Service over sales: How to overcome a lawyer’s fear of business development

business development
01 Feb 2021

For the lawyers who hate business development and selling their services – this one is for you.

Let’s be honest, when we became lawyers, either we believed in fairness and justice and wanted to change the world for the better or we wanted to earn lots of money (or maybe a bit of both). But, unless our parents were in the law, we had very little understanding of what the legal world really was about or what it entailed. Never did we consider that, as we climbed the corporate ladder, we would have to manage people (clients and teams alike), run a business, or actually go out and sell our services! Where is the law in that?

The reality is that once we have reached the level of Partner or (if we have decided to step out on our own) Freelancer, Consultant or Sole Practitioner, until we have our client base established, our day-to-day job becomes less about law and more about marketing and business development. We have entered the world of entrepreneurialism or solopreneurialism – and I can tell you now – that’s not a particularly comfortable place for most lawyers.

So, let’s take a look at some of the reasons why we, as lawyers, have such an in-built resistance to selling our services and explore some ideas of how to improve our attitude towards marketing ourselves.

But we are lawyers not marketers!

Business development is not something which we are taught in law school or during our LPC or our early years as an Associate. In fact, for many lawyers, business development is not a skill we are taught at all. And yet, from an early stage in our careers as lawyers, the “business development” criteria is a firm fixture on our appraisal forms. And it only increases in importance the higher up the corporate ladder we climb.

For some, business development skills come naturally. But, for most, the thought of having to sell ourselves and our services without the requisite skillset to do so, causes overwhelming bouts of anxiety and stress – more so than we would care to admit.

My introduction to business development

My first introduction to the world of business development was through “client drinks”. When I was a mid-level Associate in Singapore, client entertainment was a big thing. We had some brilliant Partners who were incredible at business development – Nick Merritt, Laurie Pearson and Nicky Davies to name but a few. Business development, seemingly, came so naturally to them: they could talk to anyone at any level in the organisation. And people indeed were drawn towards them. It was actually quite mesmerising to watch.

Now, you would think that business development and client entertainment would come pretty naturally to me. On the outside, I have a relatively extroverted personality. I am a chatterbox. I enjoy going out for drinks with friends. I’ll happily make a fool of myself to make others feel more comfortable. I’m a good listener and people generally like me (though there are a few exceptions). But, when it comes to people I don’t know, or people I have placed on a pedestal, or people who I am supposed to impress, or people I am indirectly selling to – my introvert appears, and I want to run for the hills.

So when, one afternoon, we were reminded that we had to attend drinks with HSBC (a Key Client) that evening and all the top tier executives would be there, my heart sank. That all-too-familiar feeling in the pit of my stomach had reappeared. Ugh! I hated client drinks.

Immediately, a whole host of doubts and negative beliefs popped into my head:

  • Who’s going to want to speak to me? I’m only a junior associate!
  • I don’t know anything about finance. I’m going to come across as a right nit-wit!
  • I don’t know anything about what HSBC is doing. I’m going to embarrass myself and be a terrible reflection on the firm!
  • I haven’t read the news this week! I can’t even talk about world events!
  • Am I dressed ok for client drinks?

To be fair, in Singapore, I could have worn anything to client drinks and it would have been acceptable, but still, all of these doubts raced through my mind and I could feel the nerves building, a dry throat forming and foggy-headedness appearing. By 2pm, I’d already created a mountain of self-made obstacles to overcome, and the drinks hadn’t even started!

Why lawyers fear / hate business development

I’d like to say that my experience towards business development was unique, but the more friends I’ve spoken to and more clients I’ve coached around this issue, the more I realise how endemic the fear and anxiety around sales is in the industry.

But why? Aside from the lack of skills training when it comes to business development, what preconceived ideas about ourselves – and about sales in general – are we holding on to that make business development so uncomfortable for us?

  • The car salesman stereotype – How many of you, when you hear the word “sales”, automatically picture a gelled-back, slick car salesman with his slippery and schmoozy chat, pushing you into purchasing the latest shiny model? Yes, it’s a stereotype, but it is a stereotype firmly entrenched in our brains. So when, as lawyers we are sent out into the world to bring in new business, we immediately feel like we are becoming someone that nobody likes or wants to engage with. Needless to say, we resist the association at all costs!!
  • I’m an introvert. I don’t like talking to people, never mind selling to them – It’s funny how when it comes to sales we assume that being an introvert is a negative thing. Surely you have to be gregarious, outgoing and buoyant to sell services. Well, let me ask you this: as an introvert, how do you like to be sold to? Is it the loud and brash character that is going to attract you? Or actually is it someone who is more humble with a well-thought-through offering? Someone who is like you?
  • I don’t have the experience – I’ve only been doing this for 2 years – There are varying versions of this theme: I don’t have the knowledge. I need to upskill. I need to train. I’ve only been doing this for [x] years. The point with experience though is that it only comes with practice. You have to start somewhere. You have to take that step into discomfort in order to practice and therefore improve.
  • I don’t have the brand name – This one is more for the entrepreneurs and solopreneurs who have stepped away from Big Law and the big marketing machine that goes with it. I often hear solo / small firm lawyers stating that they can’t get work because they don’t have the brand name supporting them. But what proof exists to support that theory? There are many a successful boutique firm and sole practitioner out there who have succeeded without a big name behind them – I include myself in that group. Rather than thinking about what you are lacking, consider how your individuality and size can actually work in your favour.
  • There are other people doing this that are better than me – I call this comparisonitis. Comparison is a dangerous game. We get ourselves tied up in knots when we start comparing ourselves to peers in the industry and it prevents us from moving forwards. We see people succeeding because they have skills that we don’t have. The thing is, we compare ourselves (both our successes and our failures) only against other people’s successes (their public image). We give no merit to the fact that these people may have struggled and experienced similar fears as we have along the way.

