Obvious but ignored: rainmaking success requires action.

New behaviors, especially those that play out in public for others to see, can be difficult. We lawyers especially, who tend to fall toward the perfectionist side of things, perceived a high risk in trying something new.  What if we fail? What if we look stupid? What if we really mess up?  

Recently, I took on a new role in my church. Despite having observed others perform this role, I was really nervous: I’d be in front of the whole congregation, taking on a highly visible part of the service.  In preparation, I read the handbook for performing this role, searched online for other guidance, drafted and revised the words I’d say, and mentally walked through every part I’d play in the service over and over.

I noticed three things about my preparation: 

  1. I could envision failure more easily than success.  I imagined tripping and falling on the altar stairs.  I imagined dropping the microphone and books and trays. And I even came up with my response should those things happen: flash a winsome smile, chuckle, and say “Well, at least I got THAT over.”
  2. I spent more time preparing than I did acting. I invested close to three hours reading and working on the comments I’d make. I even typed out the comments and then copied them by hand onto an index card!  And all told, I probably spent 15 minutes performing my role.
  3. While the preparation I did by myself was helpful, I got the most benefit from the few minutes I spent talking with others who could tell me what to do. The handbook, while helpful, included some directions that we didn’t use, and certain steps weren’t clear to me. So I grabbed someone who’s served in this role for more than ten years and asked for help—and she straightened me out right away.

The other thing I noticed is that I hear these same observations from my clients when they’re talking about business development. Reluctant rainmakers (those who would really prefer to build a book of business just by being a good lawyer, not engaging in specific business development activity) are especially inclined to spend as much time in gearing up for activity as doing it, and much of that time may be spent in fruitless worry.  We typically don’t call it that, of course: we may call it planning or brainstorming or waiting until the time is right.

The antidote to this paralysis by analysis is action. Action is the only antidote. In my church analogy, I started to feel more competent in my anticipated role when I talked with someone who could answer my questions, not when I read books or visualized my part in the service. And having performed that role once, even though I didn’t do things as well as I would have liked, I know what it feels like, where my specific challenges are, and what I need to do to improve.

With business development tasks, action may feel high-risk because of the possible consequences if it goes wrong. The truth, however, is that (barring exceptional circumstances) a misstep can usually be corrected, and in most cases, a small amount of preparation will avert disaster. In other words, don’t go into a meeting cold, don’t attend an organization’s meeting without knowing what the group is about and who’s in leadership, and don’t call an important contact without having some sort of plan.

Most of us hold back too long on rainmaker activity; few rush in without forethought.

Here’s the take-home

Where are you stalling in your business development plan?

  • If you’re stuck in planning where to start, get outside help from a mentor, a colleague, or a marketing professional.  It can be difficult to begin with the 30,000-foot view that is an overall strategy, and outside help can be instrumental.
  • If you’ve been putting off an activity because the time isn’t right, ask what will make for a “right time.” Sometimes the delay is legitimate.  If you can’t pick out specific circumstances that you’re waiting for, you’re probably just delaying. Examples of appropriate delay include waiting for a contact to return from vacation before you make a call or waiting until there’s a vote on specific legislation before releasing a white paper about how to respond to the new rules. Fruitless delay occurs, for example, when you’re waiting to get “more information” without being clear on what information you need or how to get it.
  • If you’ve been delaying an activity because you don’t know how it will play out, ask what you can afford to lose rather than what you might gain. Good planning can’t remove all risk. If you’re considering an action that might blow a relationship, you’re right to be cautious. If you’re holding off on getting your profile up on LinkedIn because you’re not sure how best to describe your practice and experience, you have almost nothing to lose.  (For a review on this, see Little Bets by Peter Sims, and my review of the book.)
  • If you’re waiting for your schedule to free up, act immediately. One of the most challenging aspects of business development is doing the work even when you’re busy with client work. Failing to do that, however, risks getting into the feast/famine cycle. Almost worse, for mid-level and senior associates and service partners, you run the risk of believing that everything is going ok with your career, when the truth is that today’s economy demands that every private practice lawyer must at least contribute to business development.

