Eighty Percent of Your Firm's Lawyers Just Don't Want to Learn BD Skills

by JD Supra Perspectives

That’s a pretty bold claim, isn’t it? I realize that it’ll ruffle some feathers, maybe even make me a few enemies, so I don’t make it lightly.

In the almost three decades that I’ve been the sales trainer and coach for lawyers, my client firms and I observed with great frustration that 80% of the lawyers in whom those firms invested serious money to have me train and coach them did little or nothing, constructively abandoning the firms’ investments.

You might say, “Mike, what if the problem is you? What if those lawyers just didn’t like your style, or you personally?”

I’m sure that’s true of some, maybe even a lot, but as you’ll see, the percentage of waste is consistent among hundreds of firms that I didn’t work with.

What was easy for a long time is now hard

Law firms know that their growth depends completely on their lawyers’ ability to generate additional clients and work. Fortunately, for 20 of the past 30 years, up until 2008, that didn’t require much in the way of formal skill or discipline. Demand was robust, and any lawyer who was likable and expended a reasonable amount of effort was generally successful.

Throughout those 30 years, law firms tried to help their lawyers acquire the skills to generate profitable business predictably and reliably. They retained trainers and coaches, beefed up internal biz dev staff, spent money on their online presence, etc.

I say “tried” because, according to (admittedly unscientific) surveys that I conducted among hundreds of firms, they perceive that the other 80% was wasted on the wrong lawyers, whose avoidance behaviors suggest only one conclusion: They don’t want to learn these critical skills. 

The data

I interviewed 100 law firm CMOs, BDOs, practice group leaders, and administrators, and the Association of Legal Administrators polled their membership in preparation for a presentation I made at one of their management meetings. We asked two questions:

  1. How do you choose which lawyers will receive BD training and coaching?
  2. What percentage of those dollars do you think are wasted by lawyers who opt out of the training after it’s purchased for them?

Responses showed surprising consistency across the spectrum of firms, irrespective of size, specialty, geography, the nature and provider of the training/coaching scheme, or any other factor. 

As the table shows, a quarter of respondents said they didn’t know, and didn’t even feel comfortable making a guess. Setting aside the outliers (“all of it wasted,” “none of it wasted”), the rest were pretty evenly distributed in three bands of perceived waste: 20%-35%; 40%-65%; 70%-90%.

The trainee selection method didn’t make much difference. Whether the firms provided training primarily to associates, provided it for everyone, provided it to lawyers who showed interest or requested it, or any other criteria (“showed potential”; “previous results”; “seniority”; “BD personality”; “partner recommendation”), they reported a high abandonment rate. 

Ironically, the highest average failure rate was among lawyers who showed interest or requested training/coaching. 


So, why do such a high percentage of lawyers waste the firm’s money -- and the opportunity to develop skills that are inarguably critical for success in the fiercely competitive market that they’ll face for the rest of their careers -- even those who specifically requested it?

...acquiring real skill requires repetition, practice, and coaching.

False demand. When firms announce the availability of biz dev training and coaching, lawyers are savvy enough to know that even if they don’t really want it, it doesn’t look good if they appear not to want it, so they sign up.

Conscription. Many firms present training/coaching as a fait accompli, i.e., they choose certain lawyers whom they believe need the help, or “show promise,” or some other driver. Since the lawyers didn’t request the training, they feel justified in not making time for a legitimate effort.

“Not what I thought I signed up for.” Lawyers have lots of formal education, the result of which is what I call a “curriculum orientation,” i.e., they’re in the habit of checking off courses as completed, never to be revisited. However, acquiring real skill requires repetition, practice, and coaching. When those lawyers find out that it takes serious time commitment and sustained effort, they lose interest or come up with a rationale to justify abandoning it.

No perceived need

Whenever we’re presented with a new idea or skill, we progress through four predictable stages of Competence.

We all begin at the first stage, Unconscious Incompetence, which means we don’t know what we don’t know. One of the traits of this stage is unjustified overconfidence in our innate ability to perform, based on ignorance of what it actually takes to perform. Here’s a frivolous example.

Let's say we're talking about golf. Since I've never played, I'm definitely at unconscious incompetence. Comparing golf to other sports I've played, in my ignorance I may conclude, "How tough can it be? The ball isn't moving; it sits there and waits for you to hit it. There's no shot clock, so you can take as long as you want. There's no defender, and everybody has to be real quiet so as not to distract you. How tough can it be?"

