coaching solicitors

Beating the downturn spiral

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What skills does a lawyer need in the current climate? Business-development coaching should put more emphasis on listening and doing than talking and telling.

By Jack Downton, The Influence Business

During the boom years, the business skills a law firm partner needs to succeed are not as apparent as when times get tough. When there is so much work around that it jumps into your lap, partners can get away with inadequate skills for driving business to the firm, for encouraging staff and enhancing enthusiasm. However, when the economy plummets and business shrinks, the very skills that should define a partner can no longer be ignored.

Many partners in all types of law firms have not known such difficult times. During their junior years, the business came from their partners, and when the times were good, bringing in business was much easier than it is now. Those who made partnership during the boom years may know little of the severe competition for work and the skills needed to secure clients.

For the most part, before becoming a partner, lawyers only think about their clients. But on transition to partner, they become leaders. And as leaders, the focus of their business changes from delivering work to getting it.

The jump from lawyer to partner is harder than it has been in years. One of the biggest problems facing partners is maintaining their firm’s market share and nurturing the next generation of leaders. In order to drive work to the firm and get the best from those around you, partners, juniors, and support staff all need to know what to do and how to do it. Better development in people leads to better skills at keeping clients and developing client leads.

Winning new business

It is often said that you don’t get a different outcome from continuing to do the same thing. In order to increase business driven to the firm, partners need to ‘get out more’ and pitch to potential clients – and offer existing clients new services.

To be able to spend the time needed on winning business, partners should delegate more of the day-to-day office tasks to other members of staff. This is often difficult for them, as it is hard to let go of the reins. Yet winning business is vital to any organisation, particularly during a downturn. For the most part, firms realise this and may well engage in an exercise to see what they need to do about it. Identifying the gap is relatively easy. Filling it, namely getting people to do what is needed, is another matter.

New staff

Training new staff to a level that you can delegate some of your tasks and responsibilities ensures there is support around when you need to devote time to business development. Partners need to make time to develop young talent, and despite the demands on your time, this will make the job much easier in the long run.

Training new staff doesn’t always have to be demanding on your time. It just takes a little thought and inclusion. When you visit a client, take a young lawyer with you, who will be able to observe and learn. Similarly, whenever you are on the phone to a client, let a trainee lawyer listen in. Make time to answer their questions. It establishes the foundations of a team without any spoon-feeding or micro-management, and leaves you free to devote time to bringing in the business.

People buy people

How can you be seen as someone prospects want to work with rather than the rivals who are equally capable? When people have a choice but all the competition is pretty much the same, what makes you stand out?

People buy people. Technical ability is a given, so trust, honesty, a feeling of respect and being good to work with all go towards legal buyers seeing you as someone they want to work with.

Lawyers need to remember that business pitches are not just an opportunity to sell services, and convince the buyers of your technical merit. Many lawyers miss out on winning new business because their pitches employ the wrong sales techniques and suggest a level of desperation. Businesses are becoming more selective of the firms they hire and competition for business is fierce. Some lawyers react to the pressure by jumping straight into selling and, as a result, they fail to address the individual needs and expectations of their prospective client.

Pitches should be made as simple as possible. Teams frequently try to communicate far too much information to prospects and ‘sell’. This often comes across as desperate. One mistake often made is striking too early in a pitch meeting with a ‘hard sell’: lawyers often pounce at the first sign of interest, when instead they should hold back and listen, and use what they hear to inform their next questions. An excellent guiding principle here is always to be interested before you attempt to be interesting.

Those pitching ought to find out more about what the prospect really wants. The result is a prospect who sees an interested team. The prospect learns, the team pitching learns and the team has built value into their proposition. Price, therefore, becomes less of an issue.

When coaching lawyers, the focus should be on getting them away from ‘telling’ and into ‘asking’. It is , but when they actually do it, they see for themselves how much more powerful it is. When trying to improve how people pitch or scope work, we set up a realistic scenario with an actor as the client, supported by one or two partners. The remaining participants play the legal team. Not only do they learn from a highly realistic situation, but so too do the partners sitting in the client team. They experience, probably for the first time, what it is like to be on the receiving end. After one such session, a partner actually said: “How on earth do we win anything if that’s how our prospective clients see us?”

Pitches aren’t just opportunities to close deals, but a chance to establish relationships. Therefore, the aim is to leave the prospect feeling really good about meeting you – and positive about doing business with you now or in the future.

Creative coaching

Confucius said: “I hear, I know. I see, I remember. I do, I understand.” Yet too much training is focused unevenly, favouring demonstration above participation. In the training that I have done over the years, I have found involving partners in simulations of business pitches to be the best way of giving them the space they need to practice and to highlight those areas they need to focus on.

