Change Your Mind, Change Your Practice(s)

We cannot solve problems with the same level of consciousness that created them. — Albert Einstein

Einstein’s quote, one of my all-time favorites, is a touch-point for our times.   We hear about “out of the box” thinking, we know that innovation is a requirement in today’s world, and the only way to produce either is to adjust how we think about whatever we’re facing.

In the context of practicing law, changing how we think about practice (and building a practice) is usually the first step to making a change.  For example, if you’re aiming for success in a law firm by being a reliable, industrious, somewhat reserved worker-bee but you notice that you keep getting passed over for the big cases you’d like to work on, continuing to work harder and harder without more is unlikely to lead to change.

If you’re constantly running ragged, wondering how you can connect with your spouse and/or children in an hour or so at the beginning or end of each day, it’s a safe bet that you won’t shift your actions until and unless you shift your perspective.  Want a new job?  You’ll have to pull some time and attention away from what you’re doing now to make the time to launch a job search.

And if you believe that business development is something that you’ll begin “later,” you likely won’t recognize business development opportunities that may come your way — because chance favors the prepared mind. 

Making a change often requires stepping outside a situation long enough to identify a problem and then making a mental shift that will help in solving that problem.  How the shift happens is individual to each person.  But creating and then using a shift relies on several basic principles.

  1. The shift must be authentic.  If your partner, your supervisor, your doctor, or anybody else tells you to make a change and you don’t buy into it, there will be no shift.  Remember the punchline to the joke asking how many psychiatrists are needed to change a light bulb?  One, but the light bulb has to really, really want to change.  No psychiatry here, but if you don’t really, really want to change (or at least really, really, really believe you need to change), chances are good that you’ll keep on doing the same old, same old.
  2. Maintaining the shift means keeping it in the forefront of your mind.  If you’re trying to make a habit of arranging lunch with one key contact a week, put a reminder on your calendar where you see it daily.  If you want to improve your efficiency in the office, use time management tools that keep your eye on efficiency.  Holding onto a shift in perspective means keeping it in front of you in some way, because it’s often all too easy to slide back to the old, familiar approach.
  3. Reaping the benefit of the shift requires action.  While it’s important to recognize a problem or a situation that can be improved, that’s empty if it’s merely recognition without follow-through.  If you want more balance in your life, take some action, even if it’s a small one.  Claiming a 15-minute walk for yourself in the afternoon will not only provide some balance but also will remind you that you’re seeking balance.  (Put it in your calendar and keep that commitment, too!)
  4. It’s easier to maintain a shift, and to design and implement the actions that the shift calls for, when you have support.  Tell your spouse that you need to set aside 3 hours on Saturday morning to catch up on work.  Tell your assistant that you plan to eat lunch away from your desk one day this week.  Work with a coach to provide accountability as you set out on your business development plans.  According to a study conducted by the American Society for Training and Development, “consciously deciding” to complete a goal usually yields about a 25% success rate. Deciding to make a change, telling someone what that change is, and committing to completing it by a certain deadline, raises the chances of success to about 95%.

What do you need to shift in the way you see your practice?

When focus led me astray

I hadn’t taken the time to pull back from the work I’ve been doing to check on how effectively I was navigating toward my goals in the last few months.  Life has been very busy, both professionally and personally. I’d put my head down, my nose to the grindstone, and I focused on the client work piled in front of me.  I was surprised by what I found: in some areas, I was right on track to meet my goals, but in others, I’d slowly drifted far afield.

During my mastermind meeting last week, my colleagues and I discussed the tough balancing act of current work vs. future goals.  It’s easy to let things slide, especially when there’s plenty of current billable work to do.  (Can I get an amen?)  But focusing on the present is a passive and ultimately fruitless way to build a future.  Growth requires relentless determination and focus on meaningful and clearly articulated “stretch” goals.

So I revisited and revised my goals, and then I designed consequences for failing to reach them.  Should I miss, I’ll be making a hefty charitable donation in some colleagues’ names – enough of a donation that I won’t get the warm fuzzies of doing something nice but instead the pain of a real financial hit.  My colleagues all set their own goals and consequences, and when we meet again in February, we’ll see the results.  I’m predicting a huge celebration of remarkable successes.

All of this leads me to ask, how are YOUR goals?  Whether you’d like to accomplish something big by the end of the year (creating and hosting that seminar you’ve been thinking about, perhaps) or whether you’d prefer to think ahead into the first quarter of next year, there’s no time like the present to get clear on what you want to accomplish or to set up some accountability and consequences to get yourself moving.  If you need a guide on effective goal-setting, check out this blog post I wrote in 2008.

