Coaching partners to improve their business development skills

 By Kevin Wheeler

When today’s lawyers entered the legal profession, especially the older generation, most probably envisaged that they would spend their days advising clients on important business or personal matters, achieving a high degree of respect that comes from a career in the professions, and earning a good living; few, I suspect, recognised that they would have to become skilled at business development. However, in today’s highly competitive legal markets, developing business development skills – the ability to manage and grow existing clients, as well as bring in new ones – is essential if lawyers want to be successful. In fact, today’s lawyers will never make partner in their firm unless they are good at business development, regardless of how technically brilliant they are as a lawyer.

In the past, when the legal market was booming, work came flooding into the firm or was brought in by a few “rainmakers”. Clients, who had instructed the firm for years, were handed down from the senior partners to their junior colleagues as the former approached retirement. Most lawyers in the firm never had to worry about where the next instruction was coming from, only how to get all the work done given the constraints of a 24-hour day.

Today, and for the foreseeable future, the legal market has changed out of all recognition. With most of the western world in recession or exhibiting low economic growth, and companies lacking the confidence to invest, the level of corporate activity, especially M&A deals, is much lower than before the credit crunch. As a consequence, there is insufficient work to keep all the corporate lawyers occupied. On top of this, clients now have considerable buying power and are demanding better service at lower cost from their law firms. As a result, loyalty has gone out of the window as general counsel shop around to get the best deal for their companies.

The pressure on partners to keep the flow of work coming into their firms has never been greater, and many are struggling. Those that cannot deliver are being shown the door or de-equitised in a way that was unheard of just ten years ago. Such actions strike at the heart of the collegiate partnership model with the values of mutual respect, support, professionalism and trust being replaced by fear, loathing and mistrust. Partner appraisals, something that most paid lip service to in the past, have become the assizes at which managing partners and departmental heads read underperforming partners their last rites or set improvement targets which must be met in order to avoid forced exit from the firm or the humiliation of de-equitisation.

Most of these partners are offered little help in order to improve their business development skills to the level required to bring in work to meet these targets. Training, which has been cut to the bone in most firms, is either not available or not appropriate. What these vulnerable individuals do not need is the public embarrassment of sitting in a classroom undergoing “sheep dip” business development training, especially with their more junior colleagues. But there is an answer, and that is business development coaching, a relatively new activity in the legal sector.

The aim of any business coaching is to make the individual more effective in their business role through facilitated learning which brings about positive change and action. Business development coaching focuses on a partner’s responsibilities with regard to business development. It is more effective than training because it is highly tailored to an individual’s needs – the coach works one-to-one with the partner – is based around continuous learning, is carried out in a “non-threatening” environment, and involves the partner developing his/her owns solutions to problems, meaning a higher chance of them actioning these. The coach’s role is to support the partner through positive encouragement, providing a structured approach to identifying solutions, inputting business development knowledge through directive coaching, and acting as the partner’s conscience to ensure that agreed actions are prioritised and implemented.

At its best, the coach breaks the “business development challenge” down into small manageable chunks, focusing on a few tasks but ensuring that the partner carries these out, learns from his/her mistakes, and develops confidence for the future. As an example, I recently worked with a senior partner from a major firm. Despite having had a successful career to date, he lacked confidence in his own ability to manage and execute basic business development tasks; he was more confident hiding behind the work on his desk rather than going out to win new business. His objective (set by the firm) was to bring in more work and preferably from existing clients of the firm not being serviced by his department.

I began by getting him to identify a small list of the firm’s clients that he would like to act for. He then selected one to work on. We identified the key decision-makers at the client, got his colleagues to make introductions, researched the issues affecting the client, worked on his “proposition” for displacing the incumbent lawyers, set up a meeting, and worked towards getting the first instruction through follow-up meetings over the next few months. We then scaled up this activity across further clients. A far different approach to the firm wide, top-down business development programmes that this partner had previously failed to buy into.

So, if your firm has underperforming partners, before you decide to show them the door, think about transforming their performance by offering them business development coaching. But, when picking coaches to work with make sure that these are properly qualified, have experience of working with law firm partners, and know their law firm business development.

Filed Under: Practice of Law

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