The clock never runs out on legal business development

Sports is a great teaching forum for lessons about business development. For a few examples, check these articles about sports lessons on my blog.

In a Super Bowl XLVIII, the Denver Broncos’ fate was sealed by the beginning of the fourth quarter. There’s always some possibility that a team can make a comeback, but 28 points down with 15 minutes to play takes that possibility almost to zero.

A friend observed that in the 4th quarter, the Seattle Seahawks were playing just for fun, sure of a win. But here’s the thing: they continued to play hard until the last possession. Not because they “needed” to—even a few mistakes and turnovers probably would not have changed the outcome of the game—but because those who excel in any field continue competing against themselves even when they’ve achieved the initial goal. Not “whew, we’ve won, let’s relax now,” but “yes! We won! Now let’s see how far we can take this win!”

And by the same token, even when every player and every fan had given up hope of a Broncos victory, the Broncos continued to play as best they possibly could.  Although they didn’t play anywhere approaching the level that got them into the Super Bowl, they didn’t give up just because it was clear they were going to lose. Instead, they kept fighting to minimize the loss.

What does this have to do with legal business development? It’s all about attitude. Attitude, mindset, mental approach, belief system—all of these concepts describe not just what you do, but how you do it.

Where do you stop yourself when you’re succeeding? This shows up most frequently in the feast/famine cycle: stopping your business development work simply because you’re too busy and don’t need the work… Right up until the moment that you realize you don’t have enough work, and you have to start all over again. If things are going well, how can you ensure that you’re pushing the envelope to make things go even better?

Even more importantly, where do you stop yourself when you’re not succeeding? It doesn’t take a failure to knock some people off their game. Sometimes it’s just being slow to get results. We all want to see speedy success, but especially when it comes to bringing in new business, it doesn’t always work that way. That’s why it’s so important to check your metrics. Are you making progress toward your objectives? (And that’s why it’s important to set goals, so that you can measure progress and not just movement.)

Of course, sometimes failure is final. A critical skill is knowing when to keep pounding away and when to change course. (For more on this, see Seth Godin’s short and smart book The Dip. You’ll find my review here.)

How you choose to push yourself or back off is telling when it comes to whether you’re likely to succeed in building a consistent pipeline of new business. Next time you meet a business development goal you’ve set, ask whether there’s something more you can and should do to exceed that goal. Push yourself just a bit further. And if you catch yourself thinking that you failed or that your plan is never going to work, take a breath, question your assumptions (which often requires some outside help), and see what you can do to transform your failure into success.

Because here’s the truth: the clock never runs out on business development as it does on a football game. You don’t have to accept poor results as the end of the story. Instead, you can reevaluate your plan, reshape your strategy, rethink your objectives, and get some help. Keep fighting smart, and your failure will not be final.

Would you prefer slow-yield or high-yield activity?

When you write and speak in your area of practice, you create objective evidence that you know the subject on which you were writing or speaking, and you demonstrate that others want to learn from you. Is that valuable?  Absolutely.

When a potential client or referral source compares two biographical sketches, one with a long list of publications and presentations and one with a short or nonexistent list, guess who looks better?  The long list builds credibility immediately, even if the person reviewing the list lacks the knowledge to make any kind of substantive determination about the lawyer’s competence.

Objective evidence of competence, built through publication and presentation lists, is valuable. Done well, that work can deliver dividends for years, both as reputation enhancement and as good content for following up with new contacts.

But… 

If you’re looking to bring in new business as quickly as possible, writing and speaking are unlikely to deliver the return you’re seeking. 

Preparing a publication or presentation usually takes a lot of time. When you know how, you can limit the time required to some extent (you may even be able to have a junior colleague do some of the heavy lifting for you) and you can shape your work product to be both informative and marketing-friendly. But before you put your name on a publication, or before you stand up to speak to an audience, you’ll put in a lot of time to make sure you have everything straight. It isn’t light duty.

Most lawyers find that speaking generates contacts but usually not an immediate influx of business and that writing rarely even generates contacts. That’s because there’s a distance (physical or conceptual) between you and your audience, even if you’re writing and speaking to the ideal audience. There’s a barrier that a potential client would have to scale to consult with you about a specific matter. And most people simply won’t scale that barrier in the ordinary circumstance.

