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The Myth of the “Natural Rainmaker”

“Shes a natural. You either have it or you don’t.

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In 20 years of coaching attorneys, I frequently heard remarks like this, where “natural” referred to rainmaking ability. For many lawyers, it was accepted as an article of faith, not requiring substantiation. Lawyers were either “natural rainmakers” or not. This belief is tantamount to suggesting that really successful attorneys are “natural lawyers.” If true, you’d have first-year attorneys who could try cases or lead complex transactions shortly after joining the firm. Patently absurd, it insults the hard-won skills and experience of seasoned lawyers, who honed their craft for decades.

There are no naturals at the top levels of anything.

In many fields, some people begin with natural advantages, e.g., young athletes who are stronger, faster, more coordinated than others. Or musicians who pick up an instrument and play it.

Professionals earn their capability
Natural proclivity is fine for hobbyists. Making it as a professional, where only a small percentage can succeed, requires a long, rigorous process of gaining experience. Malcolm Gladwell’s books say that expertise requires 10,000 hours of “focused practice, coaching and feedback.” At 2000 - 2500 hours worked per year, it’s no surprise that it takes four or five years of practice before attorneys have real “lawyering” capability.

“Rainmaking” is a comfortable euphemism for “selling.” Selling is a profession that requires knowledge, skill, training, and experience, just like law. For 20 years, putative “naturals” thrived in what the legal media describe as a perfect storm of the due process explosion, deregulation, and the litigation boom creating twenty golden years of profitability for law firms.

A Seller’s Market occurs when you have consistently higher demand than perceived supply. During the Golden Age of Law Firms, “rainmakers” enjoyed favorable business conditions that will never be replicated. In a seller’s market, one merely needs to show up consistently and accept the orders.

Running around in a storm with a bucket is not rainmaking, but  receiving  kudos  for  getting  wet  every  day  while  your colleagues stayed inside, warm and dry. Success owed more to perseverance than proficiency. Persistence was sufficient.

“Competition” was an abstraction
When there’s plenty for everyone, “competition” is an abstraction. If you don’t get this case or deal, you’ll get another one. Previously, you had 100 lawyers competing for 150 cases. Now, it’s 150 lawyers competing for 100 cases. Failing to get this case or deal more likely means getting no case or deal.

Fierce competition means it’s a zero-sum game, i.e., business you get is at another lawyer’s expense. Showing up remains necessary, but is no longer sufficient. Lawyers with sales acumen will outshine those who rely on mere persistence. These conditions will reveal the rainmakers.

The nature of “demand” has changed, too. We’re also seeing narrow demand at the top, for the top-tier legal stars who have a rare ability to solve high-stakes, high-value problems reliably, even artfully. However, it’s the tiniest slice of the legal service market, and irrelevant to most lawyers, whose skills are now equalled by countless competitors’.

Succeeding in a Hyper-Competitive Market
The future  belongs  to  lawyers  who  establish  and  protect differentiated market positions, and win head-to-head sales competition. If you doubt that, look at the top four consulting firms, whose service offerings are indistinguishable. What capability does Deloitte offer that PWC, KPMG or E&Y can’t? In mature categories, service offerings don’t determine competitive success; marketing and sales prowess do.

Lawyers who embrace the “natural rainmaker” notion choose to believe that these skills cannot be learned. Part of this is simple self-interest, driven by fear. After all, if rainmaking is the province of “naturals,” and I’m not one, I can’t be expected to make rain. I don’t want to operate in a world to which I’m not well-suited, subject to rejection, frustration and humiliation— all at great cost in time, energy and psychic bruising. I want to believe in “naturals” (or anything else that frees me of this frightening obligation).

During the 25-year seller’s market, those who were persistent and resilient in the face of rejection ‘naturally’ did well. Studies on lawyer personalities consistently show that up to 80% of lawyers are introverted thinkers who are terrified of rejection, so being a bulldog probably can’t be taught. But being a bulldog doesn’t make you a natural rainmaker. In a Buyer’s Market, tenacity is still necessary, but is no longer sufficient.

The winners in today’s revenue-generation game are those who  embrace  disciplined  decision-management  skills  akin to their lawyering skills. Such techniques can be learned by any lawyer, and are actually better suited to more introverted personalities. If you look at Accounting, Consulting, and other mature professional services where it’s been proven conclusively that these processes can be taught, you’ll see that, in a buyer’s market, the introverts can make rain as effectively as do the bulldogs. Some firms and lawyers behave as if the recession will end soon and things will return to “normal.” This is more the product of deluded hope than astute observation. (If things return to what has been normal for 20 years, once again, I won’t have to contribute to revenue-generation.)

Welcome to the “Buyer’s Market”
As Dan DiPietro, head of Citi’s law firm group, is widely quoted of late:

  1. Demand for legal service, especially for full-price US law firms, is trending downward,
  2. Billing rates are trending downward,
  3. Cost-reduction strategies (by which PPP levels were sustained in 2009-2010) are exhausted and not repeatable, and
  4. Firms and lawyers that succeed going forward will do so at the expense of their competitors.

These are classic signs of a mature business category, which means the shift from a seller’s market to a buyer’s market is structural and permanent, and that lawyers now permanently face the harsh competitive reality that their clients have wrestled with for decades. The business press describes this as the “new normal.” Based on other industries’ experience with boom/ recession cycles, this is a compelling argument, unless you believe that law somehow remains immune to macro business forces.

Some forward-thinking law firm leaders believe that diminished demand is only half the threat. The other half is the growing non-law-firm competition. Even if the economy recovers quickly, more demand will be absorbed by Legal Process Outsourcing, technology solutions replacing routinized legal work, and clients keeping a larger percentage of their work in-house.

If you accept that the rules have changed forever, you’ll invest  in  preparing  current  revenue-generators  to  modify their approach to better align with the Buyer’s Market, where their “pitch” mentality now turns off buyers. Ironically, the personalities of many lawyers who have never developed business before are better suited to the more subtle approaches that succeed in a Buyer’s Market.

The upshot of all this is that the revenue-generation game for lawyers has shifted from product/service capability to marketing/sales capability. Relying on a handful of part-time, opportunistic rainmakers is dangerous. Accept, as do all your clients, that marketing and sales are survival-level business functions that you’d better take seriously.

Mike O'Horo

Mike O'Horo is a serial innovator in the law business. His current venture, RainmakerVT, is the world's first interactive online rainmaking training for lawyers, by which lawyers learn how to attract the right kind of clients without leaving their desks. For 20 years, Mike has been known by lawyers everywhere as The Coach. He trained more than 7000 of them, generating $1.5 billion in new business. Mike can be reached at mikeohoro@rainmakervt.com

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Filed Under: Featured StoriesPersonal Development

About the Author: Mike O'Horo is a serial innovator in the law business. His current venture, RainmakerVT, is the world's first interactive online rainmaking training for lawyers, by which lawyers learn how to attract the right kind of clients without leaving their desks. For 20 years, Mike has been known by lawyers everywhere as The Coach. He trained more than 7000 of them, generating $1.5 billion in new business. Mike can be reached at mikeohoro@rainmakervt.com

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