The Essential Little Book of Great Lawyering

What does “great lawyering” mean? To many attorneys, great lawyering means possessing enormous technical expertise, good judgment, and years of experience in which to develop those attributes. That’s what we all seek to develop, and it’s usually what we admire in others.

But what do clients mean? That’s the question that really matters. Approval from colleagues only goes so far toward building a successful practice. If clients hold different views as to what matters, there’s a disconnect in perspective. That disconnect can slowly hollow out the practice, without the satisfied clientele necessary for practice growth – and perhaps without that support necessary even for survival.

James Durham has done the groundwork to discover and summarize what clients want and published the results in one of my all-time favorite books, The Essential Little Book of Great Lawyering. The book is aptly named: at just 52 pages (including the title page, copyright, and table of contents), you’ll need less than an hour to discover the essential skills of great lawyering.

According to Durham’s client interviews, a great lawyer is one who knows the law and has “become a lawyer that people trust above all others, and . . . to whom they turn when they (or people they know) have any kind of problem.” In other words, a great lawyer is one who knows and responds to her client’s needs, desires, and preferences. Durham’s research revealed that 90% of clients say that they like lawyers who are responsive and who really know their client’s business, but they seek even more. Great lawyers also communicate clearly, build relationships with their clients, provide remarkable value, and are loyal to their clients.

The Essential Little Book manages to go beyond those generic words to offer specific examples of what lawyers must do to succeed fully in practice. Durham suggests, for example, that a lawyer must know what his client wants to happen throughout the engagement. I would take that suggestion a step further and offer that a great lawyer would ask what specifically his client wants through the representation. (Examples would include determining how much communication is helpful and in what form, how advice might be presented most usefully, etc.) Nevertheless, Durham’s point is well-taken: great lawyers pay attention to what their clients want and need, perhaps even more than the clients do.

One of the key mistakes I see lawyers make is believing that “being a great lawyer” (as measured by technical expertise) is all that’s necessary to build a successful practice. Durham addresses this same problem and offers that being a great lawyer (as defined by clients) is the foundation of a successful practice. I couldn’t agree more.

The Essential Little Book should be required reading for lawyers. Before the end of the year, set aside an hour to read the book. (If you’ve read the book before, read it again. This is one of those books that meets you wherever you are in your practice.) Take another half-hour to set some goals to implement what you learn. You’ll build a much stronger practice as a result.

Stop Chasing the Silver Bullet

I’m on a rant.

Last week, I spoke with a potential client who shared that his practice has been shrinking in the last few years. We discussed his obstacles and his opportunities, and there’s quite a bit he can leverage. The problem became apparent, though, when I asked what he’s tried. One brief example of the problem: he’s tried to networking using LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, and he’s now shifted to Google+.

But he doesn’t really use any of the platforms. He’ll start with one, then the next becomes the latest and greatest and so he shifts, but a new latest and greatest pops up, so he shifts to that one. And it isn’t social media: he’s jumping around with face-to-face networking groups and even types of activity, always believing that his jump will get him to something easier and more effective.

But here’s the truth: Chasing the silver bullet, in social media or anywhere else, will undermine your rainmaking efforts and trash your confidence.

Innovations will come up over and over. Some will be complete game-changers (the advent of the Internet and websites), many will be a quick flash and then gone (, and some will be slow-growers that prove useful over the long-term (LinkedIn, apparently). Jumping to the hottest new thing will leave you tired and frustrated. But you can’t overlook all the great new stuff that’s coming out. What to do?

When you spot the next new thing, here’s what you must consider before jumping in.

Is this really new? Is there some advantage in being an early adopter?

If not, what spot does it fill? For example, Google+ fills a social media activity spot, and more broadly, it’s a type of networking. Are you already active in that spot?

Are you consistently doing all of the activity that you’ve planned to do as a part of your business development approach?

If your answer to question 3 is no, STOP. Absent a compelling reason, you’re chasing a silver bullet that’s just as likely to be made of tinfoil. Stick a toe in if you answer both parts of question 1 with yes OR if your answer to question 2 is no, but don’t go deep unless the new thing fits into your fully implemented plan.

For example, I’ve advised my clients to create a Google+ profile even though they’re already active on LinkedIn because there’s an advantage in being an early adopter in a Google-sponsored social media platform that’s hit a tipping point. I have not advised them to be active because, in most cases, there’s more work to be done on their business development plan. They’re just sticking a toe in. Get the easy benefit (and add a +1 to your website and blog, for extra “dipping” benefit) but concentrate on what’s proven to work well.

Back to the potential client I mentioned. When we talked about his taking on new activity, he was clear that he’s of a “newer is better” mindset. He was unwilling to take my suggestion of focusing in on a handful of proven approaches, and so I was unwilling to take him on as a client. I hope he’ll prosper and prove me wrong. Unfortunately, my hunch is that he’ll conclude at some point that business development just won’t work for him. And that’s the worst outcome of all. Don’t make his mistake.

