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The Surprising Myths and Realities of Law Firm Rainmakers with Dr. Heidi Gardner [PODCAST]
Monday, April 10, 2017

In this podcast, John McDougall of McDougall Interactive and the www.legalmarketingreview.com blog speaks with Dr. Heidi Gardner of the Harvard Law School Center on the Legal Profession about law firm rainmakers and collaboration following her keynote address at the Thomson Reuters Marketing Partner Forum.

John McDougall: Hi, I'm John McDougall, President of McDougall Interactive and blogger at legalmarketingreview.com. Our guest today is Dr. Heidi Gardner, Distinguished Fellow from the Harvard Law School Center on the Legal Profession, speaking about the myths and realities of law firm rainmakers. Dr. Gardner was recently the keynote speaker at the Thomson Reuters Marketing Partner Forum, and we're excited to hear how it went. Dr. Gardner, what are a couple of your key takeaways from the Marketing Partner Forum?

Dr. Heidi Gardner: Well, John, thanks for having me today. One of the key takeaways from the Managing Partner Forum is something that strikes me again and again, with various law firm audiences. That's the idea that no matter how big or small, whether it's a boutique or a full-service law firm, the idea of getting partners, lawyers and administrators to collaborate is an ongoing challenge. I think that that strikes me as, not surprising, based on my research, but it's incredibly energizing when I see a room full of people who come from these very diverse kinds of firms, and yet they're able to coalesce around an issue that is just so critical for the legal profession and, I would say, getting more important every day.

John: Whether you're a solo practitioner attorney or at a huge firm, do attorneys tend to be more lone wolves?

Dr. Gardner: I wouldn't say attorneys do tend to be more lone wolves. I think there's a misconception that we see enormous differences between different professions, and I'm actually not seeing that in my research. I find that within the legal sector there's a whole range of behaviors, people who are lone wolf to incredibly collaborative. I see the same thing in other sectors, whether it's consulting, or engineering, or lots of different kinds of organizations. You see people who exhibit very different behaviors, some of which is driven by the nature of their work. For a large transaction naturally you need to pull different kinds of expertise in.

But I see people even within legal services and transactions; they could be far more collaborative in the sense of pro-actively anticipating how different kinds of experts are going to add value. Then you have other people who are simply reactive and almost grudgingly bring in people from different practice groups or geographies.

Law Firms and Collaboration

John: In your decade-long research what has been the most profound discovery you’ve made regarding collaboration?

Dr. Gardner: The most profound discovery about collaboration is that it's not a soft topic. So many people have the misconception that collaboration is the same as a collegial environment or big group hugs. What we've been able to show with our research is that collaboration is an absolutely essential means to an end. That end should be superior client service, really delivering the most value for the client's toughest problems. The profound surprise has been that we can demonstrate empirically – with numbers, data, analytics – the outcomes of collaboration and the different kinds of collaboration that lead to more and less beneficial results.

Characteristics of Rainmakers

John: Okay. What is the secret to rainmakers’ seemingly magical success?

Dr. Gardner: It's not magical at all; it's really down to a few characteristics and then ongoing and sustained work to develop the kinds of relationships that lead to those rainmaking outcomes. The characteristics, I think, that rainmakers exhibit, fortunately, are not ingrained characteristics. They're not personality traits per se; they're actually learned characteristics and capabilities. The ones that I see being most important are: number one, curiosity. I think a rainmaker who is truly superb at her job is somebody who walks around the world trying to understand how things work. They take that same sense of curiosity into their client. They're not looking from a particular, small, technical, legal angle at a client's problems.

They pull up and they say, “What exactly is the nature of what we're seeing here? What is the root cause? What are the implications? How do we connect this to different parts of the business or the organization?" Rainmakers who have that kind of curiosity, it's really contagious. They can engage their clients in these broader reaching conversations that unearth all sorts of opportunities to bring in the full force of the firm and deliver much higher value and higher revenue and profitability sorts of matters. The curiosity is absolutely essential. The other characteristic that people need is courage. And courage can be learned and developed over time.

But rainmakers are the ones who are not afraid to go in and have a conversation with their client about the most sophisticated, complex, thorny issues the client is facing, knowing full well that that conversation will touch on areas where the rainmaker is not, herself, the expert. And I think a lot of lawyers hesitate to open up those kinds of conversations, because they want their client to see them as all-knowing and powerful experts. What the misconception is, from a lot of wannabe rainmakers, is that they can't admit to their clients that there are areas that they don't know about.

But a real rainmaker has the courage to go in and ask the broad-reaching questions with the full confidence that, even when the conversation goes in a direction where they can't personally deliver the legal answer, that they can at least ask some smart questions and be able to return to the firm and find the people who can help join forces to tackle those complicated issues.

Do extroverts make the best sales people?

