Overcoming All-Or-None Thinking

Lawyers often have perfectionistic tendencies, according to study after study. And while perfectionism can seem like a useful attribute when details matter as much as they do in the practice of law, it actually tends to cause more problems than it avoids since perfection is more often than not an impossible standard to reach. See this article for more on why that is and how you can step toward setting your standard to excellence instead.

How does perfectionistic thinking affect business development? If you look at your business development efforts through the lens of perfection, you will be disappointed. You won’t do business with 100% of the potential clients you’d like, you won’t win 100% of the pitches you deliver, and you won’t receive responses from 100% of the people you contact. That’s a guarantee.

Equating a lack of success with failure means that you’re going to fail a lot in business development activity, just like everyone else. If you see the benefit in learning from your failures and changing your actions as a result, that might be a good thing. But if you see failure as proof that you’re not going to be able to build your book of business as you’d like, you’re probably going to hit a wall pretty quickly.

Moreover, if you aim for perfection rather than excellence, you may find that you’re stopping yourself from trying when you know you can’t achieve perfection. If this week’s goal is to draft an article or to meet with a key contact or to put in an hour doing what’s on your BD list and your schedule suddenly goes haywire thanks to client needs, you may decide that it’s better to do nothing than to do part of what you’d planned. Maybe that’s ok for a week here and there, but if it becomes your regular response, you’ve just undermined your own potential.

What does it look like to aim for excellence in business development? Set your overarching goals and your “when everything goes right” tasks that will move you toward those goals. Be sure both your goals and your tasks are:

  • Specific and measurable (bring in $X of business or deliver 3 CLE presentations to in-house counsel at a client or potential client organization, NOT get more business),
  • Achievable and realistic (don’t set a goal of bringing in $1M in new business this year if you can’t plot out a likely path to that goal based on your current position), and
  • Time-based (bring in $X of new business in the next year or deliver 3 CLE presentations to potential client organizations in the next six months).

In other words, setting SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, time-based) goals build the path toward excellence and away from perfectionism.

To stay on that path, ensure that your gaze remains firmly on what’s realistic. Perfection might push you toward achieving what you set out to do with no variance, but realism allows you to shift your objectives so that you continue to move forward, not to shut down when client demands or a family member’s health (just as examples of the many disruptions we all encounter) make the original goal unrealistic.

What are your SMART goals for this week?

Business Development Priorities Explained

When I begin working with a new client, one question comes up more than any other: how should I focus my business development time? There’s no single answer to that question, of course, since each lawyer is in a unique position. But there’s one answer that I give more than any other, and it often comes as a surprise.

“All things being equal, people will do business

with and refer business to those people they know, like and trust.”

This quote, from Bob Burg’s excellent book Endless Referrals, sums up why it is that relationships serve as the basis for business development.

It also clarifies what your priorities should be when you’re looking to bring in new business: focus first on those who already know, like, and trust you, and then seek to expand those sources of business.  That order of approach dictates, in turn, the priorities that you should set as you work to develop your book of business.

