Here’s a logic problem with practical consequences: Given that a firm’s survival depends on revenue; that revenue comes from sales; that lawyers are the ones charged with bringing in revenue; and that most lawyers can’t sell and don’t want to, which of the following should law firms do?

A) Keep depending on a handful of rainmakers with portable business.
B) Continue spending millions on marketing to support people who can’t sell.
C) Fire the CMO—again.
D) Scrap the existing compensation plan for one that truly provides a motivation for selling.
E) Teach the lawyers how to sell in a way they’ll accept.

If you doubt that the last answer is the best, consider one major law firm’s experience.

In the second session of a sales training program, several of the firm’s partners abruptly announced they had to opt out to respond to an urgent over-the-transom beauty contest. They were persuaded to stay and use the session to prepare for the pitch, so that all the participants could see the program in action.

The team garnered one of the largest antitrust cases of the decade. The astonished head of litigation, an initial skeptic, later wrote in a memo that the two things the client noted in its decision were the very two things (revolutionary for the time) that the session had stressed—gaining the prospect’s trust and showing that the lawyers knew the company. In a different pitch, the head of litigation added, there was an “unmistakable” difference between those who’d been trained and those who hadn’t.

Seldom do marketing programs produce such a “smoking gun.”

You’d think that in the ensuing 19 years, word would have leaked out about the potential of sales training. But a recent survey by The American Lawyer’s research arm found that the biggest complaint raised by young partners is that their firms don’t sufficiently prepare them to develop business.

Instead, firms have collectively spent literally billions of dollars and decades of time on an endless succession of dubious flavor-of-the-month marketing programs that don’t generate revenue.  Why? Because these programs are dictated more by what the partners will do within their comfort zones than by what works.  And then marketing—the process or the department—is blamed. 

If a worker keeps blaming his tools for his failure, you don’t keep giving him more expensive tools. You teach him how to build.

But law firms fail to adequately prepare the untutored, the unsuited, and the unwilling for a task that only they are permitted to perform and that is central to both the partners’ success and the firm’s. It seems self-evident that the vast middle of the partnership—the 75-or-so percent who are neither rainmakers nor beyond help—could improve if only they knew the rules of the game and were given a chance to practice how it’s played.

While training is hardly the only effective marketing project, it has the most potential to increase revenue. But experience indicates that training techniques will have little impact if a firm fails to address some fundamental issues, the solutions to which may be counterintuitive or counter to the short-term mentality of many firms.

Don’t call it sales (or even business development) training. The most important thing to address is the lawyers’ inherent loathing of sales, because nobody can be good at what they fear and hate. One firm had so much difficulty with the concept that it packaged—and delivered—it as communications training. The program was widely hailed in a survey of participants, particularly by the younger partners.

Why call it communications training? Effective selling is not about unloading products or services. It’s about figuring out what people want and need, and convincing them you can provide it—first through probing and listening, and later, through persuasion.

These are also the key elements of effective communications—influencing people by sussing out what matters to them and finding a way to link it to your agenda. Its impact depends not on how eloquent and erudite you are but on how directly you address their agenda.

Here’s a simple example: An executive at a party asks a fellow guest his profession. When the man says he’s a tax lawyer, the executive’s eyes involuntarily search the room for more promising conversation. Later he asks another guest, also a tax lawyer, what she does for a living. “I prevent the government from taking my client’s money,” she replies. The response almost demands the follow-up challenge, “How?” A relationship is born.

Any lawyer could pull off the second conversation with a little thought and practice. But only a rainmaker would seize on the question to engage the listener by addressing what really mattered to him.

A partner in one firm was on the verge of being nudged out when he began the program. After completing it, he began bringing in business (and was eventually made a practice head) after it finally dawned on him that he needed to look beyond legal issues to the underlying business objectives—and beyond that to the prospect’s personal priorities and motivations.

A Fortune 500 general counsel bore this out to me once, saying he was stunned at how many lawyers just try to sell him legal services. “I have kids in college and a bonus linked to the company’s goals,” he said.  “Guess how many lawyers even ask about my bonus, much less what drives it or how they can help. I guess they think it’s none of their business.”

The focus on communications also gives the program a far wider scope and value. Almost anything your partners do requires influencing people by communicating—not just to prospects and clients, but also potential lateral partners, law school recruits, the media, associates and, for senior management, an unruly hyperindependent partnership.

Don’t focus on business generation. The worst advice you can give a rookie ballplayer is to swing for the fences. “Small ball”—strategic bunting, patience at the plate, disciplined base running, and the like—is far more effective. Though training may well produce business quickly, as it did in our opening example, expecting that sort of result in the first year will have everybody fanning at the plate. 

Failure is a lawyer’s biggest fear. Giving success-driven people an ambitious goal for a task with a 20 percent success rate is expecting a lot. Giving them smaller tasks they are sure to succeed at will bolster their confidence for greater challenges. Demand intelligent effort, with uncompromising but realistic intermediate goals of increasing difficulty over several years. (Yes, years. If that seems a daunting commitment, consider all the time and resources that have been wasted avoiding it.)

A modest but useful early goal, for instance, would be to have a partner identify three people he or she knows who are potentially useful to the firm and figure out an appropriate favor to do for each of them that they would never forget. This would require them to learn three key rainmaking techniques that most partners could master over time: keeping in touch with your contacts; focusing on what really matters to people; and doing favors. I know of at least one champion rainmaker whose entire marketing program seems to consist of doing favors for key people.

Train, don’t just lecture. Lawyers are quick studies. But exposition is not training. The concepts cited above are conceptually simple, but difficult to make stick. That’s why trotting out your rainmakers to tell war stories and share secrets seldom has impact. Things like listening carefully and finding out what the other person cares about instead of regaling him with your bona fides are antithetical to most lawyers.

Exposition must be followed by guidance and practice. The best way to do that is to provide a “coach” who meets regularly with trainees to help them apply what they’ve learned to realistic goals, and to alert management if they’re not working toward them.

Don’t bother introducing training without serious follow-up.  It takes practice to seamlessly guide the luncheon conversation from the Yankees to the prospect’s business issues—not to mention closing the sale, or knowing when to. As one former Am Law 100 managing partner recently told me, “It would be a victory if we could get some of our partners to recognize when a client’s dangling business in front of them if they’d only say, ‘We can do that.’ ”

Stay the course. A sine qua non of sales success is persistence. Firms should set a good example by sticking with their programs. Although the first training program I mentioned—the one that helped the firm win the antitrust work—was proclaimed a success throughout the firm, the lawyers gradually lost interest. Management changed and got distracted, and the program fizzled out before half of the partnership was trained. So subsequent generations of new partners were parachuted into the business development battlefield with little more than a map and a flashlight.

Shortsighted cost-cutting has killed many other programs, even at firms doing well; this despite the strong need expressed by young partners, who are the future of the firm. It’s harmful enough to eat the seed corn in a famine. What justifies it in better times?

Another persistent problem is the lack of success metrics, the scourge of most marketing programs. It’s hard enough to trace the sources of new business when every partner with any involvement is jockeying for credit. Who will speak for the training program’s role? Most CMOs are smart enough to avoid wading fruitlessly into that maelstrom. 

Firms should decide in advance what will constitute success and on what basis they will continue, expand, or kill the program. If it’s business generation, on what basis will it be attributed to the program? If not, what other metrics would be useful? Is intelligent effort in the early phases a sufficient basis to keep training and supporting a partner?

If you’re unable to set satisfactory success metrics, you might launch it on the basis of common sense, even if you can’t scientifically justify it. As the legendary retailer John Wanamaker once said, “Half of the money I spend on advertising is wasted. The problem is, I don’t know which half.”

Common sense worked for him. Surely, common sense dictates that unschooled people charged with bringing in business ought to be trained in how to do it.

Ed Burke was head of marketing and communications at Shearman & Sterling and Hughes Hubbard & Reed for 20 years; a partner in the legal consulting firm Hildebrandt Inc.; and a journalist whose work has appeared in The American Lawyer, The Boston Globe, the New York Law Journal, and The National Law Journal.