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INSIGHT: Business Development Coaching Can Work at Your Law Firm—Here’s How

Dec. 2, 2019, 9:00 AM

Business development coaching programs are predicated on the concept that the more effort put into increasing your business development efforts and improving your skills, the more likely they will be successful

Simple, right? While the concept is clear, many law firms unwittingly set themselves up for disappointing results by not anticipating three issues that often arise during the course of coaching programs:

The ‘Remedial’ Label

One of the fastest ways to undermine a business development coaching program is to make it clear that you view it as a remedial program for underperforming partners.

At the very least, business development takes time, skills, tenacity, confidence, and resilience. While those in management may have correctly identified that certain partners lack components that come naturally to others, there is nothing more likely to diminish a partner’s confidence than to be made to believe he is failing.

To be clear, you may well have partners who are underperforming, and you need to be honest, perhaps even brutally honest, with your partners. My question to you is: How brutal is too brutal before it affects a partner’s ability to make good use of a business development coach?

I cannot tell you the amount of time that I have spent as a coach, helping to rebuild the confidence of partners who believe that I am their “last chance” before being asked to leave the partnership. Firms would be wise to consider the ways in which they are delivering the message about coaching.

Conversely, many forward-thinking firms are acknowledging that all partners, at various stages could benefit from business development coaching. I have observed these firms very effectively offer coaching to partners who have different levels of business development success.

Indeed, the “underperformers” are often more motivated and less deflated if they see the coaching is also being offered to some partners they themselves view as more successful business developers. I have also found that many of the most successful business developers benefit from coaching—using the coach as a sounding board to brainstorm about a specific target or talk through a potential pitch—and will encourage other partners to take advantage of the coaching offered.

I encourage firms to think through the most effective way to offer coaching so that partners make the best use of your generous investment in their success.

Coaching Is Offered in Isolation

When coaching is offered at the individual level, it’s usually understood to mean “You, Partner X, need to improve at Y,” rather than, “We as a Firm have set a goal of expanding our Restructuring practice by 10% over the next two years. We’ve agreed upon a focus to develop more work from creditors. As a result, we’re having a series of group training/brainstorming sessions to create a set of targets and are providing individual coaching to each partner in the group to help us keep on track with our efforts and to help us improve our networking skills and our ability to provide an effective pitch in both formal and informal settings.”

An alternative might be “As the legal profession becomes more competitive, we recognize that the ways in which we became successful at attracting clients and developing business may need to evolve. This year, we’re asking all mid-level partners to attend a series of advanced business development training sessions and we’re pairing that with individual coaching. We would like to embark on a project to raise the level of outreach and engagement by our mid-level partners by 10% with the hope that we will increase the number of opportunities we get to pitch for business by 5%.”

In the scenarios I’ve laid out, there are specific goals of the coaching that relate to a common practice or firm goal. This doesn’t mean individuals can’t work on their own skills during their private sessions. In fact, such coaching sessions are likely to uncover other issues or opportunities that should be addressed.

But I would argue that the most effective programs are those where an individual coaching component is paired with a group training component and a specific firm or practice goal. The abstract concept of “business development” transforms into a tangible goal and an attainable result. Partners, not surprisingly, learn from other partners in the group discussions.

I am often engaged for yearlong training/coaching programs, at the end of which, I have watched a disparate group of partners develop into a cohesive business development engine. They develop a deeper trust, they improve their group rapport and they present as a more cohesive group which is more likely to work together to develop business.

Unrealistic Expectations

On the opposite side of the spectrum are those firms that expect partners to increase revenues by a significant percentage or win business from a target with whom they have no prior relationship within too short of a time frame. Even firms that commit to a year of coaching (which I believe is the minimum amount of time needed to start changing habits and learning new skills), must be realistic about the length of time it takes to develop business from new relationships.

Firms must also be honest about what they can reasonably expect from coaching. Coaching is an excellent tool to help particular partners to brainstorm strategies, develop tactical plans, work on business development skills and even untangle and overcome certain fears or aversions they may have. Coaching is not a substitute for a sound approach to compensation or cultural issues impeding business development efforts.

The truth is that most partners who are not natural business developers are much more likely to be able to expand current relationships than bring in completely new clients. It’s much more within their comfort zone to try to better understand a current client’s additional needs and to approach that client about other services the firm can offer.

While at a majority of firms, the partner who originated the client relationship would reap the financial benefit of that expansion, many other firms have developed compensation systems that reward the efforts of other partners and reward the original partner for working with others to develop more work.

Unfortunately, sometimes coaching fails because the new skills are no longer practiced after the coach is gone. Long before a firm rolls out a coaching program, management should develop a strategy for encouraging partners to continue to reinforce their new habits and practice their acquired skills long after the coach is no longer around.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. or its owners

Author Information

Yolanda Cartusciello is a partner at PP&C Consulting, advising law firms on strategic planning, business development , and marketing function organization. She is also the former chief marketing officer of Debevoise & Plimpton and Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton.