Are you reactionary or responsible?

After I finished writing last week’s article on the relationship between the generative power of language and your business development activity, I found several other articles discussing a similar topic. I highly recommend you check Michael Hyatt’s 3 Ways You’re Giving Up Power with Your Words: How the Way You Speak Can Sabotage Your Success. Hyatt’s discussion of how words like “I’ll try” give us an automatic escape from whatever you say you want to do:


“When we agree to a commitment by saying, “I’ll try” or “I’ll give it my best shot,” we’re saying the opposite. At least that’s what people usually hear.

The problem is that it not only undermines our credibility, it also lowers the chance we’ll make good on the commitment because it’s a subtle denial of our own agency.”

After you’ve read Hyatt’s post, check out this one from Seth Godin. Godin’s upshot:

“When you decide to set the agenda and when you take control over your time and your effort, the responsibility for what happens next belongs to you.”

And that’s why you must take an entrepreneurial approach to your practice. Change is going to come, and you can be reactionary or responsible. The choice is yours, but only one of those options will lead you to success.

Take an entrepreneurial approach to your practice.

One of the keys to building a successful law practice is adopting an entrepreneurial approach, regardless of your practice setting. In other words, whether you’re a sole practitioner or the newest hire in a gigantic firm (or anywhere in between), you must recognize that you “own” your practice, and you must act accordingly. That means:

  • You take responsibility for building your book of business. You actively work to avoid relying on doing or inheriting work for someone else’s client
  • You take responsibility for your career advancement. You determine what additional skills and experience you need to grow as a practitioner and you make it your business to acquire that.
  • You take responsibility for the experience that your clients have with you. You decide (perhaps in concert with others on your team, if appropriate) how quickly you respond to client inquiries, how and when you proactively provide updates about client matters, to what degree you lead and collaborate with clients, and so on. You consistently look for ways to build value for your clients.
  • You take responsibility for making necessary adjustments based on changing circumstances. You watch for trends in law, in business, and in the economy, and you work to adapt your practice to navigate those trends and to help your clients do the same.
  • You take responsibility for your satisfaction in practice. You know that there’s no reason and no value to staying in a practice or a job you dislike. You understand that you won’t love every moment of your work. You stay attentive to be sure the positive moments significantly outweigh the negative, and if you find that untrue, you make the necessary changes.

If you need to develop the entrepreneurial mindset, let’s talk.

If you have the entrepreneurial mindset, read this article by Jonathan Fields, a former practicing lawyer who’s now an author, entrepreneur, and producer of Good Life Project. Titled Why Do So Many Entrepreneurs Hate Their Lives, this article will get you thinking about who you are and how you bring that to your practice. Even if you’re happy with your practice, I guarantee that this article will give you important food for thought. As Fields writes, when you consider the questions posed in the article, “you’ll start to cultivate the level of self-knowledge needed to build something that not only makes money and serves a need, but also serves you and the life you seek to create.” Read it (and do the work) now.

It isn’t what you said, it’s how you said it.

I confess: I’m one of the thousands and thousands of people who are thrilled that Netflix is finally streaming Friends. The early seasons were especially clever, taking all kinds of language out of context for comedic effect. (Stick with me, I do have a business development point here!) In one episode, Chandler accuses Joey of becoming too feminine thanks to the influence of his new female roommate, which makes Joey pout. Chandler asks what he said wrong, and Joey answers, “It isn’t what you said, it’s how you said it. (And thousands groaned, having heard exactly that charge somewhere along the line from a significant other.)

Somewhere through life experience, we’ve all learned the lesson that language can make a neutral concept unpleasant or aggressive. As a middle school teacher put it, “Say what you mean. Mean what you say. But don’t say it mean.” Language has power, so we know to choose words carefully to avoid tainting a message with unintended connotations.

How often do you pay attention to the language you use to describe business development?

Over the weekend, I led a workshop for a small group of lawyers who’ve been tapped as high-potential leaders within their firm. I started the workshop, as I often do, by asking what feels uncomfortable about business development, and one answer guided a large part of our conversation:

I don’t like having to sell myself.

That comment kicked off a conversation that can’t be replicated in a short article, but…


  • Do you feel like you have to “sell yourself” to build your practice? How does that feel? Does it change your perspective on your task to think of it as selling your services, helping someone to find a solution to a problem, securing new work, or in some other words?
  • How do you feel about networking? How do you feel about meeting new people, making new connections, or talking with people about things that interest you?
  • Do you enjoy following up with a new contact? What about keeping conversation going or checking in?
  • What comes up when you think about having a sales conversation? Is it different if you think about offering to help solve a problem, asking for the business, or suggesting next steps?

Language is generative, and the words you choose carry a certain power or energy. Choose your words so that you don’t get stuck in a particular way of thinking. Substituting selling your services for selling yourself won’t magically transform your business development activity or results, but I guarantee you’ll approach the job differently if you can make that shift. (And if that’s a change you need to make, read the book Selling the Invisible, starting with my review.)

Craft a more persuasive message

Regardless of your area of practice, you almost certainly spend a big chunk of your time persuading someone to do something. In addition to persuading a decision maker (a court or opposing party, perhaps), during the course of a day you probably attempt to persuade colleagues about a plan of action (or a destination for lunch), administrators about research or other assistance, and so on. Great. Let’s assume that persuasion is among your top skills.

I’ve observed that the skill sometimes falls by the wayside, however, when it comes to business development. I recently talked with a client (a successful litigator) who told me how difficult he finds it to strike the right balance in talking with a prospective client. How much is too much, how little is too little, and what should the content be?

I ran across a nice article this week that will help: How Doctors (or Anyone) Can Craft a More Persuasive Message. The article centers on the distinction between the message and the messenger, which is certainly critical, but it also offers three simple factors that you can use to form a more persuasive message.

  1. Expertise. Convey your expertise using “authority cues.” For a doctor, those cues might include a display of medical diplomas or the choice to wear a stethoscope. How does your office cue the perception that you are an authority in your field? What about your presence? Pay attention to both where you choose to have a conversation with a prospective client and how you present yourself.
  2. Trustworthiness. Generally speaking, you won’t be able to present an approach as a 100% ironclad certainty. The article suggests sequencing your message by sharing uncertainty just before delivering your strongest argument. How else might you convey that you’re trustworthy? For a potential client, think about the message you send when you’re on time for an appointment (or not), when you’re able to talk easily about your client’s business and/or legal situation (or not), and when you exhibit strong leadership presence (or not).
  3. Similarity. How can you signal that you and your prospective client are similar, without undermining your expertise? Language is important here: using legal terms of art with sophisticated legal consumers, for example, and more ordinary language with those less accustomed to addressing the legal issues at hand. You might also seek ways to demonstrate shared business values as well as other sources of common ground.

Read the article for insight on how you might communicate more persuasively. And where you have a choice in forming a team approach to a business pitch, consider especially the article’s question about who’s likely to be the most effective messenger.