So, in summary, writing and speaking can help you to build a great reputation, and you can harness the benefit of your work in a variety of ways over time… But you probably won’t see a quick uptick in your business. Does that mean you should not write or speak?  Absolutely not. Every lawyer can benefit from writing and speaking, if that work is done well and with an eye toward its use in marketing.

But too many lawyers get stuck in the trap of wanting to build such a good reputation that clients will seek them out. It’s a nice fantasy, and at one time it might have been closer to reality—but not now. Just as a wise farmer plants crops that will mature at different times, you should plan marketing activities that will deliver results at different stages. And you must recognize that, in most instances, writing and speaking are long-term strategies.

So, what’s a short-term strategy?

If you need business today, close your email right now and go meet with your clients, former clients, and those who have referred you business in the past. When you finish those conversations, meet with people you know well who need your service but haven’t yet given you business. Talk about what’s going on for them, share what you’ve been working on, and explore where need meets ability. Listen more than you speak. Hour-for-hour, those conversations will deliver a bigger and faster payoff almost every single time.

Writing or speaking vs. building relationships?  You must do both. Choose which activities to do when based on what your goals are. Just don’t convince yourself that you can sequester yourself in your office and write a great article that will deliver a steady stream of clients to your door right away.

Do this & never compete on price again.

Warning: Being a fungible billing unit is bad for growing your law practice!

I’ve written previously on finding your Unique Service Proposition, which distinguishes you from other lawyers (and non-lawyers) serving your ideal clients’ legal needs.  In that article, I noted that if you are one of a pool of fungible practitioners, you’ll be forced to rely on other ways of distinguishing your practice—including, perhaps, competing on price.

In today’s cost-conscious environment, many lawyers feel that they must compete on price. (Note that this issue applies to all lawyers, regardless of the size of firm of sophistication of practice.) No savvy client will pay an undeserved premium, and clients seem to hold the advantage in hiring lawyers these days. But competing on price is not the only option.

Other lawyers struggle to find a reason why a potential client should choose them over someone else. Personal connections make a difference, and many lawyers feel most skilled in landing business after a face-to-face consultation. But getting to that point may seem daunting.

When it comes to marketing, if you feel like you’re just one of a large number of fungible billing units, you’ll have trouble standing out from your competitors in a way that will be appealing to potential clients.

The common thread? The belief, All of the lawyers in my practice area are the same.

At first blush, this may be true. You most likely have the same education and similar experience (though the depth of that experience may differ), and most lawyers would say that they are strategic, good listeners, responsive, and smart. Fair enough.

Your task is to dig deeper and find what sets you apart from others in your practice so that your potential clients and referral sources know what makes you the best lawyer for their specific needs. Without a clear point of differentiation, you are simply one of many fungible lawyers, which makes your business development job more difficult.

When searching for what makes you different, consider these examples:

  • Does (or should) your practice focus on some subset of clients or issues? For example, you might be an employment attorney who focuses on the food service industry.
  • Do you have previous experience or education that is particularly relevant to your practice? For example, if you do white collar defense and you previously prosecuted such cases with the Department of Justice, that insight will distinguish you from other defense attorneys.
  • Do you approach your cases in an unusual way? For example, you might offer a collaborative approach. In some practice areas, flat fee billing or a retainer engagement would be a distinctive form of practice.
  • What skills or resources do you have that benefit your clients? Consider fluency in a foreign language, a wide network of advisors and service providers you can refer to your clients, or a familiarity with a foreign legal system that’s relevant to your practice.

When you determine what sets you apart from others who practice in the area of law that you do, you lay the groundwork for business development activity that is both distinctive and appealing. But remember: the touchstone of these points of distinction must be usefulness to your clients. You should not market based on your skill in rock-climbing, because it will not benefit clients—unless you have a niche practice in representing individuals who suffered injury on rock climbs and now seek to sue an expedition leader.

Questions for you to consider today: What sets you apart in a way that your clients value? How can you capitalize on that attribute or experience in your marketing?

Do you think of sales as a “four letter word”?

One of the primary objections lawyers have to business development is that business development equals sales, and “sales” is a four-letter word. (Sometimes the stereotype of math-challenged lawyers does stick!) The word may conjure the stereotypical used car salesman, ready to unload a lemon just to make a quick buck. And, of course, no one wants to be a part of that kind of sale—to sell or to buy.