John: That’s fascinating. It reminds me a little bit of a keynote that I saw at Hubspot’s Inbound Marketing Conference. I can't remember the woman's name, but she was fantastic, about how people tend to believe that extroverted people make the best sales people. She talked a lot about how introverted people with a lot of curiosity and not always in your face, or “ambiverts” that are somewhere in between, may not necessarily always make the better sales people, but often excel quite a bit. Have you heard about that idea of ambiverts and introverts in sales?

Dr. Gardner: Absolutely. I think that's another misconception, that a lot of people believe that in order to have true rainmaking success that you need to be some social butterfly and be tremendously charismatic and outgoing. The characteristics that I just described in terms of curiosity and courage don't correlate necessarily at all with extroversion. And, indeed, people who are – whether we call them ambiverts or on the introvert side of the spectrum -- I think can be incredibly powerful in those conversations. Because rather than jumping in with their first response – which is a typical extrovert characteristic to jump in, even interrupt people, engage in some banter, and back and forth – the introvert will listen and reflect before speaking. And that moment of reflection is absolutely essential.

Partly what it does is give the listener time to process the information; it gives them the opportunity to consider what the real issue is that the client is talking about and not react initially and intuitively to the area that is the sweet spot for what they personally can deliver, but to have a more considered approach and think through, “What else is it that has broader implications or might draw in some of my fellow colleagues who have their own deep and specialized expertise?”

How do attorneys become successful rainmakers?

John: How do attorneys who don't exhibit these characteristics become successful rainmakers or build some of those skills, no matter what level of the spectrum they fall on?

Dr. Gardner: I've just published a book called Smart Collaboration: How Professionals and Their Firms Succeed by Breaking Down Silos. In that book, we take the approach that people are starting at different places on the collaboration journey. One of the chapters is dedicated to people like I just described, people who aspire to develop a big, broad portfolio of sophisticated clients, but need those opportunities. Absolutely nothing substitutes for hands-on direct experience, and so up-and-comers, whether they're senior associates, or junior partners, or counsel, they need to be striving to have the opportunity to observe and, over time, take on increasingly significant, hands-on roles themselves.

That apprenticeship model is really the best way for people to develop those skills. That obviously puts a big responsibility on existing rainmakers to develop that pipeline. The up-and-comer who is hungry for that opportunity can't do it herself, but she can be proactive in helping people who are in those client relationships to understand what she brings to the table. In the book, we describe how people can take specific steps to clarify what their expertise is, to develop a range of capabilities that they anticipate different kinds of clients will need, and find ways to explicate that in very practical, very concrete ways.

“Here's what I know. I’ve done some research. I understand you served this client. And here’s how this kind of expertise could really bring some value to that client.” I think it shouldn't be seen as altruism – partly that goes along with the mentoring relationships and sponsoring relationships – but it’s also beneficial for that rainmaker to find these up-and-comers and leverage their expertise. And so the juniors need to be able to find ways to make that visible and concrete.


John: And what are a couple of quick tips for the senior attorneys in mentoring?

Dr. Gardner: One of the most important things to look for if people are rainmakers and they have identified an opportunity inside their client to bring in different kinds of experts, rainmakers need to understand that their gut reaction is to turn to one of two kinds of people. Inherently, they will either turn to a mini-me – they will turn to somebody who is just like them but just happens to be 15 years younger. This instinctual response is completely natural and adaptive the way humans have evolved, but it means that we are not giving opportunities to people who bring different kinds of perspectives and different kinds of experiences in broadening that client team. So rainmakers need to look out for people who are distinctly different than they are and value what else could be brought into that client relationship.

The second kind of individual that rainmakers might turn to is what I call the Yoda. It's the guru, it’s the jedi, it’s somebody who is absolutely seen as all-knowing, at the top of their game. Again, totally natural response, because you want the best expert to help your client solve these tough problems. But the issue with turning to the Yoda in the firm is that everyone else is probably turning to them as well, and they are likely to become bottlenecks.

They might give you short and sharp advice, but they’re not going to be there for the duration of the client relationship, because they're just overloaded. So my advice to rainmakers is think about who comes to mind first and then don't call that person, call the next person. Or, if you do call the usual suspect, don't call them to get them involved in the project; ask them for a recommendation. We've initiated a program in one firm that we call the Hidden Gems Program. It's not a formal mandate but it is a request for rainmakers to do exactly this; to reach deeper into the organization, unearth the people who are hungry for the opportunities, who might get overlooked for one of those two reasons I mentioned earlier, and figure out how to create opportunities, leverage their burgeoning expertise, and allow them to develop in the rainmaker skills like courage and curiosity.

The Internet and Rainmaking

John: Those are really actionable tips, thank you. I want to shift gears a little bit towards where the Internet has taken things. How has rainmaking changed because of the Internet and the fact that most people do so much research before hiring someone that they already know who they are going to work with before a sales person calls?