Congratulations on your failure!

Time is speeding up. I never quite understood the theory of relativity on a visceral level until I thought about it with reference to time a few years ago. Here we are at the end of 2011, and yet it feels like the year has hardly begun.

I’ve been working on my 2012 goals – how about you? (Hint: if you haven’t, you’d better get moving!) I’m using a new tool this year to help me get clear on what I most want to accomplish after seeing a broad field of possibility: SimpleMind. Many options exist for computer-assisted mindmapping, but I like SimpleMind because it’s inexpensive, free for the iPhone, and it allows for level-based coloring and for branches that extend in any direction you’d like. It’s great for viewing options and setting goals, and it also helped me to put together a complicated program proposal in record time.

I don’t encourage failure… Mostly. As I suggested last week, it’s helpful to assess and mitigate the risks of failure when you’re stepping out with a new activity. There’s no glory in the “ready, fire, aim” approach when you have the time and the ability to do some (but not too much) preparatory work that increases the odds of success.


If you’re not failing despite doing some prep work, you’re probably not taking big enough steps. Please, don’t fail because of laziness, intellectual or otherwise. But recognize that if everything is going so swimmingly that you’re not failing at all, you’re leaving something on the table.

As I wrote last week, you cannot succeed unless you’re willing to fail. Be willing to take a risk. The more you do, the higher the risk of failure – and the higher the chances of success.

This video (which happens to be an advertisement for Nike) brings it all home. Take 31 seconds to watch. Yes, now.

By nature and by nurture, we’ve been trained to avoid taking risks. Sure, it’s safer to do only what you know will work (even though sometimes you’ll be wrong about that, too, especially where people are concerned) but you’ll also miss a lot of opportunity.

An example for your consideration. Referrals and introductions often come by email – “Bob, meet Susan, I think she may be able to help with your blah blah blah question.” If you’re Susan, an email is the safe response to that introduction. But a telephone call is often a more engaging and helpful response. There’s risk involved: what if Bob doesn’t want the introduction or the help? What if Bob is too busy and a call is an interruption? That’s a risk I’d suggest you take almost every single time. Sometimes you’ll fail, but (if you handle the calls well) the successes will outweigh the failures.

So, this week, ask yourself where you’re stopping yourself because you might fail even if you prepare as well as you can. Specifically with business development and client service, what might you do differently if you were willing to fail?

Don’t aim to fail. Do take some risks and accept that you may fail before you succeed.

Are You Afraid to Fail?

Failure is often a difficult topic for high performers. After all, those who achieve much do so by making it a habit to avoid failure. More than a few times, when I’ve talked with my own coach, the conversation has ended up with me saying, “Well, that’s fine, but failure just isn’t an option for me. I don’t do that.” How ridiculous – and also, perhaps, how familiar.

I’ve failed plenty of times. When it comes to business, my goal is to fail quickly if I’m going to fail. When a task is important, failure often leads to a better-informed next attempt, which usually leads (directly or not) to success. So, when failure is inevitable, fast failure is the way to go.

And yet, failure is still unpalatable to me. Is it to you, as well?

A few weeks ago, I was talking with a client and out popped what I believe to be a truism: You cannot succeed unless you’re willing to fail. This was reinforced in a story I read recently about a ne’er-do-well door-to-door salesman. He’d march up to someone’s doorstep; extend his finger to press the doorbell, and then pull back, muttering, “She won’t buy anything.” And he’d turn around, guaranteeing his failure on that potential sale. No wonder he was a ne’er-do-well.

Now, most of us don’t do door-to-door sales, but the principle is just the same.You must take a risk to have any chance of success. Whether it’s reaching out to a potential client, asking a current client how they think things are going, or stepping onto a stage (literal or figurative) to make a presentation to some of your ideal clients, if you don’t risk, you don’t get.

Where is your aversion to risk causing you to stop? After I talked with my client, I challenged myself to write down all of the things I’m holding back on doing because I realistically think I might fail, and then to come up with a way to mitigate that risk. I quickly produced a fresh to-do list. Even though I might fail, I also may succeed on my first shot with those items, thanks to this five-minute exercise.

Today, I invite you to do this quick exercise yourself, specifically in the realm of business development:

1. What are you avoiding for fear of failure? List three to five items, both general (attending a networking luncheon) and specific (calling the promising contact you met last week who promised to call you but didn’t).

2. What are the consequences if you do fail? Consider the financial, professional, reputational, and emotional risks. Don’t overstate them; despite your first response, chances are good that you won’t actually die. However, if a misstep could constitute professional suicide (with an ethics violation, for example), you need to get absolute clarity before you move forward.

