal industry” is a system, and what happens in one sector will create an effect in another sector.

Here are a few articles that you can’t miss.  I’d suggest you make time to read them today, but don’t let next week start without your having read and digested each of these.

1.  The Last Days of Big Law:  You can’t imaging the terror when the money dries up.  This articles takes a critical view of large firms (and the lawyers who inhabit them), using Mayer Brown as the prime example of all firms of its size and caliber.  While some of the points seem unduly negative (painting life for all partners as “demeaning” and “altogether soul-crushing” for associates), it makes some important points.  Most notably, the article recounts the challenges that more junior lawyers (associates and income partners) face in landing new business and receiving credit when they succeed in doing so.  (And see also this response from a former Mayer Brown partner.)

Who needs to read it?  Anyone working in an AmLaw 200, and most especially those who are midlevel or more senior but not yet equity partners.  Those who are in AmLaw 51-200 may want to read especially closely:  these firms are earning a decreasing share (48% in 2003 vs. 42% in 2013) of the market, which is itself increasing–3% in the last year and 84% in the last ten years.

And if you’re in a smaller firm, you’d better read it too, since there’s usually a trickle-down effect (positive and negative) from the larger firms.

My take is that there’s some interesting anecdotal information that’s heavily skewed to the negative, but there’s also some truth that deserves exploration.  I do think too many lawyers are hoping for a return to “business as usual” and that only those who can adapt to the changing economy and business landscape will prosper.  I’m dubious that the fear and predatory competition that the article describes is systemic, and I expect that the profession will continue to evolve to meet the business.  Still, this is the can’t-miss article of the week.

2.  Is Law School a Good Deal After All?  Analyzing a recent paper titled The Economic Value of a Law Degree, this article concludes that:

“over the course of a career, your average J.D.-holder will make almost $1 million more than a similar worker with just a bachelor’s degree (or about $700,000 after taxes).  Even law grads on the low end of the salary scale seem to fare better than their merely college-educated peers.  Crucially, the paper finds no evidence that the earnings premium has declined since the economy crashed.”

Worth a read, both for the pro and con points.

3.  Planting Trees, And The Reason Business Development Is Difficult.  This article illustrates one of the easily overlooked common-sense rules of business development:  it takes time.  No matter how talented or skilled you are, you have to invest time into listening, engaging in dialogue, and delivering value.  If you’ve wondered why your stop-and-start business development efforts haven’t paid off, this will explain it.

4.  The Small Firms Lawyer Considers Big Ideas.  It seems only fair to highlight an article that’s specific to small firm lawyers, and this is a good one because it highlights the advantages that small firms have in agility and entrepreneurial thinking.  In a larger firm?  The question, as always, is how you can apply similar principles to your own practice, even though your firm will operate very differently.

That rounds up my top four articles for this week.  What have you read that I missed?

Legal Business Development: How to Decide Whether to Write an Article, Deliver a Presentation, or Attend a Conference

“Should I write an article for this publication?  Should I accept this invitation to speak?  Should I attend this conference?”
 Since neither time nor money is unlimited, you’ll have to make some difficult decisions about which business development activities to pursue and which to let pass.

Especially if you’re eager to get new business, it’s easy to accept any opportunity to accept any opportunity that crosses your path.  Accepting scattershot opportunities will leave you with scattershot results, sap your energy and resources, and ultimately leave you exhausted.

When you’re evaluating an opportunity, ask yourself the following questions:

  1. Will this activity reach the right audience?  Whether it’s writing for, speaking to, or networking with the wrong audience 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.  Who are your ideal clients and referral sources?  That’s your audience.
  2. How much time will this require?  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 undertaken this activity.
  4. What’s the opportunity cost of this activity?  In other words, if you take on this activity, what must you give up?  Look at the cost in both time and money.  Consider, before you begin, whether you would be better advised to invest elsewhere.
  5. What non-business development benefits will you get from the activity?  Depending on your stage in practice and your personal finances (or revenue from your practice), other benefits may outweigh a lack of clear business development payoff.

Depending on your strategy and plans, any activity can be a simple way to increase your professional reach or 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 undertake any new activity.


