Monday, December 3, 2018

The Simple Way to Overcome Business Development Aversion in Lawyers

Many Lawyers eschew business development networking and outreach. Intuitively, they know they need to do it, even admire those who are successful at it. But privately, they call it ‘schmoozing’ or ‘glad-handing’ or some other negative connotation. Given the choice, they would rather have a tooth drilled.
The industry’s response has been to exclude these lawyers from training programs preferring instead to ‘work with the willing.’ But as many as 30% to 40% of a law firm’s lawyers are averse to participating in business development programs, networking activities and, what was once described to me as ‘forced’ social interactions. Assuming these activities produce results, and they do, that’s a lot of new clients left out of the firm’s mix.
Maybe we’re addressing Business Development Aversion (BDA) all wrong?

Neuroscientific studies suggest a better way to deal with individuals’ aversion to certain situations like networking and outreach activities. The technique to overcome this aversion is surprisingly simple, having already been proven effective in almost every other situation from dealing with loneliness, eating disorders, anxiety, relationships, work performance, and even depression. It does not replace business development training, social skills development or the need to get out of one’s office. Instead, studies suggest a simple change in the instructional technique and approach is all that is needed.  
The studies indicate that the most effective way to overcome business development aversion is to change how these lawyers think about networking and outreach activities. Changing a person’s mindset is, as Carol Dwerk showed in her seminal book, Mindsets, an important path to performance improvement. Fortunately, Dwerk’s techniques can work on anyone, and work on anyone easily.
The reason for the aversion, I suspect, is that BDA lawyers tend to expect networking and outreach activities to go badly. They expect to feel bad when networking or reaching out to others and project in their minds that others will also feel bad or be put off by their outreach. They approach the activity with the expectation that they will be unsuccessful, which in turn builds negative emotions into their perspective and, by extension, their behavior and body language. In other words, this expectation transmits itself to others, who detect these feelings and become less approachable themselves.  
Furthermore, it is contagious as well. BDA lawyers not only communicate negativity about these activities to other lawyers but they also elicit it from others reinforcing and perpetuating those same behaviors in others.
In my coaching, I hear lawyers make up excuses or create rationales for why their assigned outreach to a prospect was not done. They explain it as no longer worthwhile, a possible interruption, that they lacked the time or that somehow the call plan was no longer appropriate – all of this despite having agreed to it in the previous session. While their explanations are varied and seemingly rationale, their reasons have one thing in common: They had no factual basis for the perception that led to their lack of action. That is, they’ve created the rationale in their head and had no indication from their prospect that timing (or any other reason) was making the outreach a bad idea. My probing almost always confirms this.
Aversion to business development is not a function of schooling, upbringing or firm culture. The profession of law does not include inherent personality traits that work to self-select lawyers from the need to network, reach out to others or otherwise grow their practice. We all choose our perspective, including attorneys. We each have filters through which we view situations. It’s just that some of us have learned to control the aperture of our lens to find the positivity in situations. Observe the best rainmakers in your firm and you’ll see lawyers with confidence, positivity, empathy and who embrace social interactions. You’ll see lawyers with a ‘growth mindset’.

Lawyers with BDA have increased sensitivity to and actively surveil their world for negative social responses. They process negative social information first, remember more of the negative aspects of social events, hold more negative social expectations, and are more likely to behave in ways that confirm their negative expectations. This negative orientation perpetuates a deepened and more entrenched aversion to networking and social outreach. The loop of negative thinking is excusable in that it does have some short-term self-protective features. But over the long term, it builds significant and lasting adverse effects on an attorney’s physical and mental health and well-being.
While it seems obvious to address the situation head on through more training, mock social interactions or to guide them in creating snappy elevator speeches to raise their comfort level in starting business conversations, these tactics do little to overcome the core resistance to such situations. The aversion does not result from the situation. And yet, as BD trainers we tend to focus on the situation, not the perception of the situation. The source of the problem is in their heads. Fortunately, turning an aversion mindset about networking and outreach around is surprisingly easy to affect in others.

A growing body of research suggests (along with my own experiences) that emphasizing the positive outcomes, finding the good, emphasizing the small objectives which have been achieved or otherwise focusing the mind on searching for the positive in the interaction, goes further to rework the lawyer’s mindset about business development. The simple question, ‘What good happened?’, releases the benefits of training. Not just coaches and trainers can help to build a ‘good’ finder’s habit, but practice groups leaders, peer attorneys and the firm’s leadership can play an important role as well.  

A positive mindset gives the business development training traction because it makes lawyers more receptive to the techniques by no longer filtering those techniques through a lens of negative anticipation. But the benefits reach far beyond the bottom line.

Guiding and helping to shift the mindset through coaching, ideally through both professional coaches and internal mentors, is an effective way to ensure that the business development training takes root. Coaching amplifies its effectiveness, especially when that coaching is focused on more than accountability for action but on shaping their perceptions of success.

The mind responds to feelings of empathy and gratitude just as it does to feelings of anxiety and disappointment. The neuroplasticity of the mind enables it to choose which emotions it will focus on. As business development professionals, we have to get better at identifying and helping BDA lawyers to change their mindset and focus on the positive outcomes that reside in every business development interaction. It is how law firms can truly ‘run on all cylinders’ in their business development efforts.

I’m not saying its wrong to only ‘work with the willing’. Sometimes early wins are important to the acceptance of new programs. But I do think more attention needs to be paid, and more compassion shown for, lawyers stuck in the negative mindset of self-doubt, a mindset that inhibits their success and the success of many law firms.