This is practised surprisingly infrequently. When training and coaching in professional services, there is plenty of telling and not enough doing. Lawyers understand a well-researched and presented argument about what they should do in a particular situation. Getting them to do it for real, under pressure is another matter altogether, because it no longer involves logic, but emotions, and it challenges comfort zones – and here, just knowing what to do is, for the most part, not enough.

I have found the following process (with a professional actor as the other party) really can make an enormous difference to whether lawyers actually do what needs to be done, or just pay lip service and revert to the status quo ante:

· Step 1 – The lawyer tackles the problem cold with no prior guidance from the coach;

· Step 2 – The meeting is evaluated by the lawyer, other party (actor) and facilitator, reinforced by video review. They see, hear and accept what they actually did. We discuss what they did well and what they might do differently next time;

· Step 3 – We introduce new skills – not many, just some techniques and processes to guide them along the route;

· Step 4 – The meeting is run again, this time with the benefit of the evaluation and new skills;

· Step 5 – The meeting is evaluated again, with video. The lawyer sees the skills really work for him or her and has the confidence to use them for real and when under pressure.

The critical thing to remember in any coaching is that you can only change yourself. You cannot change other people. What you can do, though, is change the way other people react to you and you do this by changing your own behaviour. Hence the need to be comfortable with any new skills and make sure the behaviours really work for you.

In a recent ‘Master Class Presentation Skills’ programme with a Clifford Chance partner, which does not make use of an actor, we nevertheless followed this general process. When working with partners in top firms, they need to be comfortable that the process makes sense from the very outset and that the value to them is clear. Seeing for themselves the ‘before’ and ‘after’ video excerpts also convinces that the new skills really work for them. In this case, not only did the partner know what to do but they also had the confidence to do it for real.


After a long day at the office, it is tempting to simply head straight home. Yet all too often lawyers fail to appreciate good old-fashioned networking – particularly important during a recession.

Networking is an area that many find uncomfortable, so again, it is best addressed in a practical way that also needs to be as realistic as possible. Many trainers pitch one partner against another: one is asked to be himself and the other has to perform an unfamiliar role. Not only is the performance reminiscent of the worst imaginable ‘AmDram’, but as the ‘performer’ is not a behavioural specialist, it is almost impossible for that person to identify and encourage the right behaviours in the other.

A good actor, on the other hand, knows what to look for, and will respond authentically to what he or she gets from the other person.

Again, you can tell someone the principles of what to do, but getting them to do it in a real situation is a different matter. We achieve a lot of success in our programme by getting a partner to experience just this situation. They will be asked to go and introduce themselves to somebody (in reality an actor), and immediately find that they are being talked at and can’t get a word in edgeways. They come quickly to the conclusion that the other person is only interested in himself!

Some work we did with the magic-circle law firm Allen & Overy took just this line. Having explored what each person found uncomfortable, or where they lacked in confidence or in a specific skill, we created situations around those concerns and were then able to work them through in a safe environment. The actor responded solely to the behaviour of the other person, who was, in turn, able to discover what worked best and to try it in a safe environment. The result was a much greater feeling of confidence to make the most of networking opportunities as and when they arose.

When we first start working with people to improve their networking skills, we find there are many common misconceptions about what to do. The most common are:

· Hovering on the edge of a group is the best way to join in. In fact, the best way to get in to a group is to identify who is leading the conversation, make eye contact, smile and move in confidently and say something like: “Do you mind if I join you?” Be ready to contribute to the conversation;

· I should try to be really interesting. In fact, ‘being interesting’ frequently equates to being boring because you are talking about yourself the whole time. Be interested instead. Ask questions, listen well and encourage the other person to do the majority of the talking. In this way, they will feel they have had a good conversation with you and remember you in a positive light.

· I must try to sell my services. Wrong. Get to know the other person a bit as an individual before swinging into business. Here, the ability to get a conversation going is really useful and it helps to have one or two topics you can explore to find common ground. Don’t rush into business. People buy people.

Keeping clients

As well as winning business, partners need to make conscious efforts to retain clients. Do this by communicating as much as possible so they know what you do for them. As well as sending them reports, statements, and of course bills, find excuses to get in touch with them. Perhaps call them up and suggest a seminar they might be interested in, or forward them an article you think they be interested in reading.

One client of ours used to call his contacts in the in-house legal team and suggest he come over for a coffee. It was seldom anything formal but it just meant that he stayed on their radar so that when work was in the office, he was often at the front of their minds. The key thing here is to maintain the contact. The longer you leave it, the more difficult it becomes. It all goes some way to keeping a relationship going with your client, and as the recession continues to squeeze professional-service firms, that is more important than ever.

Jack Downton, a former Colonel in the Royal Marines, is the managing director of The Influence Business Ltd. He can be contacted at:


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