Action is required for business development success.  We’re still early in 2018: get your year in gear by acting today.

How Your Environment Affects Business Development

There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, “Morning, boys, how’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, “What the hell is water?”

I read that little anecdote in a Wall Street Journal adaptation of the commencement speech David Foster Wallace made at Kenyon College.  It struck me as amusing at first, but then it struck me as a great teaching story.

Are you living in an environment that you’re not really aware of, just because you don’t know anything could be different?  Environment is critical to success, whether it’s success in business or in life.  Want to lose weight?  You’ll have better odds if your pantry is packed with water and oatmeal than if it’s jammed with sugary sodas and potato chips.  Want to know what’s going on in politics?  You might prefer to hang around others who care about politics and read the Wall Street Journal than to spend your time watching E! and talking about Snookie.

When it comes to business development, environment is often an unappreciated factor for success.  Let’s look at three examples.

  1. How do your systems support business development activity?  Those systems might include where you put business cards you’ve been handed by new contacts – can you find them so that you can follow up?  Do you have a system in place for following up, or is it catch-as-catch can, sometimes great and sometimes nonexistent?  Do you have a system for tracking your business development activity, both so you can see whether you’re keeping the commitments you’ve made and also so that you can track the outcome of your actions?

    Systems create your personal operating environment.  If your systems aren’t strong, you need to realize that and correct it.

    Example: I noticed recently that I’d been swallowed whole by paper at my desk now that I’m managing my own business and personal life along with three other businesses.  I’d always had fairly good systems, but the influx of paper and the associated tasks had overwhelmed those systems.  My office looked as if the post office had thrown up on it, and finding anything in less than ten minutes was unlikely.  And between the busy-ness and the renovations I’ve been doing, my home didn’t look much better.  So I hired a concierge service  and a home and office organization specialist. The difference in my physical and mental space is enormous.

  2. How does your leadership support business development activity?  If you’re a law firm leader (whether that’s managing partner, group leader, or someone who informally leads a team), what you say and do about business development can have far greater impact than you might realize.

    What do you do and say about business development?  Do your actions reflect what you’d like those you lead to do?  I once worked with a lawyer who encouraged every person he led to take on a variety of business development activities, but he didn’t like to network, was too busy to meet people one-on-one on a regular basis, didn’t consider himself to be a great writer or speaker, and – in short – didn’t do anything he encouraged his team to do.  Guess how their business development worked out?

  3. How does the way you spend money support business development activity?  You can certainly build a solid book of business without spending a lot of money, but if you think you can do so without spending any money, you’re kidding yourself.  It’s important to make smart investments in growing your practice, whether that means joining appropriate groups, getting subscriptions to key publications, getting business development training, or retaining a coach or consultant to help you see how to address your obstacles and to build opportunities.  If you’re unwilling to invest in growing your practice, you’ll stunt any opportunity that comes your way rather than being able to take advantage of it.

Check yourself on these examples of environment and see what you notice about the environment you’ve created.  What do you notice?  And, even more importantly, who serves as your “older fish” to point out the environment that you can’t see?

The clock never runs out on legal business development

Sports is a great teaching forum for lessons about business development. For a few examples, check these articles about sports lessons on my blog.

In a Super Bowl XLVIII, the Denver Broncos’ fate was sealed by the beginning of the fourth quarter. There’s always some possibility that a team can make a comeback, but 28 points down with 15 minutes to play takes that possibility almost to zero.

A friend observed that in the 4th quarter, the Seattle Seahawks were playing just for fun, sure of a win. But here’s the thing: they continued to play hard until the last possession. Not because they “needed” to—even a few mistakes and turnovers probably would not have changed the outcome of the game—but because those who excel in any field continue competing against themselves even when they’ve achieved the initial goal. Not “whew, we’ve won, let’s relax now,” but “yes! We won! Now let’s see how far we can take this win!”

