Jordan Furlong, legal industry consultant and popular blogger, and I have recently been emailing about “courage” and what it means to lawyers and their clients. He just published a penetrating post called “What Leadership Really Means,” that gets to the heart of courage and why it’s so important for lawyers to understand it. Fundamentally, because it’s what clients want from you.
Here is an excerpt that shows where courage slips in:
…Either recommend something or recommend against it, strongly if you so choose; but you must take a stand with your advice and you must sign your name to it. Invariably, every new lawyer in the company, when first confronted with this memo, comes to John asking for the middle-way option, and he always refuses. The client, he tells them, is paying us to advise them. So: advise — and be ready to live with the results.
I found this a really interesting practice, because it forces the lawyer to shift from the easier role of “analyst” into the more perilous role of “advisor.” We’re quite comfortable, as lawyers, with analysis: it’s an intellectual exercise that allows us to occupy a safe, low-stakes position. The “reasonable person” that we fetishist in the law is an analytical construct, an imaginary neutral against whom we measure actual human behavior for fun and profit.
Advice is a different beast. Clients act on advice, making decisions that carry consequences. You’re not just writing a memo anymore; this time, it counts. It’s the difference between “What does the law say?” and “What should I do now?” There’s a good argument that advanced technology (e.g., expert applications, IBM’s Watson) could provide sound legal analysis; but nobody seriously argues that technology can render trusted counsel, or that any client would act on such counsel even were it offered. To my mind, a lawyer “grows up” the first time she gives actionable advice to a paying client. You’re not just writing a memo anymore; this time, it counts.
Most law firm partners with whom I work are extremely good at both analysis and advice. The older they are, the more that judgment and past experience inform their counsel – and the quicker the advice comes, even when confronted with an issue, challenge or opportunity they haven’t seen before. When interviewing partners, few are wafflers when they describe the role they play with clients – they are clear-headed, sharp-witted and pragmatic in the advice they give. No flip-floppers. And most of them love what they do.
Why then, when it comes to business development and marketing decisions that impact their firms are the lawyers immediately less comfortable, less courageous? They fall victim to what Jordan describes above as occupying “a safe, low-stakes position.” The daring lawyer who is a zealous and outspoken advocate for his client’s position becomes afraid to stand out or be memorable when it comes to positioning strategy, branding design, messaging, even a business development approach that could help him win a new client.
Over a recent lunch I asked Jim Dolan, an executive coach and psychotherapist who works with a lot of lawyers, about this phenomenon – this courage double-standard. Our conversation centered around this, and I invited Jim to dig deeper. He said:
“Discussions of courage often begin with the literal meaning of the word. It’s an old French word derived from the Latin ‘cor‘ for heart. Knights would pledge their hearts, i.e., their lives, to their lords in a solemn act of ‘courage.’ The knight was literally giving his heart, and the meaning of giving one’s heart is fidelity. Nowadays, we call this a fiduciary pledge.
“These archetypes lie not too far below the surface of the modern business agreements that bring lawyers and clients together. And not just lawyers, but professional advisors of all kinds. When I retain you for your advice – that is, ask you to go to battle for me, I am not asking that you hedge your answers, I am asking that you act on your fiduciary pledge and give me what lies in your heart. And what lies in your heart is all that you really have to pledge to the marketplace.
“Does this mean pretending to be a battlefield general in corny TV commercials? Of course not. What it means is to know your own heart, and speak it loudly and clearly – in court, client meetings, and in marketing and business development. This is what makes potential clients say to themselves, ‘that’s my lawyer.'”
“I once undertook a major remodeling of my home, an effort that would involve the relocation of walls and an overall revamping of the floor plan. I had no idea how best to accomplish this, and really wanted someone WHO KNEW WHAT THEY WERE TALKING ABOUT to tell me what to do.
“I retained an architect and explained to him that I wanted to create a more open living space, but had no idea what the best configuration would be and I needed him to show me what would be best. His response was to draw up plans on graph paper and mail them to me with ‘what do you think?’ scrawled across the bottom of the page.
“I did not know what to think; I was not, am not an architect. I had no idea what the final results would look like, which is why I hired an architect. We went around and around on this for a while, before I finally fired him and the contractor stepped forward and said, ‘here is what I think would look best,’ to which I said ‘thank you’ and the house is, to this day, as he recommended.”
Some law firms employ a toe-in-the-water approach, believing that partial acceptance of a strategy works (i.e., provides a return on the investment). These lawyers think that if the initial little test didn’t hurt too much, then they can try a little bit more the next time. It’s like tasting Kale for the first time – no one starts with a heaping plateful. With positioning, business development and marketing strategy, however, watering it down or taking baby steps just puts you smack-dab in the middle of the noise – with the tens of thousands of other messages that we receive on any given day.
Here are the cold, hard facts: We receive 30,000 messages each day (in 2002, it was 10,000). The only way for us to deal with this blizzard of activity is to tune out those messages that don’t make it into our short and long-term memory. We tune out consciously, sub-consciously and unconsciously. We all do it. Your clients are tuning you out right now and they aren’t even aware they are doing it!
A sad by-product of the recession is that law firm leaders lost courage – they lost their willingness to show their heart. In 2005-2007, positioning strategy for large U.S. law firms was evident and often distinguishing. Clients knew what these firms stood for. Not so today. Budgets were slashed in 2008, but they have gradually been restored. Today’s “strategy” is almost universally business development centered – win more work. I should say, profitable work. That’s good – but not to the exclusion of an over-arching strategy that differentiates you among your many fine competitors.
Effective, resonating strategy, messaging and design can elevate you, make you memorable and enable you to own your prospect’s mental real estate (your client or prospect’s brain is the ultimate land-grab). But lawyers have to be willing to share and show their heart to be memorable. To put that stake in the ground. To want to be remembered. (NOTE: If they don’t remember you, they can’t hire you.) And even if they like you and the work you do, they still hire other firms.
So, lawyers, take a hard look in your marketing mirror and be critical. What is your strategy? What is your position, your brand? For what are you known and remembered by the people who matter most to your career? Where is your courage?
It takes courage to design a memorable strategy and brilliantly execute it. The other things it takes are commitment, consistency, cleverness and cost. When it comes to winning at marketing and business development, 10% or 20% courage doesn’t cut it. Be as committed, pragmatic and driven in your marketing choices as you are in representing your clients. I promise, it will be rewarded.