Business Development For Leaders

Lawyers with whom I speak are often uncomfortable in rainmaking, especially in moving from a general conversation to one in which the lawyer might ask for a potential client’s business. No one wants to appear pushy or desperate, and most lawyers have a natural aversion to selling themselves. A lawyer who’s always self-promoting and trying to get business is not appealing. Nobody wants to talk with that kind of lawyer, and most of us don’t want to be him or her.

It seems to me that there’s a parallel here with political fundraising. After all, what’s less appealing than a lawyer who sees everyone he or she meets as potential stepping-stone to wealth? Must be a political candidate who always has a hand out and puts on the hard sell.

President Obama’s campaign received more donations and more money than any other in the country’s history. Accusations of fraud are certainly a serious concern, and how those charges have been answered presents another leadership lesson, but there’s something more subtle here. How did Obama’s campaign generate so much money? He offered something that donors found to be of value, and they literally bought into it. A visit to Obama’s website even now starts with a “landing page” that offers readers the opportunity to donate or to go into the main website. There is (and, as pre-election, was) no pressure to donate, but the opportunity is apparent. No one could charge that the Obama campaign neglected to let its supporters know – smoothly and tactfully – that financial support would be welcome.

Obama outlined his vision and millions decided to come along for the ride because they saw what was in his vision for them. They believed that his vision was about him. Yes, he might get the glory and the big salary, but they believed he was doing it for the people he would be representing. Though reasonable people may hold different interpretations of his authenticity or his ability to deliver the promised beneficial changes, the people who donated and who voted for him believed that by choosing him, they were choosing a better future for themselves.

Let’s look back for a moment to see how Obama came to his political career and candidacy. He received a strong education from well-regarded schools, and most people who read The Audacity of Hope seem to agree that he is a deep and critical thinker. Do you suppose he sprang straight from his education and legal career into political leadership? Certainly not.

Though Obama presumably had his ideas about what was going well and poorly with our government, he started by talking with the people he sought to represent. I suspect that he had thousands of conversations, probably starting one-on-one and eventually expanding to town hall meetings, where he listened to what was worrying those who would one day be his constituency, and where he eventually offered his solutions to see how they might land. Those conversations shaped his thoughts and ideas, and his political career was born. But that isn’t unusual: I suspect that most successful politicians have followed a similar developmental path.

Do you see the parallel with legal rainmaking yet? The best rainmakers, and the best leaders, strive to put the focus and attention on those they seek to serve. They begin with determining the potential client’s areas of concern, and they seek to understand before trying to get the client to understand them. A lawyer may storm into a meeting with a potential client eager to tell stories of triumphs obtained through great legal skill and savvy strategy developed through years of experience and study. How do you suppose the potential clients will react? My bet is that while they might be impressed by skill and experience, they’d find those qualifications relevant only to the degree that the lawyer understands their needs.

So, let’s return to lawyers’ fears of being pushy or appearing desperate. The easiest and most effective way to avoid those is to focus on the potential client. But there’s another critical step: offering to meet the client’s needs once thoroughly understood. That’s where the fear of sounding like a sleazy or pushy used car salesman usually arises. Here’s a surprising truth: it is selfish to have a solution to a problem and to be unwilling to share it, and failing to ask for the potential client’s business represents exactly the same selfishness. If a lawyer has the skill and knowledge to assist a client but doesn’t offer it, the client goes without that help (or is forced to look elsewhere), all because the lawyer was too fearful of being pushy. That’s a lose/lose proposition.

Obama’s campaign and election teach us two leadership lessons in this context: first, listen. Understand. Then, and only then, offer solutions. And second, ask for the business. It’s a short but critical step from, “Yes, I understand what you need, I’ve done that work before, let me tell you about other clients I represented in similar situations and how they fared” to “May I help you with this matter?” When the first step is firmly in place, the second is a natural and gracious extension.