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The Nuggets Blog: Bite-Size Insight and Intelligence for Law Firm Leaders.

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Rainmakers and the Curse of the Fearful Perfectionist

Monday, 26 October 2020

Welcome to Nuggets, and thank you for joining me. I’ve spent a professional lifetime in the law, as senior partner of the firm I founded, and for the last ten years helping lawyers achieve their ambitions.

When I was in practice, other lawyers were the competition. I had friends in other firms, and good relationships with most of my opposite numbers. But still, when other people are competitors, you tend not to see, or give credit for all their qualities. Since I began consulting, my admiration for my fellow lawyers has massively increased. Time and again, I’m struck by how committed they are to their clients, to excelling technically, behaving decently, and being true to their word. I don’t think I’m romanticising. We’ve all come across examples of selfishness, arrogance, venality and cluelessness. To be human is to be imperfect, but in my experience of over 40 years, these examples are outliers.

In this blog, I hope to offer advice which is easy to digest and helps you clear a path through the undergrowth, as you strive to build successful businesses and live fulfilling lives. Where to begin? There has been so much written about leadership recently, I suspect many leaders feel counselled out. The months since March have been brutal. But we have survived, and though few firms are where they want to be, for most, things could be a lot worse.

Covid-19 has seen some practice areas flourish, but for the majority, prospering in the current grisly circumstances means carving out a larger slice of a smaller pie. So that is where I’ve chosen to start.

We can’t go on together, with suspicious minds.

Elvis Presley

You may think that being clever, highly qualified, and well rewarded for doing interesting work would lead to lawyers having a breezy, optimistic view of life. Can they not be easily  spotted as they stroll down the street, conspicuous by their dazzling smiles and cheery song? Alas, no. There are eminent exceptions, but as a breed, we tend to be reserved, suspicious, analytical to a fault, risk-averse and terrified of personal failure. These are qualities which make great advisers, but few appear in the bios of successful entrepreneurs. They hold us back, short-change our potential and actively prevent us from growing our business. They are the reason so much sales and marketing training for lawyers is ineffective, because it  focuses on alleged technique, and neglects mentality.

Failure, what Failure?

“I make mistakes like the next man. In fact, being – forgive me – rather cleverer than most men, my mistakes tend to be correspondingly huger.” So said Professor Albus Dumbledore in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. This is fine for an eminent wizard, for lawyers, not so much. There is a direct link between our fear of failure and our general ineptitude at selling ourselves. The work is arduous. There are difficult problems to solve, deadlines to meet, expectations to manage. But at least we feel most of the time that we know what  we’re doing, and are operating on familiar terrain. Clients respect our expertise, and we have a degree of control over events.

Pitching removes that control. Fickle creatures that they are, clients can move potential suppliers up or down their agenda as they see fit, like or dislike them at their whim, accept or reject their proposals for good, bad or no reason. However charismatic and determined a rainmaker one may be, getting a bloody nose pretty regularly is inevitable. This is not good news for the risk-averse perfectionist. How best to deal with it?

Readers of a certain age will remember the Colgate toothpaste ad which promised lucky brushers a “ring of confidence”, the halo that beats halitosis. Confidence is the root of the issue we’re discussing.. We each have a personal responsibility for our view of ourselves, but the environment in which we operate has a huge impact, and this is down to leadership. Every law firm leader craves a battalion of successful rainmakers, but often there is a chasm between ambition and behaviour.

Who do you love?

Firms are fond of proclaiming that they value all the talents, and there are many different ways to make a contribution. But typically, they make clear in the way they reward and confer status that the only talent that counts is racking up billable hours. In such conditions, the rational decision is to spend as little time as possible on any activity which does not end in an invoice. At this of all times, cash is king. There has never been a greater imperative to run a tight ship, but it can’t be so tight that it chokes the crew.