Legal Business Development: How to Avoid Amassing Untouched Stacks of Business Cards That You Should Use for Follow-up (But Probably Won’t)

Here’s how it happens…

You get back to your office, having met some interesting new contacts, armed with their business cards and good intentions of following up.  You take those cards, maybe flip through them to remind yourself of who’s most interesting, and then you put them somewhere safe, so you won’t forget.  My “safe spot” was always on a bookcase just behind my desk.  Yours might be your credenza or your desk drawer.

You think about following up with your new contacts.  You want to find just the right opener.  Something personal, to help recall your conversation, or better yet something you can share that brings value and is connected to your conversation.

And then you get distracted by a deadline or a phone call or someone dropping by your office with a quick question.  Your thoughts shift to the task in front of you, and you remind yourself that you need to get back to that stack of cards.

The cycle repeats itself over the next few hours or days or even weeks.  Having delayed this long to get in touch with your new contacts, you feel a pressure to have a strong follow-up.  “Nice to meet you” just doesn’t cut it after two weeks, does it?  But the memory of the conversations is getting dimmer, and you’re finding it harder and harder to come up with a good enough follow-up.  Plus those distractions just keep coming.

And then, weeks or months later, you look at the stack of cards, sigh, and throw them away, resolving to do better next time.  And you rationalize it.  The contact wasn’t that interesting.  The opportunity wasn’t that promising.  Besides, they didn’t contact you either.  Networking is a two-way street, and if they didn’t do their part, it’s ok that you never quite got around to the follow-up.

Sound familiar?  Here are three steps you can use to shift this experience, follow up consistently, and get better results from your networking.

  1. Make a few notes immediately after networking so you can remember your new contacts.  As soon as you leave the meeting, jot a few key words on the back of your new contact’s business card.  If you’re a talker, dictate your notes using a service that will email a transcript to you right away.  (You can find multiple apps, or use a service like LegalTypist.)  Import the notes into a contact management system so you can use them for initial follow-up and to lay the groundwork for future contact.
  2. Have a deadline for your follow-up, with a personal “no extension” policy.  Resolve that you will follow up within one or two days at the absolute outside, no matter what.  (Nancy Fox suggests using the 30 minutes after a meeting for follow-up.)  Set your deadline in advance and make it a part of your follow-up system.Extra credit:  plan “connection time” at least twice a week.  Use it for follow-up when you’ve met new contacts, or to connect with someone on your “A list” of contacts if not.
  3. Use a template to make your initial contacts easier.  Use a template that you adapt to the circumstances, so your follow-up is always personal but never created from scratch.  Having a starting point makes it much more likely you’ll get the initial follow-up done, whether your system calls for follow-up by telephone, email, or handwritten note.

Once you’ve make your initial follow-up contact, calendar your next contact.  You may not get a response to your initial follow-up, so be sure you know when you’ll be back in touch and how you’ll make that contact.

Networking without follow-up is a waste of time.  Consistency builds relationships, and successful business development requires relationships, not just contacts.  Implement your follow-up system today — especially if you have business cards collecting dust!


Independence as a Goal for Building a Practice

When I have a consultation with a potential client, I always ask two questions:  what do you want to create in your practice, and why?
 More often than not, one aspect of the “why” addresses the desire for independence.  Service partners, for instance, often mention the desire to regain some scheduling freedom.  Freedom in being able to generate income often figures prominently, as does the freedom of choosing which matters and clients to accept.

If you don’t have a clear answer to what you want to achieve and why you want to achieve it, you will find success elusive.  You must know the what so you can lay your plans and measure your progress, and you must know the why so that you can keep your motivation when times get tough.

This week, be sure your what and why are clear.  If not, you have some reflection to do!  In the meantime, consider these quotations about independence, especially in the context of business, industry, and personal independence.

If you are going to have to play defense all the time, you cannot have the kind of ingenuity, assertiveness, independence, and intelligence which is what has made our country strong.
~Arlen Specter

Many a revolution started with the actions of a few.  Only 56 men signed the Declaration of Independence.  A few hanging together can lead a nation to change.
~Wynton Marsalis

Originality is independence, not rebellion; it is sincerity, not antagonism.
~George Henry Lewes