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Top Competencies A Lawyer Needs To Succeed Today

by Larry Bodine

The top 3 competencies or strategies for a lawyer to succeed today are the ability to generate new business, to learn the business of their clients, and networking.

The first one is an ability to generate new business.  A partner in a law firm is not only someone who knows the law and can do the work for clients, but is also an entrepreneur who has to generate enough work for himself or herself as well as all the associates. Just like an entrepreneur, you need to build a business around yourself. It's a critical element, today more than ever, that you not only be able to do good work but also generate new business, so that you have work for yourself as well as all of the people you work with.

A second skill lawyers need to cultivate is to learn the business of their clients.  This means going beyond the legal affairs of the client and actually getting to know the client on an extra-legal level where you are really inquiring of the client:

  • How does your business make money?
  • What the client?s most profitable lines of services and products?
  • What about the client?s competitors? How are they threatening your client right now?

You want to start a business conversation with your clients. That's how you get a client for life.

The third ability would be networking. It is more than just going to a room full of people that you don't know and passing out a bunch of business cards. It's more a relationship-building skill where you can walk into a room of people and, hopefully you have done some homework, and you know some people there already. It's not walking up to people and telling them "I do this and I have these great credentials". Instead you approach them and ask them questions, like,  "Tell me about yourself." It goes right back to Dale Carnegie where he said that a person's most favorite topic is themselves, so why not bring that up in conversation?

Most common business development problems

The three most common reasons people call me are:

  1. Our firm just lost a major client.
  2. All of our senior rainmakers are in their 70s.
  3. None of the junior partners have ever originated a file.

They've discovered late in the game that they should have been working on business development all along during the fat years and when there was plenty of work to go around. Now that the lean years are upon them or threatening them, they call and say, "What should we do? Should we buy some ads? Do you think we should do some marketing?"

My response is, "No. I would recommend instead that you need business development training. You need to have someone come into your firm and spend a day with the attorneys away from the office, away from the telephones and interruptions, and basically spell out what are the different business development techniques."

The good news is that business development is a learnable set of skills. I started out as one of the most introverted, shy, tubby little boys that you could ever possibly imagine. Today I've gotten to the point where I just love going out on a sales call. When I was a kid if you told me that I would turn out this way, I would have been astounded. The point is that business development can be learned, although it needs to be taught. Anybody who is smart enough to get through the bar exam and survive in a law firm has all the mental ability that is required to learn a learnable set of skills.

The key part is to have a training session. In the training session you spell out the techniques, so that not only do the attorneys know what to do, because I find that in most law firms business development gets hung up on tactics. The lawyers want to know: What do I say? How do I make them like me? What do I do when I'm at a trade association meeting? If you can explain all those steps, then all of a sudden business development becomes a lot easier.

Personal business development plan

Part two is the attorneys need to sit down and write down a personal business development plan. It needs to be written down, just as you would write down an entry in your calendar, or it won't get done. If you don't write something down, you're just not going to do it. It's not real until you write it down. Focus on things in the following order.

  • Focus first on your current clients. That's the low hanging fruit. These are people who like you and trust you and are sending you checks. And you just need to see if you can serve them and help them in additional ways.
  • Focus on referral sources. These are people who are just as good as clients; they love you, they trust you, they send you business. The only thing missing is they don?t send you a check, but otherwise they are just as good as a client.
  • Find an organization to get active in. The point is to join an organization of clients. Not just to be a mere member of the organization. You don't want to be a face in the crowd. You want to be on the board of directors; you want to be the program director; you want to be the newsletter editor; you want to have some position that's visible so that you will become known to everyone in the organization.

No cold calls

You need to generate some new business and you need some education on what the techniques are and then it becomes so much less scary. You don't need to make any cold calls; you don't need to put yourself in any uncomfortable situations. I hate cold calls. My first job was selling encyclopedias and it was all cold calls. I just loathed the job and I remember swearing to myself, "I'm going to find a way to make a living that does not involve cold calls." The wonderful thing about business development is, as everyone mentioned earlier, it's all about building relationships. Start with the people that you already know. You probably have a huge network and you'll never have to make the cold call.

You just need to see the menu of techniques you can choose from, so you can pick the ones you like.  But then you've got to write them down your plans and there's got to be a date attached to each activity. Then when you actually start, it's like the Nike slogan: "just do it." And then when you do it, amazingly enough new business comes in.

Asking questions, not self promotion

One lawyer asked me, "I realize that the reason I haven't gotten enough clients is that I am afraid of promoting myself. There is a conflict going on inside of me. Promoting me feels like I'm not being authentic and true to the profession and myself. I am trying to portray an extremely valuable service and yet my feelings tell me I am not valuing myself highly and to believe my own words when trying to get clients. How do you deal with fear of self promotion?"

Let me make clear that good business development is not self promotion.  In fact, what you should not do is go out and hype yourself or brag or really push yourself on people or take advantage of people. That's not how you generate new business. Think of the last time you went to buy a new car and one of the sales people came over and started selling you and pushing something on you and asking you how big a monthly payment you could afford. That was totally repellent. I would encourage you not to promote yourself. That's going to drive people away. You're right, it doesn't serve the profession.

Rather, the attitude that I would recommend you adopt is: you want to get to know people, get to know your clients and potential clients, and ask them what is going on in their business. You want to start a business conversation. You want to find out, "Where are they making their money? What do they like about their business? Do they have any new products coming out?"

Get executives to talk about their business and then along the way what you want to probe for is what we in sales call "pain". You want to probe for business issues that they're facing. Problems that they need to overcome, editors that are nipping at their heels. The old saying is "what keeps them up at night." You're not pushing anything. You're asking questions. You want to draw out of them what their business pain is. Find out what their business problems are and then all you need to do is listen for an opportunity to say, "I can help you with that. And that's how you open a file."

You really have to remember that legal services are not sold. Nobody is every really able to sell legal services. Legal services are bought. They are bought by business people and individuals who have some kind of need or problem that they needed to have fixed, and they found a lawyer to do that for them.

What you want to do is put yourself in a position where you're constantly inquiring and you're looking for that person who has a need.  The only way that you can find out about that need is to ask questions. It may turn out they have no needs. In any event you've accomplished something by developing a relationship or deepening a relationship; and at the very best, you found out that they really have something that's troubling them and you can help them. I think that's the highest calling of this profession.

Copyright 2004-2009 Larry Bodine

About The Author

Larry Bodine is a Business Development Advisor based in Glen Ellyn, IL.  He has helped law firms generate millions in new revenue by devising strategies, conducting business development retreats and individually coaching attorneys. He can be reached at 630.942.0977.

The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the opinion of ILW.COM.