Fatal mistakes that doom rainmaking efforts.

Several potential client consultations over the last few weeks have put me in mind of the old story about the tortoise and the hare. We all know the lesson, that slow and steady wins the race, and the same is true in business development – though consistent is a more accurate word here than slow. Jumping into rainmaking activity with a solid, strategic plan is like jumping into the deep end of the pool without knowing how to swim: you may do a few uncoordinated strokes, generating lots of splashing, but you won’t get much of anywhere. In fact, you may get so tired you drown.

The caveat to the slow and steady approach is that waiting until the plan is perfect is just as fatal as not planning at all – and maybe more so. If you refine and rework your plan to the point that it covers all contingencies, sets up a flawless strategy that takes account of every possibility and leaves no opportunities unexplored, you’ll never move from planning to action. The fear of making mistakes or overlooking some favorable condition creates inaction or the disjointed, uncoordinated action that tends to accompany having no plan at all.

The answer? Make a plan. Don’t wait for it to be perfect. Start implementing, and then refine your plan. That’s the process you’ll follow for the rest of your rainmaking career, and it’s the only way to start and finish strong. Want more information? See Chapter Three of The Reluctant Rainmaker: A Guide for Lawyers Who Hate Selling.

Grab the fruit!

You’ve no doubt heard the advice to track “low-hanging fruit” as a part of your business development efforts.  That fruit is easy to identify if you have a hot prospect, someone who has a current unmet need that you can fill, who already knows you, and with whom you’ve already had a conversation about how you might help.  (Did you think of someone in that category?  Stop reading now and contact that person.  Quit delaying.)

But what if you don’t have any low-hanging fruit that’s quite that “ripe” yet?

Low-hanging fruit is equally valuable when it comes to identifying people you want to meet.  Most of us have unrecognized connections and introductions that others have offered.  That’s low-hanging fruit of a different kind.  Not as close to income as a potential client on the cusp of hiring you, but a valuable asset a step or two earlier in the process.

Pause for just a minute and list three or four people (or company representatives) who would be strong referral sources for you.  To the extent possible, identify people with whom you have some sort of natural affinity, by virtue of mutual business opportunity, affiliation, or something similar.

Next, strategize about how you can meet those people.  Who’s in the six degrees of separation between you?  (Have you checked LinkedIn?  Perhaps your separation is even less.)  Where are your natural points of overlap in activity?  Where can you create opportunities?

Alternatively, think about the organizations in which you’re active.  Who should you be getting to know better there?  It’s easy to slip into talking with the same people meeting after meeting, but your network will grow only as you find ways to build new connections.

When you can see a natural path to reach someone you want to meet, or a connection that can be developed, you have low-hanging fruit for networking.  By looking at your network through these eyes, you have an opportunity to step outside the everyday connections you’ve built to reach low-hanging fruit.

Simple, right?  Get started!

Plug the holes in your practice

I didn’t think I’d be the type to scream if I ever saw a mouse in my kitchen.  Turns out I was wrong.

You see, I lived in an old house (built in the late 20s) and we had mice coming in for a few months.  One time, I was standing in my kitchen and putting some food into the refrigerator when I happened to turn just in time to see a mouse flying through the air.  No, seriously, flying.  Like Mighty Mouse.  He’d jumped off a shelf in the pantry and nearly landed on my dog, then he made a U-turn in front of my other dog and went running down the hall into the dining room.  In my shock, all I could do was scream.

There’s a flying mouse in my kitchen!  SCREAM!  It’s going to land on my dog!  SCREAM!  My dog is going to catch the mouse!  SCREAM!  My dog is chasing the mouse down the hall!  SCREAM!  And so on.  Happily, sort of, the mouse made it safely into a heating register, and I didn’t have to deal with the horror of trying to pry a dog’s jaws open to let a rodent escape.  (SCREAM!!)

I called a mouse specialist the next day, and he explained how hard it is to plug all the holes into an older home.  “We can plug the ones we see, ma’am,” he explained, “but it may take us some time to find all of them and to get them completely plugged.  Until we do, you’ll have a continuing problem, but as we work on it, it will get better.”

Why do you care?  What does this have to do with business development?

You probably have some holes in your approach to business development that you should plug.  Perhaps you’re letting prospective clients slip away because you don’t have a reliable follow-up system.  Maybe you aren’t getting repeat business that you could if only you would keep in touch with your former clients.

Having a hole is hardly unusual; your task is to sniff it out and close it.  It’s unpleasant enough to let mice in.  But it’s worse to let business out.

