A recent listening tour about why associates and junior partners don’t develop business confirmed my opinion that lawyers are creative folk. They can rattle off an impressive number of excuses reasons for their reluctance, all seeming quite weighty and true.
The following three excuses came up again and again, and merit a closer examination because they are based on misconceptions of the business development process:
1. “I’m just not a salesperson.” Oh, Cupcake. Do you really think that you’ll get from nothing to a sale with one conversation, or even a series of three emails? To get to the selling stage, you need to get through a marketing stage, and the purpose of the marketing isn’t to close deals and get you business. It is to build relationships, and to get your name out there. While this stage may lead to sales conversations with potential clients, it is by no means the only outcome. The marketing stage is useful for all sorts of career-enhancing moves, including looking for a new job, opening new opportunities to serve in leadership positions, and so on.
Marketing is about building relationships (let’s call it that instead of the dreaded “networking”). And building relationships is something that we, humans, are meant to do. So don’t tell yourself you’re not a “salesperson.” You’re a human person, and that goes a long way towards success.
2. “I don’t know how to do this.” This is the most honest excuse in the bunch. It goes to the core of our vulnerabilities. As lawyers, we’re taught that mistakes are bad, that not knowing is bad, and that risk avoidance is the best behavior in almost all circumstances. If you’ve never tried to bring in business before, everything about it feels unfamiliar and therefore fraught. Even though we learn new things all the time (new case law, new statutes, new rules, new fact patterns), we have long ago internalized how to learn this stuff, so it really isn’t much of a mental stretch. By contrast, learning to navigate a whole other system of interactions is foreign and scary.
But here’s the good news: as humans, we’re pre-designed to excel at interacting with other humans. If you have friends (yes, Facebook friends count), siblings, or coworkers with whom you banter, you know how to network, and you know how to build relationships. Now you just need to take the same framework and apply it to potential clients and referral sources.
3. “I’m not a [fill in the blank] yet” Associates say they can’t develop business because they’re not of counsel; of counsel say they’re not partners; junior partners say they’re not equity partners (presumably equity partners have their own version; I haven’t had a chance to interview them on this topic). I’ve also heard skills-based versions of this mantra, such as “I haven’t cross-examined an expert at trial yet,” so clearly this person does not have all that it takes to go out and market.
This is 100% genuine avoidance behavior that will morph and grow if you let it. You can always find a “not yet” reason to punt on discomfort. Then, one day, you’ll look back and realize that had you started a couple of years ago, you’d have a thriving practice today.
This excuse, like the “not a salesperson” excuse, is also predicated on lumping the different stages of business development into the ultimate step – the sale. It is true that as an associate you may not be able to bring in a multi-million litigation, but you could make connections with people who have the ear of the GC, and perhaps facilitate a meeting between your favorite partner and the potential new client. There may not be ultimate glory in this, but you’ll have done your career – and your self-confidence as a business developer – a world of good.
So the next time someone asks you why you’re not out there, building your practice, I hope you find a better excuse than the three discussed above.
If you’re interested in this topic, please download my article explaining the three essential truths of business development for associates and junior partners.