Small Law Firms

Small Firms, Big Lawyers: Why Lawyers Suck at Sales

Ed. note: This is the latest installment of Small Firms, Big Lawyers, one of Above the Law’s new columns for small-firm lawyers.

Funny story: One day during my third year of law school, I overslept and missed an important session of my Sales class. The problem is, when I tried to get the notes for the class, the only one who had … pardon me? Yes, Sales. No, not UCC Sales. “Sales.” As in “How to Market and Sell Your Legal Services.” … So, anyway, the only one who had the notes … what’s that? You didn’t? Seriously? So how were you supposed to learn how to sell your services as a lawyer?

Turns out my story, which was going to be hysterical, was also completely fabricated. Like you, I didn’t learn a damned thing about sales in law school. But at the time (the early nineties), that seemed OK. It’s a profession, you see. Sales is for commerce. Lawyers aren’t in commerce; we’re in a vocation.

Yeah, right.

As the practice of law careens away from its eighteenth-century traditions, where clients just find you, lawyers today (and especially small-firm lawyers) need to rely on sales skills to bring in business. Since we didn’t learn these in law school, we have to rely on our natural sales ability. Unfortunately, lawyers tend not to have any.

In fact, as a group, we suck at sales. But the reason we suck will probably surprise you.…

Lawyers are known for having healthy egos, but when it comes to selling our services, most of us lack self-confidence. Part of the problem is inherent in what it is we’re selling. Most lawyers think they’re selling their time, and when they’re charging hundreds of dollars for the mere passage of 60 minutes, it’s hard to believe that we’re really worth it. Especially since we’re so good at wasting it. I can easily waste an hour watching the latest Charlie Sheen retrospective; if I billed at $600 an hour, was my time really worth a new iPad? #notwinning

In fact, we’re not selling time; we’re selling knowledge. But that’s also difficult to sell. It’s easier to sell something you can get your hands on — like a Shake-Weight — than something less tangible like knowledge. Hence, the suckage.

Then when we do start thinking about sales, we tend to approach it all wrong. The typical scenario for small-firm lawyers starts with a generalized feeling that you need to go out and “market,” whatever that means. So you fill your pockets with business cards and you head off to the local Chamber of Commerce networking event. At this point, a root canal looks more appealing. You get to the Best Western’s Function Room B, you look around in vain to see if you know anyone, and then you awkwardly try to mingle among the printer-shop owners, massage therapists, and (of course) other awkward lawyers. Maybe you’ve set yourself a goal: hand out ten business cards, collect ten business cards. (Of course, if you’re a more-modern lawyer, you’re collecting Twitter names instead.) Then off you go into the crowd, dealing cards like a Vegas washout.

If you do manage to get yourself into an actual conversation, then you feel the pressure to sell yourself and your services. I always sucked at this. In my library, I have about 40 different books on sales. None of them really helped. My problem is that I hate to be sold to. If a telemarketer calls me up, whether at home or at the office, I lose them as fast as possible. When I’m at a Radio Shack to buy a hard-to-find battery for my car’s key fob, and the pimply nerd in the polyester golf shirt starts trying to hard-sell me a new cellphone (”Are you happy with your current cellphone? Are you? ARE YOU?!”), I am barely civil. I want to buy things; I don’t want to be sold to.

So when I’m at an eighth-circle-of-hell networking event, I don’t want to be that Radio Shack guy with the cellphone tic. I don’t want to sell.

Fortunately, I got help.

Six years ago, I got a marketing and practice-management coach. Dustin Cole runs Attorneys Master Class and has been helping lawyers in firms of all sizes around the country for more than a quarter of a century. Cole defines his work as helping attorneys transform their practices into highly successful legal businesses. He has worked with more than 30 state bar associations and has personally trained over 30,000 attorneys through his workshops, training programs and one-on-one coaching. And he does it with a 100% money-back guarantee (like the Shake Weight, only less ridiculous-looking). In the first year after I hired Dustin, my firm’s revenue rose 26 percent. I’ve been working with him ever since.

One of the first things I learned from Dustin was that I sucked at sales. (Actually, I already knew that.) But because of that, my own discomfort with the selling process was perceptible, at least on some level, so that the prospective clients picked up on my discomfort, and quickly ran the other way. My unease about selling was making the people I was trying to sell to uneasy.

Dustin explained that I was going about it all wrong, especially at these desultory business mixers. “You schmooze, you lose,” he says (really). In an article called “Nine Marketing Keys To Your Best Year Ever,” Dustin explains that it’s all about relationships, not sales:

If you believe that personal referral marketing is about “schmoozing” people, you’ll be frustrated and disappointed. No one enjoys — or trusts — insincere, manipulative people. Referrals are made out of “know, like, and trust” — from sincere “friend” relationships — and not from sales, coercion, or pressure. Focus on building genuine trust relationships with referral sources and let go of the need to sell yourself. Discussions about “business” will come up naturally, or sometimes not at all. Just remember: it’s about the relationship.

Dustin taught me not to think of my job as finding people to sell to. Instead, think of it as finding people to help. He was right: I hate selling to people, but I like helping people. Then I don’t feel so uncomfortable about being sales-y. Instead, I can comfortably feel like I’m setting myself up as someone who could be helpful.

Lawyers (and especially small-firm lawyers): Stop thinking about sales and networking. Start thinking instead about relationships and helping. And find a coach like Dustin.

Because we didn’t learn sales in law school, so we need to learn it some other way.


Jay runs Prefix, LLC, a firm that helps lawyers learn how to value and price legal services. Jay Shepherd also spent 13 years running the Boston management-side employment-law boutique Shepherd Law Group. He writes the ABA Blawg 100 honoree The Client Revolution, which focuses on reinventing the business of law, and Gruntled Employees, a workplace blog. Follow Jay on Twitter at @jayshep, or email him at js@shepherdlawgroup.com.

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