Keep your friends close

Pop quiz: Who are your best referral sources?  List the top 10 right now.  If you are a more junior lawyer in a law firm and don’t yet have your own clients, list the senior lawyers for whom you do the most work.

How easy did you find it to make this list?  This information should be at the tips of your fingers.  If you don’t know who your top referral sources are, your activity this week is to find out.

How often do you talk with the people who most frequently send you business?  One of my clients recently realized that his top three referral sources send him seven to ten substantial matters a year, resulting in several hundred thousand dollars of business.  And then he realized that as he’d become busier, he spent less time maintaining the connections that had helped to build those referral relationships.

Sure, he sent business to his top referral sources, he attended meetings with them frequently, and he went out of his way to send a nice “thank you” every time one of them sent a new matter to him.  But he couldn’t remember the last time he’d had lunch or played golf one-on-one with these people.  The business relationship was in place with each referral source, but the personal connections underlying it had grown weak.

Relationships, like anything else, are always in flux.  Are yours growing closer or more distant?  If you don’t stay consistently in touch with your contacts, the relationships will grow weaker and you may find that the support that you enjoyed shifts to others who are more attentive.  There are no bad motives in play, but absence in business rarely makes the heart grow fonder.

Take a few minutes now to set times to check with the people who think enough of you to send you work.  Make it a point to reconnect and to find out what’s going on with them.  At the same time, express your appreciation for their referrals.  And then lay your plans so you can be sure to check in with them at least quarterly.

When life throws you a curveball…

Life has a way of throwing curve-balls.  Sometimes they come in the form of emergencies that demand attention, sometimes they’re staff departures (planned or otherwise), and sometimes they’re opportunities that you just can’t pass up, even though jumping in will eat every bit of time and energy you have.  Curve-ball or baseball photo here, please

How do you cope with those curve-balls?  You can implement three strategies now so that you can deal with curve-balls as they come your way.

  1. Create an “operations manual”.  Those of you working in large firms may have access to some sort of manual that defines how certain tasks are to be completed.  However, whether you’re in a large firm or working as a sole practitioner, you must have a document that explains how we do things around here.  How should an assistant answer your telephone, when should he schedule appointments for you, and what should he tell callers who need to reach you urgently?  What needs to be accomplished every day without fail?  It’s daunting to imagine creating such a document from scratch.  Start today.  Document every task that you complete and request your assistant to do the same.  (No assistant?  No excuse!  If everything is in your head, the need is even greater.)  The manual that you build will allow you to cut down on the time necessary to train a new employee, and if you are called out of the office without notice, the manual gives a road map to keep things running without you.
  2. Use technology well. Most lawyers now use some sort of electronic calendar and docketing system.  Who else has access to your professional calendar?  Even if you choose not to allow anyone access to that information on a day-to-day basis, you should consider creating a login that you can provide on an as needed basis to an assistant.  If you are currently working without an assistant, you should create a way for a temporary assistant to have access to your calendar so that she can contact your clients and reschedule appointments if necessary.  (In fact, it may be incumbent upon you to do so, depending on the ethics rules in place in your jurisdiction.)  Let’s hope than you’re reachable in the case of curve-ball – but if you’re hit by a bus, some mechanism must exist to meet your clients’ needs.
  3. Maintain a comprehensive “to do” list. Many of us go through our days tucking “to do” items into our memory.  This approach creates stress, as you’ve experienced if you’ve ever been lying in bed, just about to drift off, when you’re suddenly jolted to full consciousness with the question, did I send that email/make that call??  For purposes of the “what if” conversation, however, if you maintain your task list in your head and get pulled away by a curve-ball, there’s little chance that you’ll be able to sort tasks effectively to be sure every task is covered.  If the curve-ball should take you suddenly out of commission, you’ll have no opportunity to pause and download all of the tasks in your head onto paper.  Instead, use a Word document, a spreadsheet, or task management application to keep track of every task (of any magnitude), and be sure you can sort those tasks by due date, importance, client, and project.

If you use these strategies, you’ll be able to handle the curve-balls that come your way. Remember that curve-balls generally come with no notice, so assess your preparations today and begin to fill the holes you discover now.

Why isn’t it working?!

A potential client called to discuss how I might help her with her business development activities, and I asked what she’d tried.  As I often discover in those conversations, she’d tried a number of approaches, all to no avail.  On her list: writing articles, teaching seminars, advertising, attending networking events, posting her profile on various social networking sites, and so on.  But she had no results to report.  Not surprisingly, she was ready to conclude that she wasn’t meant to be a rainmaker.