3. How might you mitigate the risks? Consider steps such as running a limited test, having a conversation to try out your idea on clients and/or former clients, or launching your idea in phases. If you’re not sure what to do, seek help from a mentor or consultant.

4. Choose one or two actions to take, with the modifications you made in step three.

I don’t encourage failure. However, as hockey great Wayne Gretzky said, “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.” Take some calculated risks. If you fail (as sometimes you will), make it your practice to just get back into action quickly, with a better appreciation of what you might do differently so that each attempt increases your chances of success.

Giving Thanks

Although gratitude is a “soft” topic, always remember that everyone likes to be appreciated: clients, staff, and colleagues especially included. Have you said thank you recently?

As for me, I’m grateful for the opportunity to “talk with” you every week via this newsletter. I don’t take the privilege for granted. Is there a topic you’d like me to address in a future issue?  Leave a comment and let me know!

“I’ve learned that though people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
–Maya Angelou

Opening the Vault


Five of the most useful articles I’ve read this month.

1. Five Secrets to Successful Rainmaking. In addition to five great tips, this article briefly explores why rainmaking matters especially for woman and those interested in working flex-time. (Gentlemen, this article is good for you, too.)

2. How to Adopt a Sales Mindset. A short article with 13 reasonably obvious (but easy-to-forget) tips; qualifies as one of the week’s best reads because of the final sentence: “A salesperson tells, a good salesperson explains… and a sales superstar demonstrates.”

3. Rituals – how leaders can get things done(Leadership Frame #2) I frequently talk with clients about creating systems, and this article hit home with this passage: “[I]t is wrong to think that to get things done we must constantly or consciously think about them. The opposite is true – we should instead increase the number of things we do without thinking about them. So the counter-intuitive secret to getting things done is to make them more automatic, so they require less energy. Develop rituals — highly specific behaviors, done at precise times, so they eventually become automatic and no longer require conscious will or discipline.” Read and apply.

4. Communicating with Clients through Invoices. I’ve yet to talk to anyone who enjoys timesheets. This article, which explains how invoicing is actually a written conversation about what you’re doing for your clients, might just change your mind.

5. Finally, from my “to watch” list, a short video from my friend and colleague Carolyn Herfurth on how to handle that moment when you recognize that the potential client you’re talking with isn’t your ideal client.

Little Bets

Book Review: Little Bets by Peter Sims

I discovered Little Bets through an Amazon announcement, and as soon as I read the promotional copy, I hurried to purchase the book:

What do Apple CEO Steve Jobs, comedian Chris Rock, prize-winning architect Frank Gehry, the story developers at Pixar films, and the Army Chief of Strategic Plans all have in common? Bestselling author Peter Sims found that all of them have achieved breakthrough results by methodically taking small, experimental steps in order to discover and develop new ideas. Rather than believing they have to start with a big idea or plan a whole project out in advance, trying to foresee the final outcome, they make a series of little bets about what might be a good direction, learning from lots of little failures and from small but highly significant wins that allow them to happen upon unexpected avenues and arrive at extraordinary outcomes.

The good news? Little Bets absolutely delivers on that tantalizing introduction.

Peter Sims has identified two types of innovators: conceptual innovators, who make the big, bold leaps with groundbreaking new ideas (and, according to Sims, often achieve their success early) and experimental innovators, who “use experimental, iterative, trial-and-error approaches to gradually build up to breakthroughs.” Experimental innovators are persistent and willing to accept failure and setbacks because they understand that those events are learning opportunities. Rather than perceiving failure to reflect self-worth, experimental innovators use failure as feedback.

One example of experimental innovation comes through Starbucks. Sims recounts Howard Schultz’s initial ideas: bow-tied baristas dispensing coffee from a menu written in Italian with a background of opera music. This did not work.Rather than declaring failure and moving on to a new project (or simply getting a job implementing others’ ideas), Schultz began to make adjustments, tweaking aspects of Starbucks over time. And now, the Starbucks concept has come to define not just how we order, purchase, and drink coffee, but it’s come to represent (to some extent) where and how we gather in community. Whether you like or detest Starbucks, it is innovation in action.

Through examples drawn from a wide variety of industries, Little Betsexplains the characteristics of experimental innovators, who

  • Experiment. These innovators “[l]earn by doing [and] [f]ail quickly to learn fast.”
  • Play. Improvisation and a light, humorous approach quiets inhibitions and allows innovation to flourish. Compare a brainstorming session in which every idea, no matter how objectively ridiculous, is considered with one that includes the naysayer who punctuates every idea with “that won’t work!”
  • Always seek new input. Experimental innovators leave their workspace in search of fresh ideas and insights, and they aim to understand people’s motivations and desires. Consider the feedback on Siri, the new voice assistant built into the iPhone 4S, which answers voice commands and questions with human-like responses. Wouldn’t you imagine that Siri came about in response to the desire to have a pocket genie?
  • Redefine. Experimental innovators use the insights they gather to define problems and needs before seeking to create a solution. Compare the Segway with smartphones. We needed a way to be connected on the go (and the level of connection has continued to evolve), but most of us didn’t really need a new way to get around.
  • Reorient. Experimental innovators keep their larger goals in view while remaining flexible so that they can make good use of each small win that occurs.
  • Iterate. Experimental innovators “[r]epeat, refine, and test frequently armed with better insights, information, and assumptions as time goes on[.]”

