Reframing Failure To Succeed In Business Development

The skills that make us good lawyers don’t necessarily make us good business generators, and in fact can be counterproductive to business development. To succeed in building a book of business, lawyers often need to use an entirely different skill set and attitude than what made them good lawyers in the first place.


Lawyers tend to test high for skepticism, urgency and impatience, and typically try to be “efficient” in relationships. (Dr. Larry Richard, Herding Cats: The Lawyer Personality Revealed, LawyerBrain LLC). In addition to this personality profile, lawyers are trained not to put anything out into the world that isn’t perfect and are generally risk-averse at work. For lawyers, anything less than perfection is a failure. Too often, good lawyers bring this risk-averse attitude to business development, and delay sowing the seeds for new business. They don’t put themselves out there as much as they should, whether it’s publishing articles, speaking at conferences, and—most importantly—asking clients for business. Many lawyers shy away from requesting introductions, making cold calls, or pitching business on a regular basis. Instead, they keep their head down in their work, staying squarely in their comfort zone. The direct result is developing less business than they otherwise could.

Many law firms have anecdotes about how the biggest rainmaker isn’t the “best” or most “detail oriented” lawyer , which makes sense when you break down the skill set and personality traits necessary for business development. In contrast to practicing law, business development requires:

  • A long-game approach, usually with no immediate results (a challenge for people who test high on the “urgency” scale).
  • Confidence putting yourself out in the world (often lacking in those who are worried about failure).
  • Being comfortable with unpredictable results (lawyers like certainty).
  • Optimism (lawyers are born pessimists).
  • Last but certainly not least: resilience. Bouncing back from rejection, not getting discouraged from a “failure,” and turning a bad experience into a business development opportunity.

So much of business development involves an element of luck—being the right attorney in the right place at the right time. However, this luck only strikes if you put yourself out there on a regular basis, often feeling like you’re spinning your wheels in the process. Too many lawyers stop after a few pitches or calls because they don’t want to feel uncomfortable or rejected. Others tell themselves they’ll pitch more when they are a bit more experienced, established in their field, or have a few more big wins under their belt. This is an easy way to avoid stepping out of your comfort zone.


Lawyer Business Person
Less than 100% is not a success 100% is not the right goal

Business is the goal

1 hit out of 100 is a success

Don’t put anything out into the world until it’s perfect The earlier you get used to putting yourself out there, the better
One failure will follow you for the rest of your career Responding to (perceived) failure the right way can lead to business
Practicing law requires immediate wins Business development is long-term relationship building
Risk assessment for attorneys, “Risk tree,” usually leads to a risk averse course of action 1 in a million… So you’re telling me there’s a chance!
Job requires pessimism Business development requires optimism


So, how do you change your mindset?

1. Understand Your Current Approach

First, acknowledge your view as a lawyer and recognize how it might be slowing down your business development efforts. Do you pass on opportunities to write or speak? Do you ask your contacts for business? Where are you holding back, and why? Being honest with yourself can help open you to a new approach.

2. Plan to Fail

Next, break your business development plan into small tasks and goals, focused on the process rather than the final result. In addition to standard items, such as doing people favors, connecting with former classmates and coworkers, and staying active in organizations, create a checklist that includes rejection as tasks to accomplish. This list should include making pitches that don’t get the business, writing articles that don’t yield calls from clients, and speaking at events that turn up no work.

Why would you include failures on your to-do list? Because business development is not about batting 1,000, and there are no rainmakers who haven’t faced rejection along the way. Rejection may be painful, but it is a necessary step to success. I’m reminded of a professional standup comic who kept a running count on a poster of every time he bombed, because he heard he couldn’t be a good comic until he bombed at least 1,000 times. He turned demoralizing bad performances into small wins every time he got to add to his chart. If rainmakers in your practice area tend to get one matter in the door for every 15 pitches, list out 14 unsuccessful pitches on your to-do list.

This process also helps you become more resilient, because the physical act of checking a rejection as an item off your to-do list helps you embrace the process and see that you are getting closer to your long term goal. This helps you put your self-judgement on the shelf, respond more positively, and bounce back quicker.

Remember: resilience in the face of rejection and responding positively can pay off. Countless attorneys didn’t get a job the first time around but—because they remained resilient and positive – they got the offer when a second position opened up. So too with business development—just because you aren’t the right person for the matter at hand doesn’t mean the client won’t call you for their next issue. Stay positive, accept the bad news gracefully, and continue building a positive relationship with potential clients.

3. Practice Makes Perfect

In addition to your business development checklist, practice stepping out of your comfort zone more often. Do something outside of work that scares you a little bit—Toastmasters, a singing class, improv—where you can fail without consequences. The act of failing publicly and realizing it’s okay will help you get outside your normal work/risk averse mentality.

In sum, try to reframe your views of “failure” with respect to business development and remember that no rainmakers have a 100% success rate, or anything close to it. Even if changing your mindset seems impossible, open up your business plan, check off “failure”, and look at how it’s getting you one step closer to success!

About the Author

Liz Stone is the founder and principal of Stone Legal Search, a premiere attorney search firm in California, and is the chair of the ABA Legal Career Central Board of Directors. She can be reached at

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