Sales and You: A Bright Future?

You work in sales if you are an attorney at a law firm, regardless of its size. And how you feel about working in sales will largely determine both your level of success and your level of happiness.

So if you’re considering hanging out a shingle, partnering up with a friend, or joining a law firm where there will be a sales expectation, i.e., that you will immediately or eventually bring in clients, consider this question: when you think about what it takes to do well in sales, do you see yourself as similar to supersaleman Zig Ziglar, or more akin to loveable slacker Lloyd Dobler in Say Anything?

I spent a year as a solo. Then I got a job offer to do transactional work at a big corporation, and I took it. Why? Partly for the economic security, but now, two years later, I realize that there’s another, more important reason I walked away from my solo practice, just as I was (I think) beginning to make some progress: I enjoyed representing clients, but I hated selling my services, which meant selling myself.

It’s not you, Sales. It’s me.

I’m striving to make this distinction between me and people who do well in sales descriptive, not normative. I’m not suggesting that if you are excited about getting out there and meeting people and telling them you’re a lawyer and charming the heck out of them, there’s something wrong with you. If you’re that kind of person, I think that’s great—really. My father-in-law worked in agricultural insurance sales, enjoyed it, and did well, and he’s a person I try to emulate in many respects.

But selling made me miserable, because it just didn’t match up with the way I instinctively relate to people individually and to society as a whole. I am really put off by some of the people that do well in both law and business (the distinction between the two being very much open to debate).

“Always be closing.”

The nature of law practice makes selling a unique challenge. A person who opens a shop selling her hand-made jewelry will work unceasingly to produce great products, and to get it in front of people. If the jewelry is great, marketed effectively, and priced competitively, it should sell. A new solo attorney, particularly with no track record of practice, has no product to display yet, and nothing to show to potential customers.

This created, for me, a serious level of discomfort. Every time I walked out my front door, the salesman in my head told me to sell. Every human interaction I had was framed (in my mind) by the fact that I needed to let people know I was a solo (and had, um, room for a new client or two). I’d take my son to his baseball game and curse myself for enjoying the sunshine and not chatting up all the other parents there, just so I could, at some point, get around to mentioning that fact. It would have felt slimy to do that, so I didn’t. But because I didn’t, I felt like a failure.

Another tough part is how the distinction between public and private time is destroyed. If you are always selling yourself, you never get to display (outside the house, at least,) the part of your personality that no one would want to buy, like the parts that are shy, or impatient, or a little bit rowdy.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m only shy in the arena of selling. Among my friends, I am more the talker than the listener. I love to speak to groups. But the whole “walk in the room and make all these people you’ve never met love you” thing, well that person ain’t me. If it’s you, you’ll do well. But if the thought of trying to be that person makes you squirm, you might want to stay away from jobs where selling is part of the job description. And that narrows your possibilities as a lawyer considerably.

(photo: Shutterstock)

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  • I really don’t want to be a harsh or hectoring here, but what you have written demands a forceful response. Please do not take it personally, but professionally.

    “You work in sales if you are an attorney at a law firm, regardless of its size.” What is the experiential, documentary or ethical basis for your belief that this statement is true? The “Always Be Closing” mentality has a rather bad cinematic pedigree. Glengarry Glen Ross is NOT an instruction manual, but a cautionary morality tale even for mere commercial activity, let alone the public trust of a law license. Did you happen to see beyond the first 11 minutes of that film?