Dr. Gardner: I think more information and more transparency is important, provided that that information is accurate. I think that what we can learn ahead of time, really should allow us to think carefully about who we bring to that initial meeting. If I'm on the rainmaker side and I'm well informed, at least from what's available publicly and what my BD team has provided me and so forth, I should be able to anticipate at least some of the challenges and opportunities that are on the mind of my client, or my potential client.

Beyond that, I should have the desire to figure out who else in my firm – which of my colleagues, whether they’re partners or other kinds of individuals in the firm, have perspective that can be brought to that client. You’re not going to hit the bull's eye every time, but by teaming up and developing a joint pitch or even a joint needs assessment meeting, you are much more likely to have the voices in the room and the brains in the room that will help you identify where are the critical issues on the client's mind, and what kinds of resources, what kinds of expertise, what kinds of perspectives can we bring that will allow them to tackle a problem in its more holistic sense, rather than taking a single slice at it, which may end up superficially treating the wound but not actually healing it in the long-term.

John: Okay. Part of my thinking there is maybe a little different with business development with law firms. But in traditional sales these days, they say cold calling is dead and 57%, or some percent along those lines, of people have already sorted out who they're going to hire. How are the activities – is it cold calling or managing the referral, getting referrals – how have those things shifted in the last, say, five years? Have certain things really stopped working, whether it's cold calling or something like that?

Dr. Gardner: I don't have the data on cold calling per se, but surely what we know from the research in the analytics that we've done is that it is a far more fruitful and profitable approach to think about expanding relationships in existing clients. There is a tremendous amount of white space available for firms who do this. And so if there is an existing client where you're servicing them with only one discipline, one practice group, there is a real risk that that single service over time gets commoditized and the client doesn't see it as tremendously value add, because there are substitutes elsewhere. It's really only when you've got that initial practice group in there that have colonized the client, with the knowledge that they have gained, and the insights about that client's business, they should be able to identify opportunities to bring in complementary skills sets that synergistically they can use to serve the client to do more sophisticated work.

If you think about it, which buyer has the remit for more sophisticated problems? Chances are in a well-run organization they’re higher and higher up the food chain. Well, guess what they also have when they’re higher up in the organization. They have bigger budgets and bigger discretion about whom they hire. So there are many reasons why expanding existing relationships to develop a better understanding of the client, to help them co-create solutions that are custom- tailored for them, that’s a much more sophisticated way to think about growing a business than cold calling which incurs tremendous amounts of cost, has a much lower probability and really doesn't allow people in many instances to deliver the full force of the experts within their firm.

Modern Rainmaking Tools – Blogging and Social Media

John: What are some of the most effective modern rainmaking tools such as blogging and social media?

Dr. Gardner: Any digital tool that allows an expert to disseminate the kinds of real thought leadership that they have been developing is a potential tool for getting the message out. I have seen rainmakers really profitably use tools such as blogging to showcase the kinds of expertise that they are developing and allow people to dig in and understand quite quickly how it is that their expertise addresses very concrete and specific issues that a client needs. I think that tools like blogging are effective as a starting piece, but what I hear from board members and C-suite executives all the time, they’re not really out there searching the blogosphere.

What the blog allows a rainmaker to do is to get their message out to other kinds of people in client organizations, and those could bubble up to the people who are the ultimate buyers. When you're really talking about the most senior people in an organization who have the biggest budgets, what they want is somebody to be able to take the ideas that they’ve perhaps pushed further, because they've been blogging and they've been interacting with different kinds of organizations, the real senior people want somebody to take that kind of expertise and write them a three line note which says, "Here's what I have written generally, and specifically you need to pay attention to point number two, because in your organization we think the biggest threat for you is X.”

It's that level of deep insight and tailored knowledge that's really going to set rainmakers apart. I don't think that mass-marketing for people who are true experts is going to get them much more than an audience of individuals who can then take that idea forward.

They're really going to need to take the extra step and make it customized and tailored in order to get the purchase that they want with the most senior executives.

John: Yes. I couldn't agree more that the thought leadership with the blogging can be used to share that with your people you're in the business development process with. I think those are great tips. Thank you so much for speaking with us today. How can people get in touch with you?

Dr. Gardner: One of the first ways is to take a look at my book. One of the ideas that I'm trying to promote now is to make this a truly collaborative process. So my book Smart Collaboration: How Professionals and Their Firms Succeed by Breaking Down Silos offers a lot of advice. But what I'm seeking is feedback from people who’ve read parts of the book and want to challenge it, want to illustrate it with their own examples or want to ask questions. My contact details are there, and I welcome people reaching out to me with those kinds of inputs.

John: Okay, fantastic. This has been John McDougall with Dr. Heidi Gardner. Check out www.legalmarketingreview.com as well as The National Law Review at www.natlawreview.com for more information and interviews on legal marketing. I'm John McDougall, thanks for listening.

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