Rhea’s solo immigration law practice had been very successful for a while. When business dropped off during the recession, she wasn’t all that surprised. However, as she saw the practices of colleagues begin to pick up, she became concerned. Why was the work she’d been getting before no longer coming to her?
After seeing me speak at a conference for solo and small firm attorneys, she called me to discuss how I might help her revive her practice. During our initial phone consultation we discussed the history of her practice. It became clear that she’d never really considered her ideal practice or how to market it. Like many solo attorneys, her practice had become defined reactively by the kinds of clients who had come to her. Not all of them were able to pay her fees. Many were individuals seeking assistance rather than employers. She realized the need to take a step back and proactively brand and market her practice, and we agreed to work together.
Over the course of the last 14 years, I’ve coached many solo and small firm attorneys to create and implement business development plans for themselves and their firms. They’ve practiced in places as far-flung as Maryland, Texas, Alaska, North Carolina, Alabama, Wisconsin, and Hong Kong. Their practices have included employment, white-collar criminal, investment management, general business, corporate, matrimonial, commercial litigation, and immigration. Some were just opening their firms and wanted to make sure they were embarking on a well-planned journey. Others, like Rhea, had gotten off to a strong start without assistance and then encountered unanticipated difficulties. All saw the value of engaging an outside consultant to help them clarify their practice and life goals, craft a business plan that reflected their values and aspirations, and implement that plan in a systematic and step-by-step manner.
Finding a Coach/Consultant
A Google search for rainmaking or business development consultants for attorneys yields approximately 50.3 million results. Finding the right consultant for you may seem daunting, but there are a number of things you can do to make it easier.
Seeking referrals from colleagues can be just as helpful with consultants as it is with physicians and lawyers. Ask around at your local bar association—consultants often offer workshops that members may have attended. If you can’t get any recommendations, the Internet is a fine place to start. Consider characteristics that might make you more comfortable. Some women attorneys prefer working with a coach who specializes in working with women lawyers. Others would only be comfortable consulting with someone who had practiced law in their own area of practice. Still others would prefer to work with a coach whose background is in psychology or business rather than law. Although these traits can help you narrow your search, don’t let them be deciding factors. Go to the consultant’s website and read about his or her work. Such websites often have descriptions of case studies or representative engagements.
Unfortunately, credentialing among coaches and consultants is not state of the art. There are people who have decided to call themselves coaches without receiving any coach training, whereas others have become certified. It’s a good idea to ask about the consultant’s training as well as his or her experience coaching attorneys in your situation. As with all professions, the possession of a credential doesn’t guarantee quality, and it certainly won’t tell you whether you and a particular coach will work well together.
The quality of the relationship is crucial because you’ll need to trust your consultant enough to be completely open about your goals, concerns, strengths, and weaknesses. Most consultants offer some kind of free initial consultation to provide you with a taste of what it might be like to work together. The initial consultation is your opportunity to ask all of your questions. Pay attention to how well the consultant listens to you. Do you feel heard and understood? Does the coach ask questions that spark important thinking about your practice and approach to business development?
You’ll probably want to know how long coaching will last. Some consultants offer programs for defined periods of time. However, you might want to consider a more open-ended relationship. You should not be required to commit to hiring the coach for a lengthy period of time. If the relationship isn’t working for you, you want to be able to terminate it and work with someone who is a better match for you.
The duration of a coaching relationship should depend on your goals. You’ll need to be able to work at a pace that’s optimal for you. In Rhea’s case, we contracted for two meetings per month. As we’re many miles apart, we work by phone and our sessions are 45 to 60 minutes long. We contract one month at a time. She has ambitious goals but works at a very rapid pace, so she’s likely to accomplish her plans in less time than someone whose practice is already very busy but not in a way that is ideal or sustainable.
How Business Development Coaching Works
Coaching is an action-oriented process. It begins with establishing clear, measurable, and realistic goals that you want to accomplish within a time frame. Your coach’s job is to keep you focused on these goals despite all the distractions that a typical law practice presents. You should expect to end each coaching session with a specific action plan that you and your coach have collaboratively developed. Your coach should hold you accountable for accomplishing that plan, but in a nonjudgmental fashion. The ideal consultant will provide suggestions if you ask for them but, more importantly, will ask you questions that facilitate your thinking and help you arrive at your own conclusions.
For example, Carolyn asked me to consult with her about building her commercial litigation practice. A small firm practitioner, she was worried that her practice would dwindle as the senior attorneys who had been feeding her work began to retire. She was pessimistic about her ability to bring in business because she hated “chit-chat.” She had been hesitant to engage a consultant for fear that she’d be pressured to make rain in ways that did not fit her personality.
Carolyn and I identified three coaching goals: (1) define her ideal client and practice; (2) identify her marketing preferences and strengths; and (3) increase her business development activity by 50 percent within the next six months. The first “assignment” on which we agreed was to have her write a sketch of her ideal client and matter. She reviewed cases she’d most enjoyed and clients she’d found most interesting in order to develop her description.