Before you’ve even begun contemplating seeking business, you have put 5 staggeringly tall hurdles in your own way. Is it any wonder that so many lawyers fear sales? It feels like one heck of a daunting mountain to climb.

So how can lawyers approach business development with a healthier mindset?

There is no magic wand that can be waved which suddenly makes you feel more confident with business development. It takes reflection, time and practice. But, here are 9 tips to get you started:

1. Build up your confidence:

Whichever rung of the corporate ladder we are currently on, doing something new or something you haven’t practised for a while, tends to throw us into a bit of a confidence crisis. Business development is no exception.

In order to be successful in business development, you need to start believing that you can be successful. Fundamentally, YOU are your brand. And that requires some work on your confidence. When did you last sit down and consider:

  • What your strengths are?
  • What attracts you to people?
  • What experience you have?
  • What skills you have?

I’m not just talking about in law. I’m talking about all the life experience that you can bring to the table. Business development is about so much more than the law. Remember, our experiences make us unique. No other lawyer in the world has the same life experiences as you do. How can you use these to your advantage?

2. Be You:

Don’t mimic other people’s sales styles. Don’t try to be outgoing and funny if you have a more conservative and intellectual style. People are attracted to people who they can relate to and connect with. People who are genuine and trustworthy. It’s why the sleazy car salesman feels so objectionable. So, once you’ve built up your confidence – stand tall in those shoes – and just be who you are.

3. Stop thinking small:

Clients may initially be attracted by a big brand name, but if the lawyer they end up working with is rude, incompetent or unresponsive (yes, they do exist in Big Law too), then a client will look elsewhere. Clients ultimately choose a law firm based on the lawyer(s), not the brand.

4. Have a plan of action:

What are you looking to achieve from business development? Are you looking to start building your network and new relationships or are you looking to bring in new clients and build a practice? Whatever your goal, what ways are you looking to achieve that goal? Is it attending drinks events (or Zoom networking events as is the case now)? Is it identifying 10 target clients to nurture? Is it about getting your name out in the industry and using social media platforms (such as LinkedIn) to inform your audience about what you do? Is it a multi-pronged approach? Having a plan of action allows you to stay focused and avoids a haphazard, sporadic approach to business development.

5. Be consistent:

Business development takes time because building trust in relationships takes time. As you put your plan into action, you may not see immediate results. It doesn’t mean that you should give up on your plan. Stay consistent with your approach. Give the plan time to produce the results you are looking for. Keep showing up.

6. Nurture your network:

Your network is your greatest asset. If you nurture and support your network, they will return the favour. It requires some work on your part: making an effort to reach out and stay in touch; attending events they host, supporting articles that they write. But what it does is to cement those relationships. These are people that know you and can already vouch for your capability. And, if you nurture those relationships, they’ll turn to you when they need you or be willing to refer work to you in the future.

7. Be front of mind:

Consider how you can keep yourself front of mind to potential clients after your first interaction. I’ve received calls out of the blue from potential clients based on a commodities bulletin I wrote and circulated a year previously. I’ve also had people call me because my photo on my business card triggered a memory about a conversation we had at a drinks event. Think of small and subtle ways that you can stay memorable to potential clients.

8. Switch the focus:

Often our fears of business development arise because we are too focused on ourselves. How many of you spend your time worrying about what impression you are going to make or what people will think about you? Well, I’m sorry to say, but it’s not all about you. Instead of focusing on you, switch the focus to the potential client. Think about why your services and working with you can benefit them. The reason you need to tell them about your services is so they know there is a good resource out there which can actually help them achieve their goals and ambitions. Switching the focus from selling to serving makes business development a heck of a lot more palatable.

9. Avoid the hard sell:

There is nothing worse than coming to the end of a perfectly nice conversation with someone and they go in for the hard sell or ask why you haven’t sent any work over to them yet. All of that time you have spent relationship building dissipates in seconds. The whole conversation suddenly feels disingenuous and ends on a sour note. Business development isn’t about the hard sell – it’s about building a relationship over time. So, get to know your potential clients personally. Meet them socially. Listen to their needs. Talk about work so that you understand their business and they understand yours, but avoid the hard sell. Let the relationship do the work. When an opportunity arises in the future, it will allow the conversation (an offer to help) to flow much more naturally.


See also:

(This article is provided for informational purposes only and not for the purpose of providing legal advice. For more information on the topic, please contact the author/s or the relevant provider.)

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