A sale, however, only refers to the exchange of money for a good or service. There’s nothing unprofessional or sleazy about that. The distaste we feel for sales comes from how the sale is made, not from the fact of the sale itself.

If ethically questionable business development tactics are repellant to you, you will likely take great care to avoid engaging in them. To be certain, start by reading your jurisdiction’s ethics rules, and make a note to reread them at least annually since rules and commentary may change. In most cases, you will find the rules broad enough to encompass any type of activity you might choose to do. If you have any question, you’ll need to find answers before you proceed, since this is not the place to hope or assume something is acceptable. Most of the time, within a few well-understood rules, you won’t even wonder.

The bigger concern, then, is not about ethics but rather about appearance. Does your business development activity look (or feel) pushy? Desperate? Obnoxious? Would someone view the fact or the substance of your business development activity or materials as an indication that your practice is not doing well? Is there anything unprofessional about business development or marketing? These are the real questions.

Business development done well is never pushy, desperate, obnoxious, unprofessional, or anything remotely similar.

Consider this: when you approach your business development activity from the perspective of service, you will almost certainly come across in a positive way. Service calls on you to explore the potential client’s situation and objectives, to share your skill and experience in the area, perhaps to make some initial suggestions on approach, and to determine whether a good match exists between the potential client’s needs and what you have to offer.

Business development, at its most successful, is an exploratory conversation. Both sides bring information to the table, and both seek information and a sense of comfort from the other. If there’s a match, business results. If not, you have formed a connection that may lead to a referral, or work in the future.

If you approach business development from need (as in, I’ve gotta have this business to make payroll or to make partner), the lines become blurred. An unspoken self-interest may cloud your ability to explore the potential client’s needs or to give a fair evaluation of the matter’s merits or your ability to meet the need. The same self-interest may blind you to warning signs about the client: hints of an inappropriately demanding or unrealistic outlook, signs of inability or unwillingness to pay your fee, or a fundamental philosophical mismatch.

The risk of appearing pushy, obnoxious, or desperate comes into play when self-interest controls the conversation. It’s up to you whether your business development and marketing activity will seem unprofessional.

When you come first from an attitude of service (even when you also really want the fee or the client relationship), you’ll put the relationship before the retention. In doing so, you will avoid the risk of feeling like you are being aggressive (as opposed to assertive), too eager (as opposed to deliberate), or rash.

What’s your primary motivation today: service or self-interest?

Do you have the right rainmaking mix?

Before engaging in any rainmaking activity, you must determine the investment to payoff ratio.  Simply put, what results will your investment of time and energy buy you? Is there another activity that likely has a better yield? Your goal is to determine whether a given activity is likely to move you closer to your rainmaking goals in proportion to its expense in time, energy, and money, recognizing that your estimate is only an estimate.

Although each business development plan is unique, the most successful plans tend to have a distribution of high, medium, and low investment/result ratios. High-yield activities tend to indicate low-hanging fruit, meaning opportunities that will likely result in new business reasonably certainly and reasonably quickly. Medium-yield activities are more uncertain and take longer to show good results, and low-yield activities tend to be experimental or subject to removal from your list.

Some general guidelines are useful here:

  • Activities with clients are the most valuable activities you can do. The more you can do to develop a client relationship, the more likely you are to retain that client’s business and to receive more business and referrals from that client.
  • Activities with “warm contacts” (those with whom you already have some relationship) have a higher yield than activities with strangers. Developing relationships with others and enhancing the “know, like, and trust” factors is almost always more valuable than one-time meetings with complete strangers.
  • Writing and speaking tend to be time-intensive activities with low immediate payoff. If you are looking to generate business quickly, writing and speaking rank as a low-yield activity.  If, however, your goal is to enhance your credentials, writing and speaking can be high-yield activities.
  • One-to-one activity generally has a higher value yield than one-to-many. . .
  • But group participation is more valuable if you hold a leadership position. If you hold a leadership role in an organization, you will become known to more people more quickly than you will if you meet other one-on-one.
  • Sometimes an activity’s value cannot be measured in purely financial terms. For example, a client may request that you speak at a conference, and doing so would be a favor to that client. While you are unlikely to see any financial value directly traced to delivering the favor and the presentation, the client’s gratitude may be equally valuable.