    Many attorneys, including attorneys in law firms, do not do sales. Many associates are walled off from client contact; many private attorneys do not engage in “sales” in order to maintain or build their practices. In addition, the profession enacts many rules to DEFEAT and RESTRAIN the salesman mentality (e.g. Rules 7.1-7.5 in their various local dialects.) Even those attorneys who must earn the confidence of their prospective clients probably should not, and ethically probably must not, engage in “Always Be Closing” tactics or motivations. Further, attorneys even in presenting the merits of their employ owe at least limited fiduciary duties to prospective clients; they are not “leads” or “marks” but beneficiaries of the law licenses entrusted to their prospective attorneys, no matter what 21st Century Lawyers say. Many attorneys simply outline courses of conduct, refer out inappropriate clients or projects, encourage clients not to retain because the economic or non-economic costs of hiring an attorney don’t make sense. Many attorneys receive their some or most of their paying clients on the recommendations of other ethical attorneys, Bar referral services, PD panels or other neutral, non-Madison Avenue sources that treat them as clients, not as marks.

    If you believe that you must always be closing, you are almost by definition engaging in prohibited solicitation in-person or on the telephone part of the time. Walking into a room and “selling” ourselves to a bunch of strangers is NOT what Bar Counsel or the courts want us to do in any jurisdiction; I bet the cost of a Baltimore crabcake that our significant others don’t want it to happen either. It’s one thing to make sure that people, at the culturally appropriate moment, learn that you are an attorney, a taxidermist or a hardware store manager; in American culture that moment usually comes earlier than it does in e.g. Britain. It’s another to treat clients, prospective clients or general acquaintances as the “Glengarry leads.”

  • Bruce, thanks for your comment. Your factual recitations are for the most part true. But your interpretation of my post, in particular its tone, is utterly wrong. That you take my one-off sub-headline reference to Glengarry Glen Ross as suggesting that the film (and yes, I’ve seen all of it, more than once) is somehow instructional for lawyers is beyond discouraging.
    My point was that as a solo I FELT that in my interactions with people (at least outside the walls of my home) I needed to be always selling myself and my legal services (rather than just being whoever I felt like being at the moment). That made me think of the desperate and pathetic salesmen in the film, particularly the one played by the late great Jack Lemmon. I was treating the film as a personal analogy, not as an instruction applicable to lawyers or anyone else. My reference to the film (combined with your correct interpretation of the film) makes your complete misinterpretation of my post that much more surprising and disappointing.

  • Guest

    This is less and less true as solos tend toward “niche” practices and do the bulk of their marketing through online channels.

  • Bruce — “ABC” = rainmaking. Don’t read more in to it.

    The distinction between law and business isn’t debatable; its one and the same unless you choose to practice pro bono from the day you pass the bar. The practice of law can’t happen without attending to the business of law, and like it or not rainmaking is the ante in the game in professional services be it law, wealth management, what have you. The competency delta for established, credentialed attorneys can be measured with a micrometer. The difference maker is personal chemistry with the potential client.

    • Please, Chuck. ABC isn’t rainmaking; “rainmaking” is a pitch line from the front web page of the marketing service you appear to sell. ABC is the depraved sales philosophy of a fictitious criminal real estate enterprise from a film, which philosophy Mr. Mergendahl appears unwittingly to have taken (with misgivings, to his merit) into his unsuccessful attempt in solo practice. Junk in, junk out.

      As for the business of law, I need no condescending lecture on it from a marketing pitchman in my 18th year of practice. The competency “delta” for “established, credentialed attorneys” is enormous; perhaps one could measure it with a micrometer brought in on a flatbed, lifted with a crane and powered with a hydraulic press. The “business of law” differs dramatically from that of mere commercial enterprises for reasons obvious to the holder of the lowest passing score on the MPRE, and “personal chemistry” (did you trademark that too?) matters a lot less than the ability to find and deliver solutions to problems.

      There could be merit to the services within your company, just as one may find an undigested oat in the random cow patty, but I’d be damned if your company is where I would send one of my Maryland mentees based on what you’ve written here.

      • My only point was Andy used ABC as a metaphor for rainmaking. If you think I’m a slimy marketing pitchman so be it. My background includes M&A, business formation, and politics and I’ve observed both the practice and business of law from the client perspective. I have plenty of clients and they agree with my view for the most part. Best of luck to you, Bruce.