ABA Law Practice Management
By Mark Powers
Self-improvement is no easy task. As any psychologist will tell you, behavior modification in the higher species normally involves positive reinforcement, or negative reinforcement, or negative reinforcement in the form of a few memorable jolts of electricity. Maybe our New Year’s resolutions would have more staying power if we carried 12-volt batteries around with us, and gave ourselves a healthy shock each time we strayed from the path.
How many people do you know who achieve immediate success when they vow to themselves once to, say, quit smoking, lose twelve pounds, start exercising, spend more time away from the office or get to bed earlier?
We have good reason not to change. Change itself is discomfiting. And we like our gratification in the near-term: the impact on the taste sensors of that piece of chocolate cake has much more going for it in the way of ultimate reality than a hazy image of ourselves at some future date in a twelve-pounds-lighter body.
Our American tradition of rugged individualism gets in the way, too. We think we have to do it all by ourselves. If only we could pump up our will-power just a little more.
In many parts of the world they realize that long-term, fundamental behavior change is difficult, and nearly always requires ongoing contact with a teacher, coach or guru; Americans think it’s supposed to be a solo act.
But, if you remember back, even The Lone Ranger wasn’t really alone.
Change is the Order of the Day for Attorneys
Without reciting once again the litany of contributing factors, suffice it to say that competition is up, and clients are harder to come by (and more demanding when they do come by). There are more of us and fewer of them; we’re going to have to work harder to get them, and work harder to keep them, too.
The times require us to get out from behind our desks, enter the fray, and learn how to market ourselves and our services.
This isn’t a thought that fills attorneys with joy. Most attorneys have a longstanding, push/pull relationship with marketing. We’re attracted by its promise and potential, but repelled by its snake-oil aspect, its amorphous boundaries and definitions, its mystical spin on cause and effect. To many, marketing is an unfamiliar, right brain process best left to the firm’s rainmakers, with an occasional assist from an advertising agency or independent consultant.
Because lawyers think of marketing as terra incognita, and often little more than glad-handing, they tend to think they’re not cut out for it, and that consequently it’s a waste of their time. Part of the reason for this mentality is the technician mind-set of most attorneys: they’re good at the technical aspects of practicing law, not at the ill-defined, unquantifiable hocus-pocus they associate with marketing. They fail to recognize that being successful today means seeing yourself as an entrepreneur as well as a technician, and seeing your practice as a client-centered enterprise, a service. So they hand off the responsibility for marketing to others, or perhaps try hiring an outside firm. Or they amass a collection of how-to books, articles, and workbooks from seminars; but when they try to apply what they’ve learned, by themselves, amidst the day-to-day demands of their practice, it doesn’t work. This further confirms their impression that marketing is bad news and should be avoided by honorable people.
The Solution: Coaching
Coaching teaches attorneys the skills and disciplines necessary to grow their practices. Our coaching programs train attorneys in real-world business management techniques, such as client development, in a systematic, organized framework. Because client development, or referral-based marketing, is the classic approach to law-firm marketing, lawyers are comfortable with it.
Best of all, coaching programs don’t require you to do it alone. With this approach, lawyers are assigned a professional coach to train, mentor, encourage and guide them as they develop new habits. The coaching goes on for a full year or longer, so it’s no wonder the participating lawyers have been able to make substantive, deeply rooted changes in themselves and in their practices.
The experience of attorneys in coaching programs shows that rainmakers can be made. It’s not a talent you have to be born with. If you start with an attorney committed to success, it’s the technique of using a professional coach that makes this program work. After all, everyone has had the experience of reading a book or attending a seminar and being all fired up, only to have the intensity of the experience fade and the new intentions gradually eroded by the relentless obligations of everyday life. With a coach, however, there’s no fade, no erosion. So there’s a much greater likelihood that your focus on practice development remains clear and consistent. Not only do the coaches provide instruction and guidance, but they also create an environment for action. It’s like golf, or any other sport. You can read books, watch videos or attend seminars, but until you pick up a club and take a swing at a ballpreferably with an expert at your sideyou’ll never learn how to play.
Referral-based marketing is based on relationships, so the foundation is rapport, trust and confidence. This approach results in better leads, which result in better clients clients who are more loyal and less price-sensitive.
Successful client development is a lot like fishing. Amateur fishermen tend to fish where others are fishing. Professional fishermen have learned to understand how fish behave, and, with that knowledge, they can fish where the fish are. Understanding where to fish is an essential step in a referral-based marketing program. Attorneys learn to identify the people in their communities who have influence and could refer potential clients to the firm. These could be family members, peers, colleagues, bankers, stockbrokers and accountants. But knowing who these people are is only part of the equation. A coach also helps you to define what they respond to, what attracts them. It’s part of the complete communications arsenal, that is: whom to reach, what to communicate, when and how to communicate it, and how to know if you’ve communicated effectively.
The intent of a coaching program is to teach attorneys how to become, and remain, successful rainmakers. Any attorney with the desire can master the techniques, the skills and the disciplines required for rainmaking. The process entails conducting a needs analysis, setting objectives and regular reporting. The program is quite comprehensive and involves substantial preparation. Moreover, coaching demands that attorneys stretch to become adept at the skills necessary for effective client development. This is sometimes taxing, but the payoff is that you can create a stable and satisfying practice. In the end, you’ll find that you’re working less in your practice and more on your practice, achieving a more beneficial balance between the technician and the entrepreneur. This, as our participating attorneys have found, is much more fun and rewarding.
Through personalized coaching in proven client development techniques, lawyers are developing the clientele they need to grow in today’s competitive and demanding environment. What’s more, they’ve discovered a renewed interest in, and love for, the practice of law. Mark Powers is the President of Atticus®, the nation’s leading practice management education and training organization for attorneys. Shawn McNalis is Atticus®’ head coach and curriculum director.