Look at your business development plan and begin making an estimate of the investment/result value of each activity that you have planned to incorporate.  If you’re not certain how to estimate that value, no worries.  The Reluctant Rainmaker includes a chapter that will teach you how to track your activities so you can make an estimate of the dollar-value of each hour you spend.

How can you revive a neglected professional relationship?

Despite the best of intentions, it’s easy to let a relationship slide. You get busy, you lose track of your contact schedule, you run out of ideas for keeping in touch… And next thing you know, your relationship has atrophied.

But, like muscle, an atrophied relationship can be rebuilt. By focusing time and attention on your relationship and maintaining consistent effort, you’ll often be able to revive a good relationship more easily than you built it in the first place.

But you might feel awkward trying to reenergize a stagnant relationship, especially if you aren’t sure that the relationship can be reinvigorated. If you find yourself about to write off a relationship, you need to be sure that the relationship can’t be resurrected. It’s easy to allow discomfort to lead you into turning a neglected but viable relationship into a dead one, and lawyers far too often write off relationships before they’re truly finished. But how do you know? Or, as someone often inquires when I’m presenting a business development workshop, Is it ever too late to rebuild professional relationships that have languished?

The short answer is that it depends on the relationship. The deeper the relationship, the more likely it can be resurrected.  If, however, you meet once and fail to follow up, or if you follow up only once or twice, the relationship will lack the firm footing necessary to allow it to flourish following a period of silence.  That said, it never hurts to try to rebuild a relationship, particularly if your sole reason for reconnecting is to re-establish communication and not to seek a favor.

So, what can you do to rebuild a connection that has faded? The simplest, and often the most effective, approach is to do precisely what you would do with a friend you haven’t seen in a long time: pick up the phone and say, “I realized it’s been a while since we’ve spoken, and you’ve been on my mind.  Is this a good time to talk for a few minutes? How are things with you?  What’s new?”  If several months have passed since you were in touch with this contact, you may even begin the conversation by re-introducing yourself.  (This is where my recommendation to maintain a database of contacts proves especially helpful: you don’t have to try to remember when and where you met.)  You may experience a few awkward moments as your contact gets back into the connection, but most people will pick up relatively quickly.

If, like many lawyers, you’d rather do nine hours of painstaking document review without a coffee break than pick up with phone, you do have other options. For example, you might consider the following:

  • Send an email to reconnect. You might suggest talking by telephone and either arrange a time or let your contact know you’ll be calling.  While you’ll still have to pick up the phone, you’ve created an expectation that you will call, and chances are good that you’ll avoid an awkward beginning.  If you suggest that you’ll call, though, you absolutely must do so – or run the risk of looking like a flake.
  • Send an article or other resource that will interest your contact. The resource may address a legal or non-legal issue, but it must be tied in some way to a conversation you’ve had with the contact.  Attach a note that says, “I remember talking with you about [topic of resource] at [wherever you had the conversation] and thought of you when I saw this [resource].  Hope it’s useful!”  By doing so, you not only reconnect by offering assistance, but you do so in a way that will bring your conversation back to your contact’s mind and refresh the relationship.
  • Issue an invitation. You might invite your contact to an open house or to attend a CLE or other seminar of interest with you.  If you deliver an invitation by mail or email, be sure to attach a note saying that you look forward to reconnecting. This personal touch will indicate to your contact that your interest is genuine.
  • Seek out news about your contact. This may be a more challenging approach if you’re seeking to reconnect than to maintain a relationship, but it’s worth a quick search to see whether your contact has been in the news recently.  You may find news of a professional event (an honor awarded, a trial won, a leadership position attained) or a personal event (a new marriage, a new baby, a recreational or community activity).  Such news offers an ideal reason to get in touch again.

Take a few minutes this week to review your list of contacts. With whom should you reconnect?  Choose three to five people and reach out to them.  Building and maintaining your network is always a valuable activity, and keeping relationships alive will often pay off (often in unexpected ways) over time.

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.

How to determine whether a rainmaking expense is a cost or an investment (and why it matters).

I once talked with a client who was upset at the prospect of paying nearly $1,000 for equipment required for making a presentation to a group of her ideal clients.  She confirmed my expectation that she’d be able to use the equipment again for similar presentations, and I suggested that she view the financial outlay as an investment rather than a cost.