Carolyn knew what types of rainmaking activities she hated to do but was less clear about what she enjoyed doing. Through our discussions it became clear that she enjoyed public speaking about topics within her expertise. Therefore, we developed a plan for her to identify venues and ways of getting on agendas attended by her target market.
We were also able to redefine “chit-chat.” I encouraged her to think about the kinds of social interactions that she did enjoy. She began to think about networking as developing mutually beneficial relationships rather than making small talk and selling. She scheduled lunches with people who’d asked her questions at her presentations and colleagues who’d previously made referrals to her. Her plan was to learn as much as she could about the person with whom she was meeting rather than to fill space with idle conversation. This proved more doable than her previous approach to networking, and her successes helped build her confidence.
What to Expect from Your Rainmaking Consultant
Your consultant can’t guarantee your success—that’s up to you. But you should expect your coach to know something about how attorneys develop business. Your consultant should understand how your clients make buying decisions or be willing to have you educate him or her about the particulars of your practice and your market. Keep in mind that effective coaching does not necessarily require that your consultant be intimately familiar with the market for your services in your geographic area. Rather, your coach should be open to understanding these details or able to help you identify them and then assist you in using that information in ways helpful to the growth of your practice.
Your consultant should get to know you well enough to understand what kinds of business development activities will work best for you and to honor your strengths. Although a consultant should be encouraging you to step beyond your comfort zone, no one should be insisting that you do things that are inconsistent with your values or your strengths. For example, different approaches to rainmaking work well for introverts than for extraverts, and your coach should respect your personality and preferences.
Although there are consultants who have expertise with websites, social networking, brochures, etc., effective coaches understand the limits of their knowledge. These consultants will assist you to the extent to which they are able and then help you find others with the expertise you need.
Rainmaking success isn’t just about externally focused activities. It also involves developing internal systems that free more time for you to devote to business development.
Rhea, for example, knew that the lack of internal systems was hampering her ability to build her practice. We worked together to clarify her staffing needs as well as the most efficient ways to train new staff. Once she had the right administrative and paralegal assistance and had created handbooks for the most common procedures and document preparation, she was free to turn her time and energy to branding and marketing her practice.
An effective rainmaking consultant should ask you questions that enable you to articulate your personal brand. Who is your ideal client? What is your ideal matter? What sets you apart from others practicing the same kind of law? How do you want to be perceived? What space in the minds of people in your market do you want to occupy?
When Rhea reflected on the clients with whom she most enjoyed working, she recognized that they were highly skilled scientists requiring complex petitions for residency. However, she tended to accept a wide range of clients and needed to decide whether she wanted to be known for the work she found most satisfying. Although she seemed to have developed a reputation among such scientists, many of them were either unable to afford her fees or unwilling to pay them. However, she was centrally located near businesses that needed the kind of expertise these scientists provided. She decided to market directly to these businesses.
But why would these business owners choose her over her competitors? I offered my observations about her unique strengths, and she considered the feedback she’d received from clients. Rhea’s interpersonal skills as well as her deep commitment to the outcome of her clients’ petitions set her apart from others. She’d determined her brand. Now she had to communicate it effectively to her market.
Creating and Implementing a Business Plan
Most rainmaking consultants will provide their clients with a template of a plan for developing business. It can be simple or complex, but it must identify specific ways of becoming visible, developing credibility, and cultivating relationships with people in a position to make decisions about buying legal services.
Perhaps the greatest value provided by consultants is accountability. Too many attorneys have excellent business development plans buried under files on their desks. Once you get busy, will you continue to implement your plan so your pipeline remains full? If you can’t unequivocally say “yes” to that question, you might consider working with a rainmaking coach.
Ken had always approached business development in fits and starts. When his matrimonial practice was slow, he’d invite someone to lunch. When a case came in he’d get buried in work and completely neglect making rain. As a result, he spent too much time worrying about when the next matter would come in the door.
Ken knew what to do—he needed help actually doing it. At each coaching session he identified five contacts to call during the following week in order to schedule coffee or lunch. Even if he was unable to make a date to meet in person with these individuals—attorneys, psychotherapists, financial advisors, and other referral sources—he would touch base in order to stay “top of mind.” He also began writing a monthly newsletter to send to referral sources who signed up to receive it. Each issue briefly addressed a topic of importance to subscribers. For example, one issue explained the mediation process and its benefits and risks. His consistent efforts paid off: His practice is busy and he’s made marketing a habit.
How Much Consulting Is Enough?
Rainmaking consulting is not intended to be a long-term process. Ideally you’ll stick with it until you accomplish your initial goals. Often new goals arise as early ones are attained, and it’s not uncommon to extend the relationship to achieve new things.
Keep in mind that your work with a consultant is an investment in the success of your practice. Ideally you will reap handsome returns. As long as the relationship provides value, you may want to continue. But don’t be afraid to bring your coaching relationship to a conclusion—your consultant doesn’t expect to be at your side forever. You can always reengage a helpful consultant when the need arises. At the conclusion of a good coaching experience, you will have developed the mind-set, acquired the skills, and cultivated the habit of making rain on your own. Meeting your practice development goals should now be second nature.