A valuable diversion

Today’s newsletter may feel like a bit of a diversion. If it seems so to you, don’t worry: “pure” biz dev will return next week.

Last weekend, I read When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi. Kalanithi was a neurosurgeon who was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer at age 36. This book is his memoir, which I recommend to lawyers for three reasons:

  1. It is a book about meaning and particularly about choosing a life path in view of life circumstances. While most of us will never face the specific challenge that Kalanithi did, we will all face something that threatens to knock us off course, and we will all have to decide what truly matters to us. There is much to learn in Kalanithi’s exploration of who he might become following his diagnosis and whether to resume his career in neurosurgery, to start early the writing career he’d imagined for much later in life, or to suspend his career entirely in favor of spending time with his family.

    It’s worth pausing to ask yourself: what are your values? What has meaning for you? Are you acting in accord with those two answers?

    If you’re looking for a pure business development lesson, it lies in this search for meaning. If you connect with a reason why you want to grow your practice, you’ll be more likely to do what’s necessary to reach that objective. And if your efforts to grow your practice detract from what is most important to you, it will be difficult to maintain those efforts—and it may be ultimately pointless even if you succeed.
  2. It’s a book about empathy. Kalanithi discusses how he sought to treat his cases as individuals, to help them make the right decisions for their own circumstances and values rather than simply treating the physical problem that they presented. He also discusses his experience as a patient who received person-centered care as well as a patient who received problem-based care.

    Unlike neurosurgeons, most lawyers don’t work with life-and-death circumstances. As lawyers, we may tend to focus on the legal problem that the client presents rather than allowing the client’s objectives to govern, or we may fail to attend to our client’s worry, stress, and uncertainty. Having been both a litigator and a litigant, I know how important empathy is in practice. Kalanithi’s experience revealed in a fresh way the degree to which empathy is a professional skill, in a context that we are unlikely to face but can understand nonetheless. Empathy upholds dignity—ours and our client’s.

  3. It’s a poetic book that uses language with skill and care. Reading good writing feeds both the soul and the brain, and it can reinvigorate one’s own writing. While reviewers are not unanimous on the quality of Kalanithi’s writing, I found it beautiful, and I kept pausing to reread and mull certain passages.

If When Breath Becomes Air isn’t your kind of book, do find something that makes you continue to examine why you do what you do, what meaning your life and your work carries, and how your approach to others (and especially your clients) affects both them and you. It’s a step away from “pure business” than can only enhance “pure business.”

Innovation for the sake of what?

Like many people these days, I’ve been reading a wide variety of sources about politics over the last several months. It’s in this context that I ran across an article in Forbes magazine discussing lawyers’ duty to society in upholding the rule of law, specifically in the context of the recent (and currently stayed) executive order on immigration.

Don’t worry: I’m not going political here. I have my opinions, you have yours, maybe we agree and maybe we don’t, but that isn’t the purpose of the conversation you and I have each week via this newsletter. (As a side note, a comment along those lines, followed by a shift in topic, is likely enough to avoid political conversation if you’re networking or even advising clients on the effects, actual or anticipated, of legislative changes.)

The article caught my eye in part because of this paragraph:

To those who engage in the popular parlor game of predicting the extent to which technology, new delivery models, and other professionals will marginalize lawyers, consider that they will never substitute for the essential work performed by lawyers– this past weekend and going forward. Only lawyers will be on the front lines of protecting the rule of law–as well as representing their individual clients. Technology, new delivery models, and other professionals and paraprofessionals will enable lawyers to function more effectively to serve the interests of their individual clients and society.

Unquestionably true: although innovation is important for effective and efficient delivery of legal services (and thus for client retention and client attraction), the services provided and the value of those services is the key. That’s a good measuring stick to use when you consider making a change in the way you practice: does the contemplated change benefit your client, or is merely change for the sake of something new? Some lawyers started sending video messages in email, for example, thinking that more personal and likely to build a better connection with clients. Did it? Maybe. But was it useful to clients? Unless the visual was necessary, probably not. In contrast, a litigator might provide a video discussing preparation for and conduct during a deposition, which might well be useful to a client who hasn’t been through the process before.

Ask yourself periodically, “for the sake of what or whom am I considering making this change?” Even if you aren’t making a change that rises to the level of practice innovation, keeping this question top-of-mind will provide you with a check to ensure that you’re making changes for the right reasons.

Protecting the past?

This image is featured in a Leadership Freak blog post on 5 Strategies to Convince Reluctant Leaders to Move Forward,:

Technology has created (or created the opportunity for) disruption in the way that legal services are delivered. Those disruptions have occurred in modes of communication (such as e-mail, which may create the unspoken expectation of near-instantaneous response), in provision of services (such as document preparation services), in efficiency (such as various forms of automation), and in measurement of efficiency and/or effectiveness (such as large corporations’ use of data to track legal services providers), among others.

If you’re struggling to find how you can respond to these disruptions –whether that means working to overcome them and return to “normal” or working to innovate your own ways of creating value for your clients–check out this post. Let it guide your approach to serving your clients. And keep this in mind: small changes can produce big results, so don’t get wrapped up in the idea that you need to produce innovation on a level with introducing e-mail. You can create the future with small improvements, too.

The Romance (or Not) of Practicing Law and Getting Business

More than 10 years ago now, David Maister (a now-retired advisor to professional services firms) wrote a brilliant article distinguishing the relational and transactional views of client relations. Here’s the crux of Maister’s argument: 

In The Trusted Advisor (Free Press, 2000), my coauthors and I pointed out that building trusting relationships with clients leads to many benefits: less fee resistance, more future work, more referrals to new clients, and more effective and harmonious work relationships with the clients.

However, many people have built their past success on having a transactional view of their clients, not a relationship one, and it is not clear that they really want to change. Stated bluntly, professionals say that they want the benefits of romance, yet they still act in ways that suggest that what they are really interested in is a one-night stand.

. . .

Most professional-to-client interactions involve little if any commitment to each other beyond the current deal. The prevailing principle is “buyer beware.” Mutual guardedness and suspicion exist, and the interaction is full of negotiation, bargaining, and adversarial activity. Both sides focus on the terms, conditions, and costs of temporary contact. Each side treats THEM as “different,” as “other.”

. . .

Moving from a one-night-stand (transactional) mentality to a romance (relationship) mindset is not about incremental actions, but requires a complete reversal of attitudes and behaviors. One approach is not necessarily “better” than another, but there is a real choice to be made.

In today’s post-recession legal economy, clients have more options than ever before. They can choose from a wide range of law firms (the size of firm and perceived expertise becomes only one factor to consider rather than the deciding factor in every instance), from numerous individuals, and even from outsourcing options that may rely on non-lawyers or technology. While transactions can be valuable, client relationships are the only certain route to building a strong foundation for a practice.   

Consider this quote from the article: 

The real challenge, however, is for all of us as individuals, not as firms. Transactions are common because they involve less hard work and demand fewer skills. Ultimately, however, they are not in the best long-term interests of either professional or client. (emphasis added) 

Mutual trust will allow both sides to get more of what they seek than continued mutual suspicion. Relationships are not more “noble” than transactions, but where they can be created they are much more profitable.

If you’ve never asked yourself whether you want relationships or transactions with clients, go read Maister’s article and ask yourself now. The topic was ripe in 2005, but it’s absolutely critical today.