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A strategic BD skill-development regimen

According to frequent articles in the legal media, today’s competitive conditions have lawyers clamoring for BD training, but law firm BizDev and Marketing executives have limited resources to satisfy the demand. For 25 years, the solution norm has been to hire BD trainers/coaches or retain experienced consultants to conduct prolonged training/coaching programs intended to develop lawyers into rainmakers. Coaching talent is expensive to rent or hire. Ironically, that creates and reinforces the training scarcity that lawyers bemoan.

By applying a new mental framework that breaks the skill-development mission into smaller, more manageable segments, and using the appropriate delivery method for each segment, firms can escape the training-program trap. With negligible investment, they can embark on an innovative path to optimize business development training effectiveness, improve lawyer engagement, make better use of internal BD resources, dramatically reduce training cost, and shorten the performance measurement cycle.

First, accept two foundation principles:

  1. Not all of the firm’s lawyers want to learn biz dev skills. They all want to have them, perhaps, but when it comes to the time and effort to learn them, they’ll opt out.

  2. Coaching is the expensive resource that must be managed and allocated based on objective behavioral evidence, not perceived “potential.”

A history of failure and waste

Since the mid-1990s, law firms have spent a lot of time and money attempting to broaden the ranks of revenue generators by helping their lawyers acquire and apply marketing and sales skills. Whether they’ve rented outside consultants or hired internal staff, the results have been mixed at best, and disappointing to most.

There are two primary causes of training/coaching investment failure:

1. No clear mission or success criteria

Lawyers face one or both of two different biz dev challenges, each of which requires a different solution.

Opportunity Generation

Most lawyers have too few legitimate sales opportunities. They may go on pitches, but too many of those are mere fishing expeditions or, worse, “relationship-building” calls. With limited activity, it’s hard to produce results or become skilled.

Too many have no market focus, no identity within a market segment, and so struggle to be perceived as relevant to potential clients, who have no reason to make time for them.

Opportunity Conversion

Some lawyers have a larger number of apparent sales opportunities, but come away empty-handed too often. “They said we really impressed them, and it was a hard decision, but they went with another firm.” That’s if they manage to get a decision at all.

Many of these lawyers also have stagnant pipelines that feature the same companies and “prospects” year after year. For example, many lawyers attempt to get buyers to reallocate an existing spending pie, giving them a slice of some category of legal work. That’s not something the client has to decide -- not even “no.” With no criteria for disinvestment, the lawyers keep following up ad infinitum.

2. Investing in the wrong lawyers

Anyone who has observed the law business for any length of time would conclude that most lawyers won’t devote time and effort to learning the skills to succeed at business development. Some percentage do, yet nobody knows what percentage, and there has been no way to identify who those lawyers are.

When it comes to choosing which lawyers to invest in, firms pretty much trust their gut, choosing lawyers whom they believe have “potential.” But, as my data shows, none of the prevalent selection schemes have worked.

The data re: waste

I interviewed 100 law firm marketing- and business development officers, practice group leaders, and managing partners. And, in preparation for my speech before the Association of Lawfirm Administrators, I had the ALA poll its membership.

I asked two questions:

  1. What percentage of your firm’s BD training investment do you think is wasted on lawyers who don’t stick with or use the training and coaching?

  2. How do you choose which lawyers will receive such investment?

Waste estimates ranged from 22% to 90%, with almost half at 40-90%.

In response to “How do you choose,” more than 70% said they provide training either

a) primarily to associates,

b) to everyone (although I’ll bet that “training” is actually Education), or

c) to lawyers who request it.

The rest rely on some form of gut feel, e.g., “potential.”

Selection criteria vs. rate of waste

When you correlate the selection method with the perceived waste, the surprising result is that those lawyers who requested training wasted it the most. Why is that?

