Seven Ways to Make Your Business Development Training More Effective

Change is not easy. We celebrate those who have made changes, from the people who’ve lost 200 pounds to those have led the transformation of Fortune 500 companies. We read books about them and study their strategies; and yet, the percentage who succeed in such endeavors remains quite small. On one level, change is fairly straightforward: consume fewer calories than you burn; choose a clear business strategy and implement it; and, in the case of business development, increase credibility and create great relationships. Yet, knowing what to do is distinct from having the courage to take the action and the skill to implement it effectively.


While learning best practices certainly has a place in any change initiative, the fact remains that lack of knowledge is rarely the biggest obstacle. This puts training programs in an awkward position, since most of them focus primarily on simply conveying information. Tips for how to maximize the impact of your business development training programs may be helpful. Some of these points address the content of the programs themselves, while others suggest ways to create a culture that promotes business development and incentivizes lawyers to actually use what they learned.

  • Make sure training has an experiential component. Many lawyers think that if they just knew the right words to say, that they would become suddenly more effective at asking for business, networking, following-up, etc. However, the barrier to effective action is more often lack of confidence or lack of emotional intelligence. Mock conversations with colleagues, on the surface, may seem very different from having those discussions with prospective clients. However, it provides a lower-pressure environment for attorneys to develop those skills and build confidence. Once they have practiced conversations a couple times, doing it in a “real life” situation becomes much less daunting. Practice conversations also provide lawyers with the opportunity to get feedback and better understand how they may be coming across to others.
  • Give participants a chance to share their victories. Psychological and neuroscience studies have affirmed that people learn better when they are feeling more positive. Helping program participants to recognize where they are already succeeding leads them to be more receptive to the new ideas, information or approaches offered by the trainer. Plus, hearing collogues share their experiences can generate new ideas and inspire others. Sharing victories also provides a great way to maintain momentum and enthusiasm even after a training program is completed. For example, taking a few minutes during a practice group meeting or dedicating a segment of the firm’s internal newsletter for acknowledging individuals’ progress and successes encourages forward movement, promotes new ideas and approaches, and creates an additional incentive for lawyers to take action.
  • Give participants a chance to share challenges. This is important for two reasons. First, it lets the lawyers know that they are not alone, and reduces any sense of shame that they may be feeling about their own perceived inadequacies. Business development is very challenging for many people, and lawyers often feel isolated and alone, as if something were uniquely wrong with their character, their level of discipline, etc. When training includes the opportunity to discuss challenges, it promotes a sense of community, encourages dialogue, and reduces the sense of shame that many lawyers feel in this area.

The second reason is that it helps the lawyers to focus on where they are stuck. When people take the time to think through their specific obstacles, it is often not so difficult to choose a viable path forward. However, in the course of a workday, with numerous people and projects vying for our attention, most of the time our minds just skim over the most challenging areas, and instead, we spend time on more comfortable tasks, like regular billable work. A structure that helps lawyers to identify and focus on their personal challenges tends to be very productive. This can be included in training as well as incorporated into the design of buddy and mentoring structures.

  • Make sure incentives are aligned with the rhetoric. Designing a coherent system of incentives that includes compensation structure, performance reviews, opportunities for leadership positions and status, among other factors, creates fertile soil for a successful business development culture to grow. While this may seem obvious, many firm continue to send mixed messages. For example, the managing partner, marketing department and trainers may talk about the value of cross-selling, while the financial incentives or the lack of emphasis on collegial relationships among partners discourage it.

Remember that while compensation structure can provide a significant incentive, that alone may not generate adequate motivation for some lawyers. Numerous studies have shown that, for most people, financial incentives become much less compelling once they are making enough money to meet their perceived needs. A service partner may be able to make twice as much money by bringing in his own clients, but if he has enough to pay his bills, send his kids to college and take some nice vacations, the possibility of additional compensation may not be sufficient to motivate him to go outside his comfort zone and learn a host of new skills. Creating new policies and structures takes time and a high level of commitment from firm leadership. However, investment in this area truly sets the foundation for long-term success and amplifies the impact of trainings, coaching and all other interventions.

  • Create a buddy system to encourage people to practice the skills addressed in the training. Usually buddies are a designated pair or triad of people who are expected to check in with each other on a regular basis, perhaps daily, weekly, or monthly, for a certain period of time. Buddies may meet in person, by telephone, communicate by email or text, or some combination, depending on their needs and preferences. Ideally, buddies tell one another the actions they plan to take, and then talk through any obstacles that got in the way. Buddies can provide accountability, as well a sense of partnership and support.

To maximize the effectiveness of a buddy system, create some clear incentives and transparency. A typical buddy system, without any additional structures in place, will be very helpful to some, and less so for those who don’t engage as regularly. However, when a buddy system is integrated with a firm’s mentoring structure and incentive system, it can be a powerful engine for propelling participants towards greater action and success. For example, when, “Met with buddy monthly for at least a half hour” is one of the factors measured under the business development segment of lawyers’ yearly performance reviews, and when mentors regularly asked their mentees about their buddy meetings, this greatly enhances the level of engagement and results.


  • Create a mentoring system specifically for business development. Although many firms have some form of mentoring system, they are usually intended to help associates adapt to firm life. In contrast, mentoring programs focusing on business development are generally designed to help partners and senior associates. Mentors may meet monthly or quarterly with the mentees to discuss challenges, victories and strategies. This dialogue not only promotes the dissemination of wisdom and institutional knowledge, but also encourages deeper, more meaningful relationships, leading to greater cooperation and collegiality within the firm. If that were not enough, it also sends a clear message that the leadership is taking business development seriously, and puts more pressure on lawyers to step up and start generating more business. The level of accountability created is also significantly greater than you find with buddy systems. After all, no one wants to confess to one of their firm’s power players that they didn’t take the actions they promised at the previous meeting.
  • Offer individual coaching to those who are interested. While mentors and buddies can offer new ideas, accountability and a sense of community, certain types of support are best provided by a trained coach. First of all, a coach is better positioned to help clients explore more deeply the topics and skills presented in a training. For instance, a workshop may address ways to ask for business and give participants a chance to practice briefly with a partner. The individual coaching may go more in depth with that same practice conversation, allowing the person to try out multiple approaches, refine a single technique, or discuss his concerns about the nuances of a particular circumstance. While mentors and buddies may touch upon such topics, they generally don’t address them as thoroughly and systematically as does a coach.

The second area best left to a coach is helping attorneys overcome their unique individual obstacles. For example, it is not unusual for a brilliant, highly competent attorney, with great social skills, to be stuck around business development because he simply doesn’t like self-promotion. While this may look like an immutable character trait, in fact, it is simply a matter of perception, and as such, well within the range of coaching to address. Everyone has slightly different underlying concerns. One person may feel that he doesn’t really belong in the community in which he is trying to network. Another may struggle with perfectionism. While managing partners, mentors and buddies may be stymied when faced with such issues, this is where a coach can make a huge difference.

Creating change in a law firm environment can be extremely challenging; and yet, it can and does happen every day. More and more firms are pursuing comprehensive programs to help their attorneys work together more effectively and bring in more business. Even incorporating one or two of the elements described above will dramatically increase the results produced by your business development training programs.

About the Author

Anna Rappaport is a former lawyer, and the founder and principal of Excelleration Coaching, an executive coaching firm for lawyers based in Washington, DC. She is a member of the Law Practice Today Editorial Board. Follow Anna on Twitter @CoachAnnaDC.

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