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Winning work in today’s legal market is not easy: low levels of corporate activity and investment mean that demand is subdued; too many lawyers chasing too little work means that competition is fierce; and, to cap it all, clients have become much more discerning buyers of legal services and are shopping around to find the best value or, in many cases, just the cheapest price.
In the face of this increased competition, many firms have rightly identified the need to improve the business development (BD) skills of their lawyers, by which I mean their ability to manage and grow the work that they get from their existing clients, as well as to win new ones. To do so, firms generally bring in external BD trainers or get the in-house BD team to run such sessions. In my experience, such ‘sheep dip’ training usually fails to bring about the long-term behaviour change required from the lawyer to make him/her a more effective winner of new business. And why is this?
Firstly, ‘busy’ lawyers will always prioritise the files on their desks over ‘soft skills’ training. So, drop-out rates for BD courses are often high and, even if you manage to get the lawyers to attend, their attention spans are such that they often slope off at coffee or lunch to attend to matters back at their desks. Off-sites can help but a good proportion of attendees will always have one eye on their smartphones monitoring their emails or will be popping out of sessions to take or make calls.
Secondly, and probably most importantly, most lawyers will be listening to the trainer and thinking to themselves, “My practice is different – winning new business in my world doesn’t work like this” and, as a consequence of them perceiving that the training is too generic and not relevant to them, they dial out of the session.
Thirdly, if the lawyer does engage with the trainer and the other course participants, few are willing to share their own experiences and war stories for fear of showing weakness. This ‘embarrassment’ factor increases amongst the more senior partners, especially when they are attending sessions with their junior colleagues.
Fourthly, acquiring BD skills is often a matter of trial and error. So, successfully building a lawyer’s BD skills requires a constant cycle of being taught a skill, applying that skill in a real-life situation, examining and learning from one’s mistakes and trying it again. Traditional training tends to provide a one-off ‘shot’ of classroom learning with none of the ongoing support.
Finally, with most BD training there tends to be no monitoring of results. The objective is to get the participants through the training, tick the box, and then leave them to get on with it. Calculating the return on investment (ROI) of the training then becomes impossible with few firms able to justify the large sums spent on their BD training programmes other than to say, “We know we need to be doing it.”
So, what is the solution?
Other than for your junior associates, who in my experience do benefit from gaining a grasp of the basic principles of BD in the classroom, I would advocate using one-to-one coaching if your firm is serious about building the BD skills of its senior lawyers.
Coaching is more effective than training because it is highly tailored to an individual’s needs (with the coach working one-to-one with the coachee), is based around continuous learning, is carried out in a ‘non-threatening’ environment and involves the individual developing his/her owns solutions to problems, meaning a higher chance of these being actioned. The coach’s role is to support the coachee through positive encouragement, providing a structured approach to identifying solutions, inputting business development knowledge through directive coaching and acting as their conscience to ensure that agreed actions are prioritised and implemented. Monitoring the volume of new business being generated as a consequence of the coaching allows ROI to be calculated which, in my experience, often runs to thousands of percent.
So, instead of packing your lawyers off in large numbers to attend a weekend at a prestigious business school doing a BD ‘bootcamp’ at massive expense to your firm, set up some one-to-one coaching and watch the new business fly through the firm’s door.
Kevin Wheeler is a business consultant and coach with more than 20 years’ experience working in legal marketing and business development. He is a certified business coach with the WABC and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
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Kevin Wheeler has been advising professional services firms on all aspects of marketing and business development for more than 30 years. As a consultant he helps firms to manage and grow their key clients as well as to win new ones. As a Meyler Campbell qualified coach he works with partners and those approaching partnership to improve their BD skills.
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