Why Lawyers Benefit from Business Development Coaching with Elise Holtzman of The Lawyer’s Edge
In this episode of On Record PR, Gina Rubel goes on record with Elise Holtzman, founder of The Lawyer’s Edge. Elise is a former practicing attorney and a certified executive coach. She currently works with law firms to grow thriving businesses by helping lawyers become better business developers and leaders. After graduating from Columbia Law School, she practiced in two large law firms in New York City. In addition to consulting, training, and coaching, Elise frequently speaks for legal organizations such as the NJ State Bar Association, ABA Women Rainmakers, and the Leadership Council on Legal Diversity. Elise also writes about business development for publications such as the New York Law Journal and Law360. She recently launched a new podcast, The Lawyer’s Edge, to bring practical growth and transformation messages to the legal community.
What made you decide to pivot from practicing law to training, coaching, and consulting for lawyers?
It wasn’t necessarily a straight path. I started practicing law at big law firms in Manhattan. I was practicing in commercial real estate transactions, which I loved. I had no intention of ever doing anything else. However, over time, the lifestyle required of a big law attorney started to get to me. First, I married another big law lawyer. We both had crazy schedules. I remember clocking a 2,600 hour-plus billable year and wanting to be able to practice law and have a life. Then we wound up having our first child. I went back to work part-time: 40 hours a week for 80% of my salary. It sounded rational based on what’s expected of lawyers in big law. However, I wound up working more like six or seven days a week and was billing much longer hours for that same 80% of my salary because I was the most senior associate in my group. I was running hundreds of millions of dollars in deals. There were no coaches back then, at least not that I’m aware of. I wasn’t feeling that I had mentors, and nobody had ever mentioned the word sponsor back then. I thought, I’ve tried this thing and it doesn’t work. I said at the time that I was committing career suicide, but it was going to be great for our family’s life. I wound up being home with my kids for several years, which I can promise you, I didn’t expect to do. My kids sometimes joke that “mom was born in a suit, carrying a briefcase.” Yet there I was, being a stay-at-home mom. It wasn’t my choice in some ways, and at the same time, it was a choice that I was able to make because many families cannot afford to have one person staying at home.
Ultimately, it was great. I was grateful that I was able to stay at home. At some point, I decided it was time to get back to work. However, I had this mindset that I cannot make it work with a family and we didn’t have extended family around to help. I needed to be able to hold down the fort a little bit. I read a book called The Success Principles by Jack Canfield, who is one of the authors of the Chicken Soup for the Soul series. In The Success Principles, I learned about executive coaching and leadership coaching. It was like “the light bulb went on” for me. I had majored in psychology as an undergrad, and this was a way that I could use my talents and love what I do at the same time. I wound up doing a full year certificate program. I began coaching about 13 years ago and launched my practice, not entirely knowing what I was going to do with it but knowing that in some way I was going to serve lawyers. I’ve not looked back since and I’ve loved every minute of it.
In what way do lawyers and law firms need to change to be more successful? What are you seeing?
What most people notice is that the skills that we learn in law school aren’t the skills we come to necessarily need when we’re running law firms or practice groups. I like to say they gave us two things in law school. First, they gave us a foundation into law. Second, they taught us how to think like a lawyer.
We weren’t prepared for the everyday practice of law. I never received training on how to run a case or how to run a transaction. We were expected to learn those things as an apprentice. By that I mean Apprentice learning of the old-fashioned kind — at the knee of the partner who knows what he or she is doing. There’s so much more to practice than that. We come to find out that we need to do things like manage other people, manage up, manage down, keep clients happy, start law firms, hire and fire employees, make sure people are getting paid, market our law firms so that we can have clients, engage in business development so that we can develop relationships with other people, and bring in business. There’s always been this “country club” mentality about the law that somehow this is a profession that is above all of this stuff regarding sales and management, but anybody who’s in leadership at a law firm or has a small firm will tell you that these things are absolutely critical.
When I first started my practice 12 years ago, there weren’t that many people doing what I’m doing. There weren’t that many people who had left the law and were working as coaches and consultants for law firms. There’s been an explosion over the past few years of people doing that, which is great because there is a recognition in the legal community that there is a need to have people who’re willing to come in and help lawyers be better business leaders.
Do you only work with lawyers?