If you see no results, it’s easy to conclude that it’s time to throw in the towel.  It’s discouraging to work at something — especially something as important as business development — and get poor results.

This inclination to accept failure is even more common for those who believe that rainmaking is a skill reserved for a few special lawyers.  (As a sidenote, ponder this: not every lawyer will be a superstar rainmaker.  But every lawyer can be a “mist-maker,” and depending on your practice setting, that may be all you need to shoot for.)  But should you accept failure as permanent and give up business development activity?  No.

Three mistakes are often responsible when a lawyer has worked hard at rainmaking without generating meaningful results:

  1. The lawyer is measuring the wrong thing.  New business is the clearest measurement of rainmaking success, but that’s like starting a diet and measuring success only by reaching goal weight.  There are all sorts of midpoints that indicate success: making new contacts, developing relationships, building a strong reputation in your field, and so on.  These “interim successes” indicate forward movement — assuming, of course, they’re measured as progress toward the ultimate goal of bringing in new business and not as an end in themselves.
  2. The lawyer hasn’t brought in new business. . . Yet.  “Patience and perseverance have a magical effect before which difficulties disappear and obstacles vanish,” John Quincy Adams observed.  In other words, don’t give up before an activity has had time to produce results.  Networking is a key place where lawyers fall short.  A single conversation is incredibly unlikely to generate new business, and mere membership in a group without any real involvement is equally unlikely to be successful using any measure.  Whether it’s networking or another activity, hopping from one activity to another generates a lot of motion but very little forward movement.  Choosing one or two marketing tactics is almost certain to bring better results — unless. . .
  3. The lawyer is doing the wrong things, or doing them in the wrong way.  No matter how persistently the task is undertaken, if it’s fundamentally flawed, it won’t work.  Let’s take networking again.  If your idea of networking is attending meetings, talking incessantly about yourself, your skills, your qualifications, and your experience, plus pressing your business card on anyone who happens within an arms’ length, you are destined to fail.  That’s networking at its worst and it’s unattractive to just about everyone.  Similarly, well-performing activities that don’t involve talking directly with potential clients and referral sources likely won’t produce business.  Bottom line: good activity done wrong doesn’t work.

Your task this week: are you making any of these mistakes?  Check especially to see how you’re measuring your success.  Because lawyers are trained to focus on the end game (here, landing the new business), this is one of the key mistakes that I often see among new clients.

“Welcome!”

What greeting do your clients receive when they contact your office?  Do clients feel that they’re welcome?  Or are they ever left with the impression that they’re interrupting something more important?

How your staff handles client contact (or how you handle it, if your practice doesn’t include staff members) will have a significant, though probably unspoken, impact on your client engagements.  What’s more, whoever answers the telephone and greets visitors constitutes the first line of your marketing team, since satisfying current clients may lead to repeat business and referrals.

We so easily fall into the trap of thinking that lawyers provide client service and that receptionists, legal assistants, secretaries, and other staff members provide administrative support that really doesn’t constitute client service.  While that may be true on one level, it’s wise to consider how much contact the average client has with your staff as opposed to with you.  Unless you’re a sole practitioner without an assistant, chances are reasonably good that the first person your client speaks with is a staff member.  The client will then engage with you with that first impression in mind.

It’s easy to identify and weed out those who deliver obviously unacceptable client contact.  The example that comes to mind is one I overheard a few years ago while waiting for a colleague to get off a call so we could talk: “Well, [Mr. Smith], I know you think you’re [lawyer’s] only client, but you aren’t!”  Fortunately, someone who would make a comment like that is generally either retrained or fired with haste.

But what about the subtle effects of less-offensive but thoughtless behavior?  Have you ever stepped back to observe how non-attorney staff in your office interacts with your clients?

Take a lesson from an Atlanta law firm receptionist who turns visitors into welcome guests simply by greeting each visitor as if he matters.  Janette engages every person who walked in.  She knows returning clients, asks how their travel have been, and makes them feel welcome.  When she meet someone new, she exchanges a few comments with them — not the kind of chatter that can annoy someone already on edge, just some niceties that pave the way for further conversation if the visitor so desires.  Every person who walks in is greeted, made welcome, and appreciated.

Here are a few areas to consider as you question what your staff contributes to client relations:

  • Does the receptionist greet visitors with a smile and a friendly word? Especially in the last few years, many staff members have been asked to do more work with fewer resources, and stress has increased.  It’s important not to allow that stress to reach the client.
  • How are telephones answered? Answering by barking out a business name may be efficient, but it’s hardly welcoming.
  • Are clients treated as valued guests and recognized as individuals rather than being lumped together as interchangeable units whose primary characteristic is willingness to pay your invoice?
  • Are basic courtesies observed in communications? For example, if emailing an invoice, is a cover note included thanking the client for his or her business?
  • Do you introduce clients to your staff members, or are staff members simply nameless, faceless people who interact with clients when you’re unavailable? A simple introduction can transform a staff member from being regarded as only a gatekeeper to being viewed as a valuable resource.