All lawyers want to have business, so when their firm offers biz dev training, they opt in. However, most don’t know what it will actually take to get business, so they’re making an uninformed choice. When the training begins and they see what’s required, they realize they’re not willing to do that, so they opt out.

Other lawyers opt in because it’s impolitic not to, especially if an influential partner has vouched for their potential. Saying “no thanks” to BD training isn’t wise.

As a result, firms commit funds and enroll them in training/coaching regimens, only to see them opt out, usually tacitly. They don’t announce, “I’m not going to do this anymore.” They simply stop participating. They don’t complete assignments. They cancel or are unavailable for scheduled coaching calls. Their activity level is too low to enable any practical skill development.

The training money is wasted. Firms that don’t visibly hold their lawyers accountable for training program performance tacitly communicate that it’s OK to abandon the investment.

A new training/coaching philosophy and approach

The goal is to maximize effectiveness and minimize financial risk by matching your training investment with lawyers’ demonstrated (rather than presumed) degree of interest and commitment.

  • Of the two BD problems, Opportunity Conversion (Sales) is easier to solve, and offers the fastest path to concrete results.

  • Opportunity Generation (Marketing) is much more difficult, takes a lot longer, and will have the highest dropout rate.

  • Among the three learning tools, Coaching is the most expensive by far, so you should limit your initial coaching investment to solving the Opportunity Conversion problem for lawyers who have a) a pattern of meaningful at-bats but too few hits, or b) an immediate opportunity to convert.

  • For all other lawyers, accept that most won’t prove worthy of significant investment due to disinterest.

  • Structure your investment to enable the bulk of lawyers to qualify or disqualify themselves for additional investment through measurable behavior at low cost.

  • Recognize that skill development is a three-rung ladder:

  • Education produces awareness, understanding, attitude change

  • Training is the actual doing, either virtually or physically. It produces practical skill. Technology-based training has been proved to be more effective than instructor-led training.

  • Coaching is strategic and tactical guidance to apply the skills acquired via Training to produce successful outcomes

  • Invite lawyers to complete a short survey that measures their degree of confidence in their BD skills; most won’t complete it. This will be your first indicator of seriousness of purpose.

  • Using digital content at negligible cost, provide basic Education to all lawyers. Measure their performance. 50% will never opt in, and another 30% will opt out within a month or so.

  • Provide online Training at additional modest cost to lawyers whose measured consumption of Education content shows commitment to learning and applying BD skills. Half of the 20% who earned online Training won’t continue to perform.

  • Reserve expensive coaching for the 10% of lawyers who earn it by consistent performance with lesser-cost Education and Training tools, or who have an immediate sales opportunity.

Once you’ve shrunk the Coaching pool

Assess the nature of those lawyers’ primary BD challenge: Generation or Conversion, and match the tool and investment to that.

  • Analyze lawyers’ non-billable-hour credit claims for BD activity. Segregate the number of actual sales calls with specific stakeholders at specific companies vs. other activity.

  • Compare those against actual files opened with those companies within 30 days of the last sales activity. This will give you a crude estimate of their closing ratio, and tell you whether they need a higher closing percentage or more opportunities, or both.

  • Provide either ad hoc sales coaching for each immediate opportunity, or a minimum of six months of ongoing weekly coaching to solve the marketing problem. Every three months, evaluate their participation, activity level, and consistency. Repeat the confidence survey and compare with the one completed at the program’s outset.

No law firm will ever have the training/coaching budget to invest in all its lawyers, so you need a way to identify your best bets. Measured performance is the only fair way.


About the Author

Mike O'Horo has trained 5000 lawyers in firms of all sizes and types, in virtually every practice type, and coached them as they applied my concepts, methods, and processes successfully. Lawyers are frustrated when they're told only what to do. They want the "how." Mike is in the "how" business.

Mike O'Horo is well-known in the law business for almost 30 years simply as “The Coach,” He describes himself as a “serial innovator.” Learn more about Mike and his Innovative products, programs and processes here.

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