I do. I work with lawyers exclusively — I am with law firms. Every now and then, if an attorney comes along and says, “Hey, I know you do this, are you willing to work with me on that?”, I will get involved. As an example, I recently worked with someone who’s a “recovering” attorney and starting her own firm doing something completely different. She wanted to build a small firm and engage in business development. That’s why she was coming to me. I worked with her, but for the most part, I work entirely with lawyers.
You’ve written about the importance of law firms intentionally creating a business development culture. What is an intentional business development culture? Why is that important?
If you think about a law firm, you have the partners at the top, some of whom are good at making the phone ring and historically have done that. However, you often have those people at the top and then you have people coming up the pike who don’t know how to develop business, aren’t asked to develop business, and aren’t taught the skills to develop business. In fact, individuals in many mid- to large-size law firms are expressly dissuaded from developing business because the idea is that “You’re fairly young, you’ve got to learn the law, and you need to build the hours– that’s why we hired you. Turn out the hours and focus on becoming a good lawyer. We aren’t even going to mention business developments. You’ll worry about that later.”
While that may seem rational — certainly young lawyers need to learn how to become exceptional, to know the ethics of the situation, and learn how to handle whatever technical legal issue comes along– a law firm is a business, and you need people coming along who are going to be able to develop that business. What often happens is somebody picks their head up from a brief on their desk at eight years or 10 years out and says,
“Wow, I have been here a long time doing a great job. I’d like to become a partner at this firm.”
The firm says, “Yeah, we think you’re great but where is your business?”
“I’m sorry. Excuse me. What do you mean where’s my business?”
“Well, you need to have business to be a partner at this firm.”
“Well, no, I don’t. I don’t know anything about that. In fact, all the people that I used to have connections with, I’ve lost along the way because I’ve been so busy working.”
I’ve seen this with several firms and the second generation of this firm. Imagine a firm that starts up with some partners who leave big law, and they decide to come together and create a law firm. Let’s say for our sake, they started it in the 1980s. Now, we’re here in 2020. They started in the 1980s and they know how to make the phone ring. They have their experiences; they have their network and they do well. The next generation of lawyers who they may have hired for their pedigree or for their skills, aren’t developing business.
Suddenly those who started the firm are starting to retire. They’re starting to slow down. They’re not bringing in as much business as they were before. Maybe their contacts have retired. The firm is at risk because they don’t have the second generation of business developers and leaders. Building a business development culture, to finally get back to your question, is first understanding that you have a business development culture, whether you’re intentionally creating one or not. If someone said to an associate or junior partner, “What’s the business development culture at your firm?” Many of them would say, “What business development culture?” Most people aren’t doing it. There are several rainmakers in the firm, yet all the rest of us are doing their work. I don’t necessarily have job security because of that. Being intentional about it gives you the opportunity to shift your business development culture to something that empowers everyone inside the firm to contribute to both the future and the bottom line of the firm. There are a number of different ways to do that, but if you want your firm to live and to grow, and if you want to retain your top talent, it’s very important to be intentional about creating a business development culture that supports people in learning how to do it and in making it happen.
Gina Rubel: That’s a great answer. It’s interesting because I cannot tell you how many times I’ve walked into firms, especially the smaller ones, where they have grown two lawyers, two lawyers, two lawyers … and they have all these different practice areas. I tend to call them “hotels for lawyers.” They don’t have a practice management system. They don’t know how to do conflict checks. It’s this hodgepodge of a lot of things. When you ask them those questions, it’s fascinating that they don’t understand the importance of training and creating a culture for the younger attorneys, who are the future of the business. My dad was a lawyer when he graduated in 1971and there was a very low number of people in his class. There were two women and one African American. When I graduated from Widener Law School, we had 50% women and we had great diversity. However, the pool has changed. Where you might have had a sliver of the piece of pie, you now you have a sliver of a sliver of a sliver.
Elise Holtzman: There are 1.3 million lawyers in this country. It’s a competitive business. That is the other thing. I may be dating myself here, but there used to be an Oldsmobile commercial in which they would show an ultimate automobile driving across the screen. A deep voice would intone, “This is not your father’s Oldsmobile.” They were selling it to the younger generation. The legal profession isn’t your father’s or grandfather’s legal profession anymore. It’s not this situation where somebody hires you when you’re 27 years old and still are working with you when you’re 75 years old. It’s a much more competitive business.
It’s in fact, a business, which is one of the things that many lawyers ultimately find somewhat shocking. It’s important to recognize that you’re talking a little bit about culture generally. Instead of being a bunch of lawyers in a firm who aren’t a cohesive team, how do we create a cohesive team of people who work well together, want to stay together, and want to serve clients incredibly well? Having a business development culture is part of that larger culture. One of the reasons it’s so important to think about it and perhaps to start with business development culture, is that people can wrap their heads around that in a law firm. Yes, we need to develop business and we can develop a business development culture and wrap other things around that rather than this idea of culture generally. Developing, creating, or fostering a business development culture can be the starting point for having a cohesive firm that’s going to survive well into the future.
Can you tell me a little bit more about thoughts on helping lawyers navigate around that archaic way of thinking?
It’s very uncomfortable for many lawyers to think about sales– we equate that with the proverbial used-car salesman with the loud jacket, and the chains around his neck, who’s trying to sell you something that’s not necessarily valuable. To go back to this idea of us being a profession, rather than a business, people get uncomfortable with that. We are a self-selected group. I don’t know many people who went to law school because they wanted to become salespeople or because they were risk-takers. What happens is you’ve got the self-selected group that wants to be recognized for their good work. Many people are “the smartest person in the room” — they’re good at what they do.
That should be enough. I’d love that to be enough. In a perfect world, it would be enough. People would find you simply because you are you and are fabulous at what you do. But that’s not the world anymore. We’re living in a global marketplace. There are so many cross-border transactions. People aren’t staying with the same law firm forever, and they aren’t even going to the same law firm for all their work. There’s a competitive element to this. If you’re thinking that the word “sales” is ugly and you don’t want to be considered a salesperson, what I’d say is shift your mindset a little bit, and let’s talk instead about being helpful to other people and developing relationships.
When you, in a very ethical and tasteful way, let other people know what it is you do and how you can help them get what they need or avoid something that they want to avoid, that is sales, but it is not “salesy.” That’s the kind of work that I do with my clients at the law firm level. On an individual level, it’s helping them understand how to talk to people about what it is I do, whom I serve, and how it can be helpful to you. You cannot be helpful to everybody. That’s a whole other topic, but if you can be helpful, how can you do that? You also can serve as a resource for people and say, “Listen, let’s talk this through. If there is a way that I can be helpful to you, I’ll let you know that. If not, I’m going to help you find the right lawyer.” You grow your relationships that way as well. Of course, through referrals, there’s a lot of goodwill that comes, as well as a lot of referrals coming back to you.
Gina Rubel: That makes so much sense. As one who works in marketing and public relations, the result is always about client retention and acquisition. It’s great to know that you’re there to help the individual attorneys with their attorney marketing plans, with their client development plans, with nurturing, or to help lawyers find where they need to be.
Elise Holtzman: You mentioned the client relationship and the client retention. Those are critical. I also touched briefly on the idea of retaining your people. It’s very expensive for a firm to lose its people. There are all sorts of costs that are built into that, hard costs as well as softer costs in terms of lost time, productivity, and everything else. To retain your talent, it’s important to develop these cultures internally and to ensure that people feel that you’re investing in them. What I’ve noticed is that when firms train, educate, and support their people in engaging in business development or leadership development or whatever it may be, that that the folks they’re talking to become more loyal, and they want to stick around because somebody is paying attention to them. It’s not just about coming to this law firm and grinding out the work, particularly for the millennial generation, about whom a lot of people complain. I don’t happen to agree with most of those folks. Millennials are very hard working, but they also want to develop and to have ties with people. They want to be part of the conversation. Investing in time, energy, and sometimes money in your people, is very important for keeping your firm growing and thriving.
Gina Rubel: I couldn’t agree more. Being the owner of a company, I know it’s very expensive, and regarding that, your people should be top of mind. That’s something that a lot of law firms are starting to embrace and understand. As we come to the end of 2020, the world has changed. We’ve been through a year of pandemic, something we thought was going to last two weeks and instead has lasted countless months. We aren’t clear as to how long we’ll l be faced with some of these health issues.
What should lawyers be doing for business development since we cannot meet in person?
There’s a lot of talk about that among lawyers and law firms. As devastating as this crisis has been on so many levels — the health level and losing people in our communities– it’s been and continues to be a tremendous opportunity to build relationships. People at the beginning of the pandemic said to me, “I’m just going to stop working and worrying about business development right now. I’ll wait until this is over because I can’t go out to lunch with people, that sort of thing.” Recognize that you can continue to do two things to grow and nurture your existing network, one of which is nurturing.
Don’t forget about the people in your network– keep in touch with them, find out how they’re doing, and connect with them on a regular basis. You’re going to choose some to connect with more frequently than others. Second, grow your network. I can imagine people saying, “Are you kidding me? It’s a pandemic and we’re all shut down. How am I supposed to grow my network? That’s utterly ridiculous.” There are so many ways that you can both nurture and grow your network in today’s world. That involves checking in with people– picking up the phone and calling if you’re over a certain age. However, if you’re under a certain age, picking up the phone and calling is apparently “weird,” but that is fine as well. Connect with people through whatever channels you must use to get in front of them.
Get on a Zoom call with them, have a happy hour, and find out how they are doing. It doesn’t have to be business-related, but neither should it be too personal. Just remember that we’re all people before we’re lawyers, business developers or clients. As far as growing a network goes, I’ve grown my network dramatically throughout this pandemic, in part because I’ve done several webinars and I’ve attended many webinars as well. I’ve reached out to people on LinkedIn and said, “I thought your article was interesting. If you’d ever like to have a conversation, I’d love to talk to you.” Most of the people I’ve reached out to have said yes because I’m not spamming them. I’m not reaching out for no reason. I’m not selling to them.
I am looking to grow my network, meet interesting people, and see how I can be helpful to them. People are very open to that because many people are feeling isolated. There’s an opportunity here that hopefully will continue. Having to go out to lunch with someone or having to go somewhere in a snow storm to get to an evening event on a Thursday night when you have a million other things going on is potentially worthwhile, but also can be difficult. Now we have different opportunities, we’re learning to do different things, and I hope we’ll continue doing those things. Don’t throw in the towel because there’s a crisis going on in the world. Instead, use this as an opportunity to connect on a human level with other people. Some of it will turn into business, some of it will turn into relationships, and some of it will not turn into anything. Look at it as an opportunity instead of looking at it as “I’ve got to sit around and wait for another year to go by.”
There are people who are falling behind on platforms liked LinkedIn when they could be taking advantage of all they have to offer. When you’re a lawyer and looking to use social media for networking, LinkedIn is the place to be. For the most part, there are some pro law practices that may benefit from being on Facebook, but everyone will benefit from being on LinkedIn. I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again: If you are simply using LinkedIn as a big Rolodex in which you store your contacts (and by the way, it is great for that), just know that If you are looking for someone, you can dive right into LinkedIn and find that person. LinkedIn is intended to be an active networking platform for professionals, so use it for what it’s intended for. Don’t hang out there occasionally or not show up. I’ve met some fabulous and fascinating people on LinkedIn.
Do you have any book recommendations you’d like to share?
I read a lot of nonfiction books. My kids make fun of me. “Mom, are you ever going to read a fiction book again?” It happens occasionally. Thanks to the women lawyers who recently invited me to be part of a book club, I’m finally reading some fiction again. One of the books that I’ve read very recently is called Transitions: Making Sense of Life’s Changes by William Bridges. I raise it now because we’re all going through transition. No matter who you are and where you are on the planet, each one of us is going through transitions. There are a lot of challenges for people. There are challenges of space, educating children, not being able to go to work, not being able to find a quiet place, and health issues.
There are a lot of mental health challenges going on right now for people — anxiety and depression are coming up. I like this book because one of the things that William Bridges talks about in his book is the idea that every new beginning starts with an ending. We don’t take the time to realize that we’re ending something. For all of us right now, we’re ending working the way we’ve always worked and taking the time to stay in that space. Learning how to be okay with that space before we go into the new beginning is important. There’s an in-between space where some improvement, innovation, and excitement start to happen. Then you can go forward.
I like this book because a lot of people are saying this is the new normal, we must get used to it. That may be the case. However, I hope it’s not the new normal forever and that we instead come to something that looks a lot more like what we used to have. We’re in a situation which requires us to “rip-the-Band-Aid-off” — William Bridges gives good advice for going through something like this. It could be any transition that you’re going through in life, even a happy one like having a baby, getting married or having a grandchild. Whatever it might be, there is a process that he suggests for transitions that’s a powerful one. It helps people make that shift and do it in a happier and less stressed way.
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