Notice what’s happening when your clients and potential clients interact with your staff. If it’s a negative contribution, how can you help to create a shift?  And if it’s a positive contribution, do you acknowledge and reward it?

Don’t Underplay Yourself

When a law firm hires me to work with a junior associate, very often one part of the engagement centers on the associate’s leadership presence and self-confidence – how he or she presents to others.  (Of course, that focus is not by any means unique to junior associates.)

Although reviewers may use a variety of words such as proactive, poised, assertive, or self-assured, they’re usually looking to see to what extent the lawyer is able to present as a leader, as someone who is sufficiently self-confident to inspire others’ confidence.  Such a person typically contributes to conversations, asks insightful questions, and is willing to express an opinion or espouse a position. 

Interactions with someone who lacks this level of confidence tends to leave others (supervising lawyers and client alike) uncertain of the message being conveyed.  Does a lack of contribution indicate lack of comprehension?  Boredom?  Something else entirely?  It may be difficult to interpret what what’s happening, but the result is a lack of clarity and an unwillingness to rely on the lawyer whose self-presentation is found to be lacking.  The consequences can be significant, including unduly slow career progression (or even being fired) and difficulty in building client relationships. 

For instance, I was working with one client (let’s call him Tom) who was hoping to make partner and entered coaching to strengthen his performance so he’ll be a strong candidate.  He’d picked up on some comments that made him question whether he was viewed as partner material.  I found Tom to be intelligent, personable, and funny.  I also noticed that when I’d ask him a question about his work, he downplayed the role he’d played.

It puzzled me, because I could tell from the kind of work he was describing that he was a heavy lifter on the cases, but to hear him talk he was simply supporting work done by others.  One day, Tom said that a particular concern he held about making partner was that it didn’t seem like anyone regarded his work as being important or notable.  He explained the evidence for his feeling, and then I asked his permission to share an observation.

I told him that when he described his own work, he minimized and understated his contribution.  To hear him tell the story, he contributed little more than hours – and certainly nothing critical in terms of strategy or deep analysis.  But when I asked specifically and pressed, he’d tell me about tasks he’d done and decisions he’d made that were quite high-level.  My assessment was that because he was so careful not to overstate his contribution – and perhaps so uncomfortable being in the spotlight – he didn’t give a fair opportunity for someone to understand the kind and level of work that he was doing. 

We devised a plan for Tom to share more about his work, and he discovered that when he changed his communication style and became more open about what he was doing, people began to appreciate the scope of his work and to understand what he was capable of doing.  He got more and better work, and he felt that others’ perception of him was more accurate. 

Michelle, another client, was upset to receive a review that indicated that some clients didn’t want to talk with her because they felt that she didn’t have a sufficient grasp of the right legal strategy to accomplish their aims.  When pressed for details, a reluctant partner admitted that although he knew Michelle understood exactly what was at stake and how to advance the clients’ interests, her comments were so often peppered with words like maybe and possibly and her inflection was so often questioning that she just didn’t seem to be sure of what she was saying.

The result was that her communications undermined his confidence in her even though he knew she was almost invariably right about what she was saying.  After making a concerted effort to notice the habits that the partner identified, Michelle started speaking with more authority and more clarity, which over time (and along with other changes that Michelle implemented) increased the confidence that others put in what Michelle said. 

How do you know if your presence isn’t as strong as it should be?  Here are three common signs: 

  1. You create “wiggle room” with your word choice or with your vocal inflection.
  2. You feel the urge to speak up or to ask a question but you stop short – and then someone says what you’ve been thinking, and you feel frustrated. (Or you do speak up but your comments aren’t much noted, and then someone says effectively the same thing and gets more attention.)
  3. You find that you generally speak much less often than others in a meeting. (But this can be a sign of strong presence if, when you speak, others give significant weight to your comments.) 

If you recognize yourself in these signs or if you’ve received feedback that you need to be more proactive, perhaps we should talk.  While learning to project more confidence and a stronger leadership presence requires stepping outside a comfort zone, the impact can be dramatic.  Your job and your client relationships may depend on your ability to inspire confidence.  Ready to take the first steps?  Click here to schedule a 30 minute complimentary consultation.