In Altman Weil‘s 2017 survey on “Law Firms in Transition” which could be renamed, “Law Firms in Stagnation,” 386 law firms submitted data that depicts a sad state of business development in the legal industry. As I read the survey, from my particular perspective as a business developer, I had one recurring question: Where is the training?

In the survey of 386 law firms, 88% said they have “chronically underperforming lawyers,” and of that 88%, 82% identified “weak business development skills” as a key factor.

Forty-five percent rated their partners’ awareness of the challenges in the legal market as low. And at least 11 firms reported that their partners’ “willingness to change” was 0 on a scale of 0-10.

Although the question wasn’t specifically asked, none of the firms reported that they were taking specific steps to train any of their lawyers in business development.

Seventy percent of respondents reported that they had invested more in (undefined) business development, but only 29% say it has helped. Sadly, this is no surprise. It is still common for law firms to allocate resources to marketing and business development, but grossly underutilize those assets.

Lawyers routinely get trained in how to use the tools in the firm – the telephones, email, document management, time & billing, Westlaw – all resources they can’t get through the day without. Yet, training on how to cultivate clients – the lifeblood of the firm – is absent. Even firms with full-service marketing departments often make training voluntary.

One reason this disconnect exists is because leadership is not able to define what business development is, or they define it too narrowly. A good law firm business development program has multiple, integrated components – starting with high-level staff that has a “seat at the table.” Training, and access to good competitive intelligence, is crucial to a good program. Competitive intelligence gives clear understanding of what competing law firms are doing and what’s trending on the client side. Armed with this kind of knowledge, lawyers begin to understand that they are operating in a marketplace.

noun  mar·ket·place \ˈmär-kət-ˌplās\

the economic system through which different companies compete with each other to sell their products

Lawyers who cling to the idea that the mere mention of the firm name carries enough prestige to get hired and continue engagements are lagging behind. This antiquated attitude is self defeating, as if recognizing and responding to competition turns the learned profession into a meager occupation. Hence the recrimination, “You are running this law firm like a business!”

The resistance to thinking like a business illustrates the paradox of lawyers’ attitudes as, alas, most of their clients are involved in business, at least in some way. The ostrich-like response to market pressures does not serve a law firm or its clients. When I hear, “I didn’t go to law school to become a salesman,” or “I don’t want to engage in shameless marketing,” I know that’s a cop-out that comes from a place of fear. The only way to conquer that fear is to acknowledge it and provide the tools and training to overcome it.

In the business models of most law firms, the cost of establishing a comprehensive business development system is relatively low, but the cost of not doing so is extremely high. Passivity in this area is not sustainable. Training in the business development system should go hand-in-hand with training in any other law firm system. To practice law is to develop legal skills throughout a career. Developing business requires career-long practice as well.

There are abundant resources law firms can avail themselves of to train lawyers to generate business, serve clients and contribute to the bottom line. Dialing lawyers in to modern business practices is imperative if firms want to thrive.

Other fun facts from the survey:

  • 18.2% said “We don’t want to use data because it’s potentially controversial or divisive.”
  • 15.7% said “We don’t know how to use the data effectively in management decisions.”
  • 8.5% said “We don’t produce any profitability data.”