December 12, 2013 Articles

Legal Business Development for a Changing Profession

By Paula Black

Innovation—lawyers seldom operate on the cutting edge and certainly not the bleeding edge! That's a given. It's likely in your risk-averse DNA. But how long will you stay in what once was a perfect business model that it is now past its prime? That is the question.

Seth Godin, a best-selling author and public speaker, points to the music industry:

The music business was perfect. Radio, record chains, Rolling Stone magazine, the senior prom, limited access to recording studios, the replaceable nature of the LP, the baby boomers . . . it all added up to a business that seemed perfect, one that could run for ever and ever.

The digital revolution destroyed this perfect business while enabling the seemingly impossible: easy access to the market by new musicians, a cosmic jukebox of just about every song ever recorded, music as a social connector. . . .

And think about it—the music industry is full of innovative thinkers,so why did they fight so hard to hold on to a business model that was disappearing? Because it is a huge industry they thought was perfect and couldn't change so fast.

Does this sound a bit like the legal profession? You have a perfect business model. Do good work, get good clients, bill by the hour. Hang a shingle and they will come. I think you will agree that this train has derailed. 

So what can you do about it? The answer is clear: It's time to start innovating.

Think outside the box. Look to other industries for inspiration. Challenge the status quo and show your open-mindedness every day. You will lead the way to new business models. It is my belief that there will be several because not one size fits all. Godin challenges all of us to "dream of the impossible, it just might happen." But it won't happen unless you learn to think outside the box. Beyond your wildest dreams!

First, you have to dare to dream. Sometimes there is a fine line between pain and pleasure, dreams and nightmares. We have all had that experience of not being sure. I have worked with many clients that I have coaxed out onto thin ice to find that they were quite safe being there and now very comfortable staying there.

What are your dreams? I have asked many a lawyer that question, and I get answers like "to be a great lawyer." That isn't a dream; that is reality. They are already great lawyers.

What do you want in your life that is beyond your wildest dreams? Is it that big giant case? Is it to grow your practice to an unthinkable level? Is it to turn your sights on politics? Is it to leverage your legal knowledge into a business venture? Is it to use your compassion and knowledge of the law as a judge? Is it to become the next John Grisham? All of this is possible if you dare to dream.

Sometimes when I'm working with a client, I can see there is something unspoken. You are great at presenting all the evidence as to why your dream isn't a good idea. I beg you: Let go!

Seth Godin has a great take on this:

In search of a timid trapeze artist. Good luck with that, there aren't any. If you hesitate when leaping from rope to another, you're not going to last very long. And this is at the heart of what makes innovation work in organizations, why industries die, and how painful it is to try to maintain the status quo while also participating in a revolution. Gather up as much speed as you can, find a path and let go. You can't get to the next rope if you're still holding on to this one.

Hesitation is the kiss of death. I'm sure all of you know a lawyer who has lost his or her passion. Don't let that be you. Go for it! Explore the possibilities beyond your wildest dreams! You will be amazed at what you can accomplish.

For instance, I have a client who asked if I wouldn't mind if we held our meeting on his new yacht, as he had to take care of a few things. Wow . . . 165 feet of absolute luxury! As he was giving me a tour of the four decks, I stopped him to ask, "When you were a kid growing up in the Keys, did you ever imagine you would own something like this?" He looked at me, smiled, and said, "As a matter of fact . . . I did. I would tell my dad and brother that I would one day own the biggest yacht on the dock. They would laugh at me!"

How many times have you laughed at big, audacious ideas?

I read the Harvard Business Review Magazine article "The HBR List of Audacious Ideas for Solving the World's Problems." What I found most fascinating were the results they featured. Think about how audacious these must have sounded in those times:

1. Eradicate smallpox
2. End war in Western Europe
3. Launch an all-sports TV network

It took audacity to think these ideas could be accomplished, but they were. What could your imagination conjure up? What is outrageous, inconceivable? So why can't you do it? I can hear all your evidence. What would happen if you just had blind faith? Yes! Blind faith that your dream is achievable. Remember when you were young and dared to think of becoming a lawyer? A judge? A senator? A television commentator? A gladiator for the little guy?

I was working with a client who finally coughed it up: "I think I would like to become a judge." She said it softly and very reluctantly as if she couldn't even let herself think this big audacious idea. Find your big audacious idea, and don't pay attention to the sneers and laughter, especially the ones in your head.

What are your business development dreams? To land that giant client? To engage that famous client? To find that multimillion-dollar client? To work on a landmark case? To write a book? To be a commentator on CNN?

How many times have you laughed at big, audacious ideas? How many of those ideas were yours? Stop laughing and doubting . . . and start planning and believing!

A friend gave me a book titled Best Practices Are Stupid: 40 Ways to Out-Innovate the Competition by Stephen M. Shapiro. Intriguing title, right? It challenges conventional wisdom. And in some cases, it's a slap upside the head.

Here are some of Stephen's tips. (I'm paraphrasing a bit.)

1. Don't think outside the box; find a better box. Firms spend time on finding solutions to problems that just don't matter.

2. Expertise is the enemy of innovation. The more you know about a particular topic, the more difficult it is for you to think about it in a different way.
3. Be the aspirin for your clients' pain. Meet people where they are with all their challenges and frustrations.

4. Innovate where you differentiate. (What makes you different from the lawyer down the street? This will be a filter that guides your thinking to a whole new level of innovation.)
5. You get what you measure, but will you get what you want? Too many innovation-measurement systems are designed in a way that inadvertently creates undesirable behavior.

6. Failure is always an option. Redefine failure, build it, try it, fix it.

7. The "top-down" philosophy should be left to convertibles. Central control is a fatal conceit. You just may control yourself out of business.

8. Don't put the "NO" in inNOvation. Stephen says, don't use the words "yeah, but."

9. How can you make the impossible possible? What if you could become masterful at making the seemingly impossible possible? What if, instead of looking for realistic solutions to challenges, you started with solutions that seemed impractical?

10. Sometime it's logical to be illogical. Illogical combinations can lead to truly logical solutions.

This kind of thinking is very uncomfortable territory for most lawyers. Yes, best practices are stupid if your goal is growth and innovation. So I challenge you to pick two or three of Stephen's tips and incorporate them into your business development strategy. Just imagine what you could create by the end of the year simply by challenging conventional wisdom, believing in your dreams, and, most importantly, challenging yourself!

Keywords: litigation, solo practitioners, small firms, innovation, business development, business model, risk taking, change

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