  1. Priority #1: Current clients. Your current clients are your “low hanging fruit.”  Your top priority should be providing them excellent client service.  Consider these aspects of client service:
    • Communicate with your clients and observe their preferences for the amount and kind of communication that they want.
    • Be responsive. Manage your clients’ expectations and ensure that your clients always know how to contact you or someone in your office.
    • Share bad news appropriately. Deliver the news as soon as possible.  Explain the news, what it means, and advise the client about next steps.
    • Be reliable with cost estimates and billing.
    • Facilitate your work with your clients. Anything you can do to make it easier for your clients to do business with you is likely to be well received by your clients.
    • Spend time with your clients. Consider spending time with clients in a social setting or (where appropriate) by visiting their place of business to enhance your understanding of their business.
    • Deliver extra value to your clients. By providing some assistance, promotion, or service to your client that is over and above the legal services you’ve agreed to provide, you demonstrate the importance you place on your client relationships generally and on that client specifically.
    • Conduct client satisfaction interviews or surveys. Unless you ask, your clients are unlikely to volunteer their level of satisfaction unless they’re effusive in praise or dissatisfied to the point of considering terminating the relationship.
  1. Priority #2: Former Clients and Referral Sources. The second priority for business development efforts is former clients and referral sources.  These contacts already know and, presumably, like and trust you.
  2. Priority #3: “Warm” Potential Clients and Referral Sources. If you have some connection to a potential client or a contact who might be in a likely position to refer business to you, consider these individuals to be “warm” contacts.  They don’t yet know, like, or trust you, but if you’re introduced by someone with whom they have confidence, you’re more likely to be able to develop a relationship with greater speed than without such an introduction.
  3. Priority #4: Strangers. Converting complete strangers into clients is by far the most arduous form of business development activity.  It’s necessary to determine the potential client’s needs and to match your abilities to those needs, assuming that those needs aren’t currently being met by another lawyer. Raising the level of difficulty yet further, the process of getting to be known, liked, and trusted begins at ground zero.  While strangers do become clients, the path is typically longer and less direct than the path from warm contact to client.  Wooing strangers should be the lowest priority task in business development activity because it has the lowest potential of yielding new business at any given time.

When you apply these priorities to your business development efforts, something surprising will happen.  You’ll begin to view your billable work as a rainmaking activity as well as the heart of your practice.  You’ll also begin to see relationships as the “must do” meat of your business development plan, and you’ll understand why you shouldn’t expect to move a new contact quickly from stranger to client.  As a result, you’ll be able to stage the rainmaking work you do so that you put time in where it’s most effective.  And over time, you’ll find that your business development work yields much better results.

Leadership Skill: Anger Management

A client told me this true story a few years ago, and it’s never left me. (I have, of course, changed the names in this retelling.)

The trial finally started after numerous delays.  Richard listened patiently as Nathan made his opening statement.  When he finished, Nathan sat down at his counsel table.  As Richard stood to offer his opening, Nathan crooked his finger to beckon Richard over.  Motioning Richard to lean down, Nathan turned his body so they were face-to-face just inches apart, but neither the judge nor the jury could see Nathan’s lips.  Grinning broadly, Nathan whispered “&%$@ you,” then leaned back in his chair – leaving the court and the jury with the impression that they’d just shared a friendly, collegial exchange.  Richard, seething throughout his opening, never quite found his rhythm. Score one for rage.

Lawyers who are or aspire to be leaders must learn to self-manage.  The skill of self-management incorporates the habits that create sufficient energy, emotional resilience, and mental focus—essentially anything that promotes one’s ability to be her best self.  Especially when stressed or under pressure, it’s easy to let some aspects of self-management slide.  For example, some attorneys I know offer a blanket apology to staff and colleagues along these lines: “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 been than nothing, I suppose, but it’s announcing that bad behavior is coming and that it will come unchecked.

Lawyers are all too often faced with galling statements, actions, arguments, and behavior.  As the opening vignette shows, sometimes the irritation is extreme.  Some lawyers’ litigation or negotiation tactics include making an effort to find their opponents’ hot buttons: push the button and out pops an angry person whose train of thought left the station as anger pulled in, someone who’s hard to believe or respect. (Same goes for witnesses, too.) When that happens, emotional resilience goes out the window and self-management becomes difficult because the brain’s attention is hijacked.

So, what can you do when faced with provocation that would make the Buddha quiver with rage?  I suggest six steps that can help you maintain your focus and avoid an unconscious reaction.  These steps are simple yet often difficult to apply in the heat of the moment.  The more you practice them, however, the closer they’ll come to habit.

  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 she likely thinks perfectly appropriate? If it’s the former, don’t give her 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 she’s found a soft spot.
  2. Breathe. This is great advice for just about any charged situation, but it’s especially good for dealing with anger. Faced with provocation, 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 situation). Almost without exception, responding creates better results than reacting will, and breathing offers a chance for you to collect yourself and respond. There’s no reason why you can’t fall silent for a few seconds (even though the time 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 appearing to be out of control) and to force your opponent to listen carefully to hear what you have to say. I’ve read 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, it’s a great idea to get up and take a walk instead of marinating in a situation that makes you angry.
  6. Selective, intentional release of anger. Sometimes, it’s absolutely appropriate to respond to provocation by expressing your anger at the person whose behavior has triggered it. But consider the consequences of such an expression. Will you disrupt a 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.

Despite our best efforts at these tactics, all of us lose our tempers sometimes. When that happens, don’t be afraid to apologize, admit to being human, and move forward.

“But I Don’t Have Time!”

Have you ever complained about business development activity because you just don’t have the time?  Might as well admit it: this is one of the top objections I hear and observe. I’ve even had this complaint myself.

But here’s the sad truth: it doesn’t matter. You know that already. If you don’t have time to develop business, it hurts no one but you. And make no mistake: it will hurt you.

Sometimes a lack of time is a legitimate objection. If you’re working on a discovery deadline or deep in negotiations to close a deal—in other words, if your lack of time has a clear horizon—then your complaint probably has both validity and an end in sight. What do you have in place to carry you through the busy period? While far short of full activity, having a newsletter (remember, you can recycle evergreen content) or even sending email check-ins to keep in touch with high-priority contacts can get you through until you can resume your normal business development work.

But what if you’re always busy? On the one hand, it’s a good problem to have if your busyness is due to billable work. You (or someone else who’s feeding you work) are busy serving clients, which is the goal. However, without a reliable pipeline of new work, your busy period might lead you into the feast/famine cycle.

Ask first whether you’re genuinely busy or whether something else is going on. I don’t like balancing my checkbook, and it’s amazing how often I find that I’m “too busy” to do it. Do you dislike business development activity? Do you resent that you can’t just focus your time on practicing? If so, you may find that you’re not as busy as you think, but that you’re great at rationalizing why other tasks take priority. And check out this “oldie but goodie” blog post to help you determine whether the tasks that keep cropping up are urgent or important.

If you’re truly always busy, check out this article to figure out how to find your minimum effective business development activity. 

If it feels like you can’t even hit the minimum you identify, it’s time for more drastic action. Try one of these pattern-interrupts.

  • Drop something that isn’t a high priority. Take a critical look at your schedule and see where you might eliminate a time suck or how you might be more effective. If you tend to record your time on a weekly or monthly basis rather than daily, that’s a good place to start. Reconstructing your time is far slower (and less accurate, leading to potential financial loss and even ethical problems) than recording it as you work.
  • Consider how you might combine activities. This isn’t a slam-dunk answer, but check to see if you could combine non-billables in some way. For example, could you do the necessary reading while you’re on the treadmill? Could you create your task list while you’re commuting?
  • Look for pockets of time. Yes, you might be more effective with big chunks of time. You might prefer to work a task to completion. If that isn’t happening, though, it’s time to look for an alternative. Find and use pockets of time, leaving trails so that you know where to pick up next time. If you can find 5 or 10 minutes a day and you use that time both consistently and effectively, you’ll make more headway than you will if you wait until conditions are ideal.
  • Not as in “retreat from your objectives,” but plan your own business development retreat. If you’re always busy, you may need to take massive action to get tasks done. Try taking one day (or even a half-day) a month to make real progress on your biz dev work, and you may be surprised what you can accomplish. This may mean giving up something else that’s valuable to you, so it might be a quarterly action rather than weekly or monthly.

Finally, check your goals. In a very (very) few instances, you may not need to focus on business development after all. If you’re the beneficiary of a rainmaker’s new work, and if you’re willing to accept the gamble that nothing will change, so be it. If you decide that you want to leave practice, it may not make sense to spend your time building a book of business. Just be careful as you make this evaluation since things can change on a dime and deciding not to build your own practice could come back to bite you. Hard.