COVID-19 has made rainmaking a whole lot harder. In the first phase of the pandemic, anything which smacked of sales looked tasteless. Pitching via Zoom is a poor substitute for being in the room. Markets have been distorted. In some practice areas, the challenge is not to win more work, but finding the time and resources to do it all. Others languish, making the task of winning work even more daunting. It’s no use pretending these are not big obstacles, but they are not insurmountable. They are amenable to astute strategy and a culture (as Peter Drucker said famously, culture eats strategy for breakfast) which is clear-eyed, supportive and brave.

What are the elements of that culture? I think they’re embodied in these principles and practices:

  • Everyone has an obligation to put their heads above the parapet and be involved in winning work, not just doing it. “No time”, “No need”, or “I’m no good at this”, are unacceptable excuses.
  • People who make an exceptional contribution to winning work will receive commensurate recognition and reward.
  • “Not chargeable” should never be confused with “not valuable”. Billing is not the be-all and end-all. Really. Building relationships, keeping them in good repair and creating new opportunities takes time, much of which will not be chargeable. The firm will grant that time, and sufficient resources, while expecting them to be thoughtfully spent.
  • Winning work is a skill of at least equal worth and difficulty to doing it. It can’t be acquired by osmosis. The firm will invest ineffective training and personal development to create confident, knowledgeable rainmakers, in which all are expected to participate.
  • Business development professionals are as skilled in their specialism as lawyers, as vital to the firm’s success, and deserve equal respect. Their job is to give skilled support, not relieve the lawyers of their responsibilities.
  • As confidence and skill can only be built by practice, team leaders will ensure that everyone in their charge has the opportunity to be involved in business development efforts, and be given appropriate responsibility as their skills grow.
  • The firm’s most successful business developers may not be one-eyed megalomaniacs, as is often the case, focused on their own glory, but have an obligation to mentor colleagues, train and involve junior people, recognising that a rising tide lifts all boats. The firm will have structures and arrangements in place to ensure this happens. Commitment to mentoring will be a factor in appraisal.
  • Not winning a piece of work despite one’s best efforts attracts no stigma. Not all sales and marketing efforts will be successful. Where they do not bring a win, they will be learned from and built on to make the firm more compelling next time.
  • On the other hand, not trying will be glowered upon.
  • Unless you are very lucky, from spotting the target to hitting it will take at least twice as long as you expect. The firm will understand this, and not pile on unreasonable pressure. It will guide and get behind your efforts.
  • It is inevitable that much activity will be outside normal working hours (whatever they are now), and while colleagues are expected to take this on the chin, red eyes are neither a good look, nor a sign of virtue. The firm will support with more than just lip service, the aspiration to have the best work-life balance possible.

Teams Achieve More Than Lone Strikers

Good leaders can create the culture in which confidence thrives, but ultimately, building it is our personal responsibility. “Wanting to be someone else is a waste of the person you are,” said Marilyn Monroe, and while she might not be the best role model for living a great life, she had a point.

Begin by reminding yourself that you are doing something of real value. People need your skills. You have the ability to make their lives better and more successful. Not everyone can say this.

Do not make the mistake of believing that there is a particular personality type for rainmaking. Successful business developers come in all shapes and sizes. Be thoughtful about playing to your strengths and addressing weaknesses.

Do not even think about trying to do this on your own. Business development is a team sport. Volunteer to be involved. Just as in football, players who are great at providing assists are prized almost as much as strikers. Supporting a team effort successfully is one of the best confidence boosters there is. It provides the chance to observe and learn, and the colleagues you help will want to help you in return. Seek out people who are willing to mentor you and share their wisdom. Not all will (see above, under “one-eyed megalomaniacs”), but they will be there.

But what of strategy?

"I have a plan, Baldrick: a plan so cunning it could have been devised by a fox who used to be a Professor of Cunning at Oxford University". Thus spake Lord Edmund Blackadder. Much good his plans did him. But in general, success follows actions based on thoughtful choices. The market looks huge and amorphous. Where do we play? How do we win? I will address these questions next time.

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I was the founder and senior partner of a multi-award winning law firm that became a UK leader in its sectors. Today, I work as a consultant and non-exec with leading law firms throughout the UK and in Ireland. You can read testimonials here:

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