Through years of school and various jobs and activities, we’ve learned how to persist even in the face of difficulties. Persistence is an important trait, since (in the words of one of my current favorite songs) “what’s worth the prize is always worth the fight.” No fight may mean no prize, and we’ve integrated that lesson in our professional lives. (Think back to law school, and I virtually guarantee you’ll remember at least one class that would have stopped you cold had you not been committed to fighting your way through.)
An opposing principle is the concept of diminishing returns, in which additional effort doesn’t produce additional results proportional to that effort. For example, when you draft a memorandum for a client, the first and second drafts are generally critical to the end result. By the time you get to the fifth or fifteenth or fiftieth draft (depending on the complexity of the matter at hand), you’re making only small changes and word-smithing. A single word can occasionally affect the impact of an entire document, so experience is often required to know when you’ve reached the point of diminishing returns.
When it comes to business development, diminishing or even nonexistent returns may be difficult to see without qualitative or quantitative feedback. For example, publishing a substantive article almost always represents a significant advancement because it adds to your credibility in your practice area. However, it’s unlikely that a single article will result in a flood of new business, and it is possible that even a string of articles may not produce new billable work if the articles aren’t well targeted or if there’s no reason for readers to reach out to you. When should you keep publishing, and when should you move on to something else, at least for a time?
The Groundhog Day problem is this: how do you distinguish between activities that aren’t producing results yet and activities that are unlikely ever to produce the results you seek? We all know that time may be required to show results, so we don’t expect every activity to yield new results right away. But you have to know when to keep going and when to shift activities, or you can keep on working harder and harder at something, only to discover that all your effort has produced nothing.
Keeping track of the rainmaking activities you’re doing and the results you’re attaining is the only way you’ll know when to keep going and when to shift courses. Set clear and concrete goals for your rainmaking activity. Specific and time-based goals are helpful for measuring progress and staying on track. Examples include, “my goal is to bring in $35,000 of new collaborative divorce business within the next 12 months,” or “my goal is to develop a $75,000 book of business made up of personal injury cases each with a value of $15,000 to $20,000.” These goals provide a measuring stick for your progress, but you shouldn’t measure your success exclusively by the amount of business you bring in.
Landing new business is your ultimate goal and the reason for undertaking rainmaking activity, but you must also track interim goals. Imagine that you hadn’t run at all since high school and you decided to train to run a marathon. You almost certainly wouldn’t make that decision and then lace up your running shoes to run 26 miles right off the bat! Instead, you’d set smaller goals. Maybe running two or three miles, or even running for 20 minutes. As you achieve those goals, you’ll also notice additional accomplishments along the way, such as not being sore the day after a long run when in the beginning of your training you could hardly walk the next day. Tracking those smaller goals helps you know that you’re making progress toward the ultimate goal of running a marathon even though you aren’t yet running the full 26 miles. The same principles apply for tracking your business development efforts.
For example, let’s suppose you have a relationship with someone who was employed by a client company several years ago, that she has moved to a new company, and that she’s now in a position to recommend outside counsel but does not have authority to hire. If you measure success with that contact based solely on getting business from her, you will likely find yourself discouraged.
But you could instead measure the interim steps that move you closer to getting business from her. A few examples of those interim steps might be getting introduced to the person responsible for making decisions, getting your contact’s feedback on what she thinks it would take for you to be awarded business, being invited to make a presentation to the company or a department on a subject related to the legal matters you hope to handle, and so on.
None of these steps is the same as getting the billable work, of course, but they measure progress. If you notice that you’re working to grow the relationship with your contact over a period of months and years and you aren’t getting any business from it, you need to look at these kinds of interim steps to see whether there’s any progress or whether you should perhaps conclude that this contact is not as hot a prospect for new business as you had believed. Tracking the interim progress and measuring it against your ultimate goal is how to avoid the insanity of continuing to plug away at activity that won’t ever produce results.
In other words, watch the ultimate goals of getting new business, but keep your eyes on the interim steps as well to be sure that you’re progressing toward that ultimate goal. If you don’t see progress that is actually moving you closer to bringing in new business, then it’s time to ask yourself: Is it Groundhog Day again?