As featured in “Forbes” on November 30, 2020. For the last two centuries, for most young lawyers, legal training in the United States has meant studying at law school and taking courses in civil procedure and constitutional law. What it hasn’t provided, until very recently, are lessons in how to operate a business, how to innovate or how to think about delivering legal services in unique ways.
Thankfully, there are a handful of law schools that are changing things, including those at the University of Pennsylvania, Vanderbilt University, Harvard University and Indiana University. These schools have expanded their curriculum to help teach students how to think more broadly about how to operate in a changing world of innovation. At other schools, knowledgeable adjunct professors bring their real-world experience and judgment to the fore. Legal education is changing, but it is taking some time.
There is, however, one area of training where I find most lawyers are woefully behind: the area of client care and business development. Once law firm-bound lawyers graduate and pass the bar, they will be expected to bill a number of hours and take instruction from partners on how to do a merger and acquisition (M&A) deal or to litigate a matter, but few will be trained either directly or by role modeling in how to build a book of business.
As a consultant, I see a generation of talented and brilliant lawyers who, after working as associates for seven or eight years, make partner and have no idea how to build a practice. They’ve spent the last seven or eight years with their nose to the grindstone, billing hours and increasing short-term revenue for the firm. They’ve not learned how to retain the contacts they made in law school, or the skill set they will need one day to grow their own practice.
With the legal profession becoming even more competitive, lacking this ability becomes a deficit not only for the lawyer but also for their firm. Business development ability is a necessity, not a nice-to-have.
To train your young professionals on these needed skills, here are a few techniques:
When entering a firm, lawyers and other professionals should be taught the basics of client care. While a firm may not call it client development or business development training, whatever it is called, training should involve imparting the key skills of a well-rounded professional.
Knowing how to be empathetic, to listen and to understand how a client thinks are basics of good lawyering. The ability to lead teams and to innovate are also essential keys to successful rainmaking and adapting to a new and ever-changing legal environment. Young lawyers should be encouraged to network with one another and their peers at their firm’s clients. To wait until a lawyer becomes a partner means that the associate enters partnership without the skills to develop business or drive innovation.
Run Several Sessions
The one-and-done approach for training does not work. There are still firms that limit their business development training for associates to an annual talk from the marketing department or from one or two partners, but this is an antiquated approach. Instead, a firm needs a curriculum. The way to design it is not difficult. By understanding the skill set you think you need in a well-rounded partner and aiming to provide it, a firm can design an impactful program.
Learning how to develop a business cannot be taught in the same way one would cram for a test. No one can drink from the water hose, so teaching a variety of classes, workshops and lectures is a good approach. Shake it up and offer various types of programming in order to keep it interesting. And by spacing the programming, you give lawyers a chance to learn in pieces, applying what they learn to the real world, and then coming back together where the lessons are reinforced. Combining a mix of exercises (to increase the actual learning that takes place) with examples from the firm’s rainmakers and other real-world input can engage professionals and ensure that the program content is relevant.
Use Role Models
Some of the best training sessions for lawyers involve panels of rainmakers, each of whom will have their own stories. In advance of this type of session, I generally meet with a small number of the firm’s rainmakers, representing various levels of seniority and practice areas. Together we create an interactive moderated panel to be presented before a group of lawyers.
The discussion highlights how each rainmaker develops clients and what steps they advise for other lawyers in their own business development journeys. By using the format to tell stories and give real-life anecdotes of what has worked and what hasn’t, the audience members are likely to remain engaged.
These sessions provide role modeling and precedent, which I find are two of the most effective ways of educating lawyers. While the lawyers in the audience (of any age range) may not find each panelist’s style or tactics right for them, it is the variety of approaches that allows them to find their own style.
Creating programs that incorporated elements of design thinking can be very helpful. Breaking up a large group into smaller workshops where professionals can create a persona and solve a problem together can be a great way to get lawyers involved in both innovating and learning new skills.
Through this method, professionals apply what they learn and understand how they can use the thinking in their own practices. I’ve found this program works well for various levels of associates, for relatively new partners and at firm retreats.
For more senior partners or professionals with untapped potential, a one-on-one approach may be best. Coaching, when done right, can be highly customized, focusing on understanding the individual’s objectives and developing concrete goals.
There are many ways to create a culture of business development and client care, but the most important thing is to have a plan and then to execute it.