Years ago I read The Trusted Advisor by David Maister, Charles H. Green and Robert F. Galford. It was one of the first books I had read that I felt really applied to lawyers.

I was so impressed that we formed a group of lawyers at my old firm who read the book together and met monthly to share ideas.  We actually captured our main takeaways in two PowerPoint presentations and shared those with other lawyers in the firm.

The Trusted Advisor

Let me share one example I found helpful:

In The Trusted Advisor the authors made a point that technical skills are not enough. You have to see the world from your clients point of view.

They quote Stephanie Wethered, an Episcopal priest who describes our ability to emphatically listen as being in direct relation to how closely we can feel what the other person feels. The authors then list 23 things that good listeners do. According to Maister, Green and Galford, they:

  1. Probe for clarification
  2. Listen for unvoiced emotions
  3. Listen for the story
  4. Summarize well
  5. Empathize
  6. Listen for what’s different, not for what’s familiar
  7. Take it all seriously (they don’t say, “You shouldn’t worry about that”)
  8. Spot hidden assumptions
  9. Let the client “get it out of his or her system”
  10. Ask “How do you feel about that?”
  11. Keep the client talking (“What else have you considered?”)
  12. Keep asking for more detail that helps them understand
  13. Get rid of distractions while listening
  14. Focus on hearing your version first
  15. Let you tell your story your way
  16. Stand in your shoes, at least while they’re listening
  17. Ask you how you think they might be of help
  18. Ask what you’ve thought of before telling you what they’ve thought of
  19. Look at (not stare at) the client as he or she speaks
  20. Look for congruity (or incongruity) between what the client says and how he or she gestures and postures
  21. Make it seem as if the client is the only thing that matters and that they have all the time in the world
  22. Encourage by nodding head or giving slight smile
  23. Are aware of and control their body movements (no moving around, shaking legs, fiddling with a paper clip)

These are great tips and just one reason The Trusted Advisor is well worth reading, and sharing ideas.

Greetings from West Palm Beach, Florida, where the weather is pretty awesome. I’m here for the last coaching sessions with a group of lawyers I have coached this year. One thing we’ll talk about is what separates the superstar lawyers from the stars.

Several years ago, I spoke to first year associates during their law firm orientation. Right before the conclusion of my presentation, I asked for questions. A very astute first year lawyer who had listened intently asked:

What is the difference between lawyers who are stars and lawyers who are superstars? (My paraphrase of the question).

The young lawyer’s question caused me to remember that about 20 years ago David Maister wrote a chapter about dynamos, cruisers and losers in his book True Professionalism.

Bman Bwoman Working SS 2134913

I went back to the chapter and read what he said about cruisers. First he indicated that we all cruise at sometime in our career. Then, he said:

Cruising means working at what you are already good at, and in consequence usually means a low-stress comfortable work life.

Finally he wrote:

The difference between Dynamos and Cruisers is rarely one of ability. Rather, it is one of attitude.

Here is what I have seen when successful lawyers are not getting better. They do some or all of the following:

  1. Become content with their achievement
  2. Focus on what they already know rather than what they don’t know
  3. Quit doing the things that got them to $1 Million a year in business
  4. Take clients for granted
  5. Quit trying to attract new clients
  6. Become cautious, like a sports team with a lead playing not to lose
  7. Refuse to share credit with their colleagues
  8. Do not look for opportunities to add value for their clients with work the firm does outside their practice area.
  9. Let any disappointment or setback cripple them
  10. Fail to keep up with changes in the legal profession

In essence, they simply begin their retirement on the job. They are cruising.

Superstar lawyers I know view a great year to be an event not an achievement. The achievement comes from continuing to strive to get better.

I have some questions for you.

But, before I ask them, if you are a Legal Marketing Association member, Shawn Tuma and I will be doing a webinar for you on February 17. Here is a link to the registration: Simple Ways to Effectively Use Social Media to Help Build Your Law Practice Sponsored by the Social Media SIG.

Back to the questions:

  1. Are your star associates staying with your firm?
  2. Are they learning the skills that make them valuable to your clients?
  3. Are your partners behind the effort to train and develop the associates?
  4. What are effective ways to train and develop them?

I got the opportunity to answer these questions during a presentation to managing partners at an annual bar association meeting. I loved the title they gave me. It gave me the opportunity to focus on how to connect with the ‘next generation,’ make the business case for developing them, and then give specific ideas on how to do it.

How do you connect with your next generation? Associate lawyers want to be part of a law firm that:

  • Is honest with them and does not “sugar coat” what it will be like to work at the firm after graduation;
  • Has a clear sense of purpose, vision, and core values, and makes clear what each lawyer can do to contribute to the firm’s success;
  • Emphasizes the importance of teamwork and recognizes the contribution of even the most junior lawyer;
  • Offers challenging assignments;
  • Focuses on training and development of its lawyers;
  • Models the behