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.