Why should you consider the Little Bets approach? No one wants to fail, and there’s no credible way to redefine failure itself as a positive. However, I’ve often observed lawyers and business owners who fail, take that failure as a reflection not of a faulty plan or faulty efforts but rather as an indicator that they cannot succeed. (This is especially prevalent with the would-be rainmaker who makes a few attempts, doesn’t get any business, and concludes that they just don’t have what it takes.)

And yet, we all fail. The question is what we do with that failure. Using the Little Bets approach recognizes that failure isn’t fatal when it’s a step toward success.Determine what you can afford to lose (a key lesson taught through Steve Jobs’ experience in growing Pixar) and then get to testing. Don’t lose more than you can afford, and find ways to grow from each failure.

Finally, experimental innovation is not an all-or-nothing proposition. “To be sure, experimental innovation should not entirely replace linear thinking in our regular work processes. Engaging in discovery and making little bets is a way to complement more linear, procedural thinking.” Use experimental innovation to guide your approach, to road-test the ideas and assumptions that come through rational, strategic thinking.

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 touchpoint 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 workerbee 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 lightbulb?  One, but the lightbulb 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 a 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 contribution 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.

I’d love to hear what goals you’ve set, and what consequences you’ve created to motivate yourself. (And if you’re more motivated by the carrot of a reward than the stick of a consequence, I’d like to hear that, too.)  Just click here to share, and I’ll even set a reminder to check in with you as an added layer of accountability.

Quotes of the Month:

“First, have a definite, clear practical ideal; a goal, an objective.  Second, have the necessary means to achieve your ends; wisdom, money, materials, and methods.  Third, adjust all your means to that end.”

“Let me tell you the secret that has led me to my goal.  My strength lies solely in my tenacity.”
~Louis Pasteur

How Can You Work Smarter?

“You’re working too hard.  Why don’t you look for ways to work smarter?” That was a key element of the feedback I received during this quarter’s mastermind meeting.  After hearing my colleagues’ suggestions, I put some new practices in place to help me work smarter, and I do believe I can already see a difference.

And you’ve no doubt heard this distinction before. All sorts of management experts talk about how to work more efficiently, more effectively, maximizing the results of time.  Some of them even have good ideas.

I’ve been thinking about what it means to say that practicing law is hard work.  I don’t have any question that it is challenging and demanding, for reasons that I’ve mentioned numerous times.  When clients question whether it’s possible to “work smart” in practice, my answer is a resounding yes.

Working smart means managing your physical environment. If you take the time to keep your desk clear, so it’s always easy to locate the files and the resources you need.  Nothing wastes time like clutter.  The simple act of taking an extra 5-10 minutes to clear and tidy your work area at the end of the day can yield significant time savings.  I had to learn this the hard way, but having learned it, it’s become a standard for myself in the office.

Working smart means managing energy. If I’m exhausted and I try to power through rather than resting, chances are good that it’ll take me more time than usual to accomplish anything.  I’ll make more mistakes, and I won’t be as creative as I might otherwise be.  I’ve put structures in place to take advantage of my energy rhythms (you’ll often find me at my desk at 6 AM, but only rarely after 6 PM) and I’ve been working to enhance my energy with enough rest, enough exercise, good hydration and nutrition, and fun.

Working smart means managing commitments. It’s easy to say yes to every demand, but it just isn’t smart.  Making intentional and purposeful decisions about which commitments to accept and which to decline allows me to avoid the frazzled, frantic pace that undermines good work.  By the same token, I aim to prioritize my work so that I accomplish what’s most important first.

Working smart means managing people. Good delegation enhances effective work.  Whether it’s requesting research or asking an assistant to draft routine communications for my review and editing, delegation frees my time so I can concentrate on doing the things that others can’t do.  (Thanks to our global marketplace, getting help is easier and less expensive than ever before.  I’m hiring.  Should you?)

It’s important to note that what’s smarter for one person will be useless for another. You must identify what makes sense for your practice, your preferences, and your clients.  (That’s why Seven Foundations of Time Mastery for Attorneys includes numerous exercises that make it easy to figure out now you can best apply the principles I share.)

Does any of this mean that it’s possible to take shortcuts and reap the rewards of practice without putting in plenty of time and effort? Absolutely not.  But attention to smart management will make the time and effort you put into your practice pay maximum rewards.