“What’s the difference,” she sighed, “call it cost or investment, that money is just plain gone.”  You spend cash for both costs and investments, true, but the distinction is critical in making smart decisions about rainmaking expenses.

A cost is defined as “the amount or equivalent paid or charged for something;” an investment is “the outlay of money, usually for income or profit.”  The difference?  No matter how beneficial, a cost is money paid or time spent that doesn’t produce further profit or income.  An investment, however, is intended to be recouped and, if the investment is well chosen, to bring in more money than you originally paid. Big difference!

You must understand this distinction so that you can evaluate opportunities that come your way.  When you are presented with a chance to do something, whether it’s sponsoring some sort of event, speaking to a group, or enhancing your own professional development through training or coaching, you need to be able to discern whether you’ll be paying a cost or making an investment. Both have their place, but you have to budget differently for each kind of expense.

For example, in the last few years, I’ve made an annual 5-figure investment in working with business mentors, and those investments have paid off handsomely.  The feedback I’ve received and the ideas generated have brought in substantially more than the sums I paid.  I decided to make those investments after following the mentors and carefully evaluating what was offered.  I would not pay the same amount as a cost that I didn’t expect to recover—but I’ll happily invest any amount of money when I know that it will produce a multiplied return in new income.

When you’re making a decision about spending (including whether the opportunity is an investment and whether it’s the right one for you), consider these questions:

  1. What benefit can I reasonably expect from taking part in this opportunity?  Consider not just financial or business benefit but also the ancillary relationship benefits that may accrue.  For example, if attending a meeting holds little direct benefit to you, but one of your best clients has asked that you attend, you might find that the benefit of meeting your client’s request will merit the investment of time.  If the only benefit is emotional and unlikely to lead to a business benefit—your own enjoyment or development of a social relationship—then you should consider the opportunity to be a cost rather than an investment and make your decision accordingly.
  2. What’s the likelihood of reaping the anticipated benefit?  You may not be able to predict with mathematical certainty the probability of attaining the benefit that you’re seeking, so a qualitative estimate is all you need here.
  3. What’s the magnitude of the anticipated benefit? I look for at least a 2-to-1 payoff for financial investments. For instance, when I had the opportunity to travel to Los Angeles a few years ago to speak at a conference, I weighed the $2000 travel and hotel bill against the lifetime value of getting at least one additional client.
  4. What will I need to put into this opportunity to increase the likelihood of getting the benefit?  Especially when an investment is primarily financial, it’s important to recognize that you may need to put in additional time and energy — and perhaps additional money — to get the results that you want.  That isn’t necessarily an indication that you shouldn’t make the investment, but you need to know what you’ll need to do before you commit. To continue the previous example, in addition to the financial expenditure, I knew it would take several days to craft and practice my presentation.
  5. Am I able to make the necessary investment of money, time, and energy?  When’ve defined the scope of expenditure you’ll need to make to get the benefit you’re seeking, determine whether you can make that investment.
  6. Am I willing to make that investment?  As I often tell my coaching clients, if you want things to change, you will need to change.  Even if an opportunity carries no financial cost, be sure you’re willing to invest your time and energy, since no benefit flows without some sort of investment.

Use these questions in making your own decisions, and use them to help your clients see the benefits of investing in working with you on financial and other levels.  In many substantive areas of practice, a clear need often precedes an engagement, and convincing is unnecessary.  When your work is characterized as planning or arranging something (estate planning, for example), you may get more business when you’re able to demonstrate how investing will pay off, in reduced taxes for your client’s estate (financial benefit) and in reduced stress for your client’s survivors (emotional benefit).

How do you use the language of cost vs. investment in your own business and in making your own decisions?  Your assignment, if you choose to accept it, is to notice the ways you think about the outlay of money, time, and energy.  Are you making the right investments?

Beyond Strengths and Weaknesses

Recently, I spoke with a client who was struggling with his business development activity.  Nate (as usual, the name and identifying details have been changed to protect his privacy) had experienced great success in converting acquaintances who heard him talk about the kind of matters he handles into clients, and he decided that if speaking casually to small groups works well, speaking formally to large groups would deliver even better results.