With that mindset, how likely am I take golf lessons and coaching, even if someone else paid for them? I don't perceive a deficiency. Therefore, no need.

Any golfers reading this are chuckling at my naivete, and can't wait for me to give it a try so they can have a laugh as I disabuse myself of this foolish notion. So, I go out on the course and try to play, with predictable difficulty. Only after I've struggled can I appreciate that there's a lot more to being able to play golf than I was aware of.

Conscious Incompetence

I've just progressed from Unconscious Incompetence to Conscious Incompetence; I now know what I don't know. One thing I know for sure is that if I want to be good at it, I definitely will need some help learning the game. Only now do I experience any desire or need for training or coaching.

There's always more to any skill than meets the eye. Few lawyers have much experience at all with real marketing or selling, much less doing either in a competitive environment. As a result, most believe that what they've seen, or read, or heard about from more senior lawyers, is the totality of it. Others believe that it's innate, the province of "naturals." That belief sometimes takes the form of, "You either have it or you don't. It can't be learned."

Obviously, holding either view won't motivate you to seek training, or make use of it if it's provided to you. 

Worse, there's a whole generation of lawyers who made lots of rain for a long time without ever learning how to do it. Giving proper respect to the time and effort they expended, their results were more the product of the sustained demand for legal service that existed for more than 20 years until around 2009. If everybody's buying, and they're not overly concerned about price, and your firm's brand is solid, and your economic- or social circumstances give you access to buyers, how much skill do you really need?

Now for the heresy

What if the lawyers who waste the training and coaching simply don’t want to do business development -- at all? What if you gave them all the opportunity to opt in or out of biz dev, without consequence or negative judgment? How many would breathe a sigh of relief and opt out? How many would plow ahead and find a way?

With the high degree of reported waste, and the consistency of the percentage-of-waste data across so many diverse firms, it seems reasonable to conclude that four out of five lawyers just don’t want to do it. 

If I don’t want to do something, I surely won’t spend time and effort learning how to do it. However, since I haven’t been given the blessing to opt out, I can’t simply announce that I don’t want to do BD; that’s not going to go over well with the firm’s leadership.

So, I’ll sit through workshops at retreats, a few lunch-and-learn sessions in the firm, maybe even a few group training sessions. But when it comes to putting in serious, consistent effort, committing to and achieving weekly goals, being prepared for coaching sessions, and allocating time during the business day, I’ll opt out, either explicitly or, more likely, stealthily. 

How to eliminate the training/coaching budget waste

As the data show, irrespective of firm characteristics, trainee selection scheme, or training/coaching provider, efforts to induce compliance with training and coaching programs have demonstrably failed. Persisting in coercion or inducement brings to mind Einstein’s comment about the insanity of continuing a failed approach and expecting different results.

It’s time to abandon the failed force-them-to-comply philosophy in favor of identifying which of your firm’s lawyers want to develop marketing and sales skills, and invest only in those.

How do you do that?

The only credible approach is to give everyone an equal opportunity to learn, then measure who demonstrates by their behavior that they’re serious about learning. 

You could assemble a library of diverse articles, white papers, eBooks, etc., on a wide array of marketing and sales topics, and make them available to everyone in your firm. You’d need a mechanism to measure who did what -- and didn’t, but there are ways to do that.

Some will read everything that you make available, and do it consistently, week after week. I’m betting that half your lawyers won’t even take a single look at it, not even mildly curious. Others will try to game the system, visiting occasionally to leave their fingerprints. Some will behave as they do with exercise, i.e., initially gung-ho, but tailing off after a short time. Still others will consume the materials in episodic surges, on again, off again.

For some though, it will be a continuum. At some point, you’ll decide that they’ve been at it long long enough to convince you that they’re serious. Encouraged by their apparent consistency and commitment, you make a modest training investment and measure their participation in that.

At some point, you’ll be confident that you’ve observed enough learning behavior, over a sufficient time span, to have satisfied your progressive criteria, and identified themselves as deserving of serious coaching resources.


[Mike O’Horo, known by thousands of lawyers as The Coach, is a serial innovator in the law firm business development world. His latest innovation is Dezurve, which has cracked the code on identifying investment-worthy lawyers and eliminating training budget waste.]

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