And by the same token, even when every player and every fan had given up hope of a Broncos victory, the Broncos continued to play as best they possibly could.  Although they didn’t play anywhere approaching the level that got them into the Super Bowl, they didn’t give up just because it was clear they were going to lose. Instead, they kept fighting to minimize the loss.

What does this have to do with legal business development? It’s all about attitude. Attitude, mindset, mental approach, belief system—all of these concepts describe not just what you do, but how you do it.

Where do you stop yourself when you’re succeeding? This shows up most frequently in the feast/famine cycle: stopping your business development work simply because you’re too busy and don’t need the work… Right up until the moment that you realize you don’t have enough work, and you have to start all over again. If things are going well, how can you ensure that you’re pushing the envelope to make things go even better?

Even more importantly, where do you stop yourself when you’re not succeeding? It doesn’t take a failure to knock some people off their game. Sometimes it’s just being slow to get results. We all want to see speedy success, but especially when it comes to bringing in new business, it doesn’t always work that way. That’s why it’s so important to check your metrics. Are you making progress toward your objectives? (And that’s why it’s important to set goals, so that you can measure progress and not just movement.)

Of course, sometimes failure is final. A critical skill is knowing when to keep pounding away and when to change course. (For more on this, see Seth Godin’s short and smart book The Dip. You’ll find my review here.)

How you choose to push yourself or back off is telling when it comes to whether you’re likely to succeed in building a consistent pipeline of new business. Next time you meet a business development goal you’ve set, ask whether there’s something more you can and should do to exceed that goal. Push yourself just a bit further. And if you catch yourself thinking that you failed or that your plan is never going to work, take a breath, question your assumptions (which often requires some outside help), and see what you can do to transform your failure into success.

Because here’s the truth: the clock never runs out on business development as it does on a football game. You don’t have to accept poor results as the end of the story. Instead, you can reevaluate your plan, reshape your strategy, rethink your objectives, and get some help. Keep fighting smart, and your failure will not be final.

Would you prefer slow-yield or high-yield activity?

When you write and speak in your area of practice, you create objective evidence that you know the subject on which you were writing or speaking, and you demonstrate that others want to learn from you. Is that valuable?  Absolutely.

When a potential client or referral source compares two biographical sketches, one with a long list of publications and presentations and one with a short or nonexistent list, guess who looks better?  The long list builds credibility immediately, even if the person reviewing the list lacks the knowledge to make any kind of substantive determination about the lawyer’s competence.

Objective evidence of competence, built through publication and presentation lists, is valuable. Done well, that work can deliver dividends for years, both as reputation enhancement and as good content for following up with new contacts.


If you’re looking to bring in new business as quickly as possible, writing and speaking are unlikely to deliver the return you’re seeking. 

Preparing a publication or presentation usually takes a lot of time. When you know how, you can limit the time required to some extent (you may even be able to have a junior colleague do some of the heavy lifting for you) and you can shape your work product to be both informative and marketing-friendly. But before you put your name on a publication, or before you stand up to speak to an audience, you’ll put in a lot of time to make sure you have everything straight. It isn’t light duty.

Most lawyers find that speaking generates contacts but usually not an immediate influx of business and that writing rarely even generates contacts. That’s because there’s a distance (physical or conceptual) between you and your audience, even if you’re writing and speaking to the ideal audience. There’s a barrier that a potential client would have to scale to consult with you about a specific matter. And most people simply won’t scale that barrier in the ordinary circumstance.

So, in summary, writing and speaking can help you to build a great reputation, and you can harness the benefit of your work in a variety of ways over time… But you probably won’t see a quick uptick in your business. Does that mean you should not write or speak?  Absolutely not. Every lawyer can benefit from writing and speaking, if that work is done well and with an eye toward its use in marketing.

