Many refer to the 2008 economic meltdown as the “Great Reset.” For law firm business development, it’s healthy to embrace that as a literal expression. The law business was reset from a seller’s market, characterized by demand exceeding supply, to a buyer’s market, where the reverse is true.
One important consequence of that shift is that many long-held beliefs about business development are no longer true. Lawyers now must compete under the conditions and marketplace rules that their clients have faced forever.
Business Development Truth Telling
Here are a baker’s dozen seller’s myths to relegate to the trash bin in favor of market truths that will be with you for the balance of your career:
1. We’re better! There is no “better,” only “different”. A percentage of people will consider your differentness to be better, but there’s no absolute “better.”
2. Facts are important. Only in court. In the marketplace, perception is reality. If I perceive your form of differentness to be better, that’s reality for me.
3. My knowledge and experience are important. Only to the extent it gets you considered. Once you’re in competition with other similarly qualified lawyers, its value ends. What your applied knowledge and experience does for me is important.
4. “I can help anyone.” Lawyers say this as a way of pushing back at the idea of profiling and targeting a specific market segment. Yes, you can help anyone, but unless they’ve somehow found you, decided to speak with you, and have already decided to hire you, it’s meaningless. You can accept “anyone” as a client, but you can’t pursue “anyone.” You must define and profile one specific group to pursue.
5. To cross-sell, I must have a thorough knowledge of my colleagues’ services. No. That’s impossible if you have a lot of diverse practices in your firm. Really, all you have to know is your colleagues’ most important door-openers — that is, the business problems that drive demand for their services. “If someone has this problem, they need (someone like) me.” If they don’t have that problem, they don’t need your colleague, and won’t appreciate your attempt to pitch him or her.
6. Speaking engagements produce business. Only by luck. However, “prove the need” speeches often produce qualified leads. “Prove the need” refers to demonstrating the negative consequences and impact of the problem you solve. This will create a greater level of awareness and discomfort within prospective buyers. If your remarks cause someone to conclude they no longer have the luxury of delay, they’re likely to discuss the problem with you.
7. The goal of selling is to get to “yes.” Not if you have any integrity. Yes and no are both possible good decisions for the prospect. How can it be legitimate to entertain only one of them? The goal of selling is to get a decision. You want either a yes or no so that you can get this prospect out of your pipeline, put an end to the sales cost associated with them, and direct your limited time to the next opportunity. The longer someone languishes in your pipeline, the more it costs you.
8. My most valuable asset is my client’s willingness to trust me with important legal matters. Your most valuable asset is your client’s willingness to discuss the future of his or her business, and let you participate in the ongoing definition of what’s important. That’s how you remain part of the client’s future instead of being trapped in the client’s past — with the declining pricing power. (All products and services mature and decline in perceived importance and value.)
9. A close relationship with a general counsel is the Holy Grail of the law business. Legal work dispensed by the law department is already mature and represents the past, not the future. Innovation occurs on the front lines of the business. You need to cultivate the line-of-business managers.
10. My experience and expertise are the top considerations in the decision to hire me. Collectively, experience and expertise, perceived knowledge of the client’s business, and the demonstrated ability to apply both to valuable effect is the top criteria for getting chosen among those found.
11. My competitor, XYZ firm, “owns” that client. Only in your mind. Companies are unbundling their legal spend, allocating work to align it with difficulty and cost. To the degree that any incumbent firm “owns” any part of that, it owns the past. Why compete for the past? They do have the advantage of switching costs, which inhibits moving the work to a different firm. The solution to incumbency is to limit the competing firm to the past by staking claim to the emerging issues. The future begins now and is continually redefined by the business conversation (see No. 8).
12. We should explain our credentials thoroughly. Please don’t. Nobody wants to hear them. Instead, demonstrate that you understand my industry, my business, my department and my success criteria. Show me what it’s like to have you as my lawyer and live with me through the resolution of important issues. Bring me fresh thinking that causes me to attribute important qualities to you.
13. It’s critical to maintain relationships with key prospects and contacts. It’s critical to earn and sustain virtual “idea relationships” with an entire industry or sector. This is accomplished through a sustained (electronic) business conversation that leads to professional intimacy.