As it turns out, though Nate is a spellbinding speaker in small, informal groups, something happens when he steps onto a stage.  Nate transforms from an assured, confident, knowledgeable lawyer who can chat at length about his clients’ legal issues and possible solutions into a stiff academician who says “therefore” and “whereof” entirely too much.  He becomes (I hate to say it, but I’ve seen it firsthand) dull.  When he speaks to large groups, nothing good comes of it.  The audience gets restless, and no one calls Nate for help afterward.

This isn’t news to Nate.  I gently broached the subject after I saw him speak, and before I got very far, he beat me to the punch – sort of: “I know, I know, I was a terrible speaker last time.  But I’ve figured it out, and the crowd next week is a new group of people, and this time, I’m going to impress them!”  Nate recognizes that speaking to large groups is not his strength, and yet he continues to use that approach, thinking each time that he’ll finally nail the presentation.

The problem is that we tend to talk about strengths and weaknesses as if a weakness is just an undeveloped strength.  Not so.  Sometimes, a weakness is an inability, pure and simple, that can be corrected only by bringing in assistance from another resource.  Here’s what I explained to Nate (with thanks to Don Blohowiak, a coaching colleague who shared this useful framework):

Potential refers to your native capabilities than can be (but have not yet been) developed.

Strengths refer to the capabilities that you execute competently to masterfully.

Limitations refer to the capabilities that you have in short supply.  Some limitations can be developed, and others will require replacement from another source.

Absences refer to the capabilities that you simply don’t have.  There is no shame in lacking capabilities.  No one has all of the capabilities possible.  Instead, the task is to find someone whose capabilities are complementary to your absences.  (If, for instance, you are leading a client service team and complex accounting is an important part of the matter, if you lack masterful accounting skills, you must find someone who can bring that competency to the team.)

Weaknesses refer to the capabilities that you pretend to have but cannot actually execute.

Using this model, Nate’s speaking to a large audience is a weakness (as he recognized) but because he pretended that he could correct it, the weakness could not be eliminated.  Nate was failing at business development because he was leading from a weakness and pretending it was a strength.

Review your business development plan, your professional development plan, your career strategy plan – any plan at all that reflects your goals – and ask these questions:

  • What are my strengths?
  • How are my strengths reflected in my plan?
  • How can I develop my potential so I can deploy those capabilities in my plan?
  • What weaknesses am I denying?
  • Do my priorities coincide with my strengths?

If, like Nate, you lead from weakness, you will produce only frustration.  Spend some time in honest self-reflection and look for opportunities to shift what you’re doing based on your natural and developed capabilities.  And, if (like Nate) you find that you’ve been pretending that you are developing your weaknesses, stop pretending.  Shift your approach.

What’s your problem?

We all face challenges in the business of a law practice. We were taught in law school that we have to ask the right questions in practice to get the necessary answers for our clients.  (Litigators, you especially know what I mean!) But somehow, we forget what that means for our own businesses.

I recently spoke with a lawyer who was looking for help in landing new business, who told me that she needed to improve the way she asked for business. That’s hardly unusual, but I wanted to be sure that she was presenting the right problem, so I asked about her sales conversations. When we dug into it, I discovered that a very high percentage of would-be clients she met actually hired her. The diagnosis of her sales problem?  None. She needed to have more sales conversations, not better ones.

Another client once told me that he just didn’t have time to get everything done. After checking into his daily activities, I realized that lots of little tasks were eating up his time and he wasn’t effectively using the resources at his disposal. His problem wasn’t a lack of time. His problem was a lack of focus on his top priorities.

Sometimes seeing the right question is as simple from shifting from “why won’t those cheapskates pay my fees?” to “how can I make my fees more affordable and still deliver value?” Or it can be as murky as recognizing that the problem isn’t your elevator pitch but rather that you hate networking so much that you unintentionally send out signals that you want to be somewhere, anywhere else – or perhaps even that you would prefer to practice a different kind of law or to do something else altogether.

What challenges are you facing right now? What have you told yourself about those problems? What are you missing? And, more specifically, who can help you see the truth of your challenges?

And if you’ve been trying to solve a problem, remember Einstein’s observation that “No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.” Just like it’s difficult to scratch your own back, it’s difficult to step outside a situation in which you’re intimately involved. It’s critical to have a trusted colleague, a mentor, or a coach (ideally, a full “board of directors”) who can help you to examine your challenges so you know you’re working to answer the right questions.