February 20, 2020 Article

A Big Business Development Idea: Give Authentically Without Keeping Track

If you cringe at the thought of “selling” your legal work to new clients, consider shifting your perspective.

By Lindsay Breedlove

Like many other lawyers in private practice, I experience quite a bit of discomfort when I think about developing business as “selling” my or my firm’s services. I became a lawyer after testing the industry as a paralegal; when entering law school, I already knew I liked the factual investigations, legal research and writing, and the advocacy associated with litigating cases. Even in my early twenties, as I tested the legal industry, I knew that sales would not be my fallback. Being a salesperson wasn’t for me. 

If you cringe at the thought of “selling” your legal work to new clients, consider shifting your perspective.

If you cringe at the thought of “selling” your legal work to new clients, consider shifting your perspective.

Thomas Barwick/Stone via Getty Images

My anecdotal experience suggests that women experience this sales-related discomfort at a higher rate than their male counterparts. Perhaps this explains why LinkedIn data show that women make up only 39 percent of the workforce in sales and why only 21 percent of vice presidents in sales are female. For me, as someone who frequently networks and builds professional friendships with other women, the other side of the equation is just as interesting and important: Research shows that women on the “customer” side of a sales pitch from friends are just as unhappy with the interaction. Mallun Yen, cofounder of ChIPsNetwork.org, which seeks to connect women in technology, law, and policy for the purpose of business development, studied why women were so hesitant to ask other women for business. The interviews she conducted revealed that “[w]omen who received an ask from a friend said they didn’t expect their friends to hit them up for business and when they did, it sometimes caused an unspoken tension that dampened their enthusiasm for the relationship.”

As a result of my experience and the research that confirms I’m not alone or worried without justification, I began looking for alternative ways to think about developing business. The more I explored, the more enamored I became of the idea that I might find comfort and meet more success if I shifted my perspective on business development, thinking about it not as a series of short-term sales pitches but, instead, as long-term giving-oriented engagement. This isn’t my idea by any stretch. The list of thinkers and authors who have written about the giving-oriented approach is too long to mention and the idea’s roots too hard to trace. However, in the sea of resources to choose from, I recommend two books, The Go-Giver and Give and Take, which approach this idea from very different angles.

The Go-Giver, by Bob Burg and John David Mann, is a parable about a young man named Joe who works at an accounting or consulting firm and who is consistently failing to meet his sales targets, notwithstanding substantial effort. Joe’s initial approach is very transactional. The first few pages of the book include a description of a call to a broker in which Joe asks the broker to give him work because the broker owes him one. Through a contrived set of circumstances, Joe meets a very successful businessman who teaches Joe the “Five Laws of Stratospheric Success.” (Candidly, that language and other phrases throughout the book made me roll my eyes—but stay with me).

The five laws boil down to a worldview associated with creating value for other people by giving authentically without thinking about what you may get in return. They are as follows:

  1. The Law of Value: Your true worth is determined by how much more you give in value than you take in payment.
  2. The Law of Compensation: Your income is determined by how many people you serve and how well you serve them.
  3. The Law of Influence: Your influence is determined by how abundantly you place other people’s interests first.
  4. The Law of Authenticity: The most valuable gift you have to offer is yourself.
  5. The Law of Receptivity: The key to effective giving is to stay open to receiving.

Joe learns one law every day from his new life coach and is required to apply each law as he learns it, which provides readers with somewhat plausible real-life examples. Less plausible is the ending, which predictably includes tremendous success for Joe after only five days.

This book, first published in 2007, has garnered quite a following, generating some real-life examples that the authors include in the introduction to the 2015 edition. It is rife with claims like the following: “Business owners told us the book helped them make their businesses more successful,” and “[i]n some cases, struggling businesses experienced a complete turnaround after implementing” the five “laws.” I remained skeptical until people I know and trust told me firsthand about their colleagues and friends who had applied these laws with similar success.

If social science and hard evidence align better with your learning style than a parable, Adam Grant’s Give and Take is a better fit. Grant, an organizational psychologist who teaches at Wharton, marshals evidence about the ways that a person’s reciprocity style correlates with his or her success. There are three categories of reciprocity styles: Takers like to get more than they receive and are typically willing to help others only when they expect the benefit they receive will outweigh the personal costs of helping. Matchers keep track of who gives and receives, and they prefer an equal balance of giving and getting. They help others when they owe a favor or when they may want to call in a favor in the future. Givers prefer focusing on others as a genuine way of approaching the world, giving more than they receive and helping whenever the benefits to others outweigh the personal costs of helping.

Grant’s evidence yields a more nuanced picture than The Go-Giver provides. Grant quips that “you might predict that givers achieve the worst result, and you’d be right.” But that is only half the story, because while some givers find themselves at the bottom, givers also enjoy more success than takers and matchers, who are most likely to land in the middle. What’s the difference between the givers who skyrocket and those who hit rock bottom? Grant explained in an article for the Independent that “failed givers are too altruistic: they sacrifice themselves to the point of burning out and allowing takers to use them. Successful givers put other people first most of the time, but they focus on helping in ways that are not at odds with their own interests.” While that sounds like a great strategy in principle, Grant also provides specific examples of how this works in action. Successful givers

  • specialize in five-minute favors, looking for ways to offer a high benefit to others at a low personal cost;
  • ask the people they mentor to “pay it forward,” expanding their giving to a broader audience; and
  • are much more cautious when dealing with takers, who have no intention of reciprocating.

Being a smart giver is especially important for women, who “help more but benefit less from it.” Grant and Lean In’s Sheryl Sandberg jointly wrote a New York Times series that explored the intersection of Grant’s work and gender dynamics. They recounted a study by New York University psychologist Madeline Heilman, which found that men were rated 14 percent more favorably for staying late to help prepare colleagues for an important meeting than their female counterparts who did the same. That said, Heilman also reported that women often face a catch-22: When both men and women declined to offer the help, women received performance reviews 12 percent lower than men. Until this dynamic changes, women will have to carefully evaluate whether and how to help to reap the benefits of smart giving. Importantly, however, the giving must be authentic, even if somewhat calculated. Grant explains that emulating giving behaviors for the purpose of achieving success “probably won’t work.”

Whether you prefer parable or social science research, the lesson is the same: Giving authentically and smartly can yield professional success. Applying this lesson to business development in the legal profession has allowed me to embrace networking and “pitching” in a much more comfortable and natural way. I strive to grow my reputation by giving to the profession, through volunteer work with the ABA, for example. I add value for my professional and personal friends by making connections and introductions for them, which is both a very helpful and a very easy thing to do. I attempt to stand out by being particularly client-focused, thinking through carefully how I can make my clients’ business more successful by proposing to apply the lessons we learn in litigation to minimize unnecessary risk inherent in various business practices. Just as important, I work to make my in-house counsel’s lives easier, with helpful tracking tools or by, for example, ensuring that a woman who is breastfeeding can pump and participate in a hearing at the same time. Even in a true pitch, I learn about the issue that a potential client is facing and then authentically frame the services I or my firm can provide as an offer to help. Being authentic in this regard means acknowledging that sometimes you won’t be the right helper for the job. When you are the right fit, though, providing quality legal services by being client-centered aligns with the giving nature that both The Go-Giver and Give and Take endorse. 

Lindsay Breedlove is a partner at Pepper Hamilton LLP in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

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