But too many lawyers get stuck in the trap of wanting to build such a good reputation that clients will seek them out. It’s a nice fantasy, and at one time it might have been closer to reality—but not now. Just as a wise farmer plants crops that will mature at different times, you should plan marketing activities that will deliver results at different stages. And you must recognize that, in most instances, writing and speaking are long-term strategies.

So, what’s a short-term strategy?

If you need business today, close your email right now and go meet with your clients, former clients, and those who have referred you business in the past. When you finish those conversations, meet with people you know well who need your service but haven’t yet given you business. Talk about what’s going on for them, share what you’ve been working on, and explore where need meets ability. Listen more than you speak. Hour-for-hour, those conversations will deliver a bigger and faster payoff almost every single time.

Writing or speaking vs. building relationships?  You must do both. Choose which activities to do when based on what your goals are. Just don’t convince yourself that you can sequester yourself in your office and write a great article that will deliver a steady stream of clients to your door right away.

Where do you stop yourself from getting results?

A few days ago, a colleague and I were swapping stories about our business missteps: the things that just didn’t work, and the things that were colossal, flaming failures. To listen to us, you might think that neither of us had a viable business, much less a successful one—but fortunately, that isn’t at all the case.

Although the failure stories are fun to tell (with sufficient hindsight and success in the time since), the real story is in how we respond to the failures and, more importantly, how we turn failures into success. Stella and I shared experiences in which we’d had to undertake massive action to change course and shift our results. Sometimes graceful, usually not, we’d refused to quit until we had succeeded.

Toward the end of our conversation, Stella said, “That’s the difference between success and failure: knowing when to quit, and when to dig in and do what it takes to succeed.”

Are you stopping yourself when instead you should shift strategy and keep going? Here are some indicators:

  • Have you put in enough effort? I attended a Christian high school, and every classroom included a poster that read, “Bless me, Lord, according to my preparation.” Religion aside, if your preparation has been half-hearted, you can’t expect good results. Be honest: have you put in the necessary time and energy to get the results you want?
  • Are you picking apart opportunities unfairly? Lawyers are highly skilled at finding problems, and that skill sometimes undermines business development. For example, are you waiting until you find the perfect opportunity to get active in a relevant industry organization? Are you searching for the perfect speaking opportunity? If no action seems to have a sufficient likelihood of success, you may stop yourself from taking any action at all—and that’s a certain route to failure.
  • Are you unconsciously looking for proof that you can’t land business? If you believe that business development is a talent that you may lack, you may unintentionally expect and then highlight any evidence to support that proposition. Do you expect to succeed?
  • Do you feel disheartened? It’s ok to feel discouraged for a time, but recognize that feeling as an impotent emotion. When you’re disheartened, you’ve given up and your activity will grind to a halt.A client once consulted me on an upcoming pitch and described some of the challenges that might prevent him from getting the matter. Rick’s tone was downcast, though he put a good face on it by asking how he could address the problems in the future, so he might succeed next time. He had already given up on the pitch, which ensured that he would not be successful.

    I pointed out that he had declared failure prematurely and challenged him to buckle down and shoot for success or to bow out of the pitch contest altogether. Rick chose to strategize how to meet the challenges that had consumed him. He was irritated (first with me, then with the challenges themselves) and he used that energy to create and deliver a powerful pitch, and a few days later he received the good news that he’d been retained.

    When things aren’t working out, take a bit of time to be disappointed, but then get your energy flowing. Do whatever you do to pump yourself up (work out, listen to powerful music, review a list of your successful engagements) and then get active.

  • Do you have a partner who can push you forward? I pushed Rick forward, and many times my mentors have urged me to continue when I really wanted to give up. Be sure that you have a mentor who can offer objective insight into whether you should keep going and who will give you a swift kick if you stop yourself. You may find this a difficult determination at times, and outside help and support makes all the difference.

A successful business development plan will require you to give up unsuccessful activities, but before you stop, be sure that you’re stopping for the right reasons. Don’t allow discomfort or discouragement to stop you short.