“Look, I didn’t go to law school to be a salesman,” said Gary, a partner in an established firm who had worked on mergers and acquisitions for most of his career. “Not once was I ever told I had to be a marketer or whatever. Now comes a memo from the managing partner that we have to go to these ‘business development seminars’ (making quotes in the air with his fingers) and work with consultants — and don’t get me started on consultants — so we can bring in our own business. And they’re even talking about linking compensation more directly to business originations. . . .”
Gary’s anger and frustration were palpable, but I could see behind the sarcasm that he also was frightened. Somehow, he needed to get right with the idea of doing something he not only had never done but actually had shunned during his lengthy career. I could see, as well, that he regarded those who succeeded at developing business as somehow different and perhaps inferior, e.g. “I didn’t go to law school to become a salesman.”
“You’re afraid you’ll fail, aren’t you?” I asked. “And besides, I don’t think anyone wants you to become a salesman. That’s not the best place for your skills. But maybe you can think about this in a different way. It doesn’t mean you have to put on a power tie and a shiny suit and start glad-handing everyone. Maybe it just means being willing to assume greater responsibility for your career?”
There was a time when a lawyer could come to work each day and attend only to her assigned tasks. These involved performing legal services for her clients and providing them with advice needed to protect themselves from liability or impose liability on others. She could work quietly at her desk without a lot of direct supervision, ruled mainly by deadline and billable-hour goals.
Clients came to the firm through word of mouth, other firms, acquaintances and the rainmakers high up in the firm hierarchy. Whether they admitted it or not, most attorneys thought of business development as somebody else’s job. Lawyers saw themselves as professionals who provided a highly technical service, much like engineers, except they worked in language rather than in integrated circuits. They most certainly did not see themselves as the sort who stared out of posters on the sides of city buses or from billboards atop downtown buildings.
In my experience, many attorneys are high-achieving academic introverts who prefer to excel while left alone to focus on tasks governed by clear rules and orderly progressions in thought. Another way of saying this is: Lawyers just want to be left alone to do their work and not be bothered with where that work might come from.
For the reader who may not have noticed, this scenario has changed significantly over the past 10 years. Now, every associate knows that advancement requires business development ability. To the introvert academic who prefers the orderliness of the brief or the legal opinion, this can be unsettling, even terrifying.
The Internal World
Let’s stop for a moment and talk about the introvert. Readers may have heard of or taken a simple psychological inventory called the Myers-Briggs test and learned whether they are introverts or extroverts.
The introvert is a person for whom the internal world of thought, feeling and daydream is vast and meaningful. To understand himself, the introvert needs to disengage from the social universe, preferring his own inner cosmos to that outside.
By contrast, the extrovert is a person who is compelled to join with others in social discourse to know himself, his thoughts and his feelings. For the extrovert, the threat of extreme social isolation is as ominous and exhausting as the specter of extreme social involvement is for the introvert.
And yet, every firm nowadays — large, medium or small — holds some expectation that each attorney will not only produce quality legal work but also will bring in new business. What should the introverted lawyer — and there is a difference between “introvert” and “lazy,” “indifferent” or “resistant” — do in this brave new world?
Ideally, he should keep a cool head and regard the opportunity to fulfill this expectation as another step along the way, a new skill to learn and an increase in personal responsibility for his career. Once lawyers view business development simply as a skill and not as an existential threat, they can integrate into their personal styles. This permits mastering it to become easy and satisfying, like learning how build a bicycle or cook a delicious meal.
Here are some steps introverted lawyers can take when faced with the business development mandate.
1. Recognize and accept fear as a normal part of the landscape. Understand that it can show up in oneself and others as anger, judgment or condescension.
2. Realize that the firm is not asking attorneys to change their values or basic beliefs. It is asking them to develop a new set of skills.
3. Understand that, while people can do business development their own way, it’s best at the beginning to follow tried and true methods. Start out by trying the techniques taught by trainers in the business development courses firms offer.
4. Know that trust in oneself, one’s firm, one’s trainers, one’s mentors and one’s marketing department will make acquiring these new skills easier.
5. Remember that, in the end, business development simply means talking to people about something you’ve been passionately pursuing for most of your adult life.
6. Conceptualize business development as regularly communicating within an ever-expanding community of people who are in the business of helping one another.
7. Recall that business development is about discovering how to help a potential client. Don’t bore him by telling him about yourself; instead, listen to him and his needs.
8. Admit that better performance on No. 7 means a greater likelihood of earning the potential client’s business.
By seeing business development as a skill they can learn rather than as a distasteful attempt to change the core of their professional identity, introverted lawyers can increase their likelihood of success. Perhaps they even can come to enjoy it. They can remain themselves and do their business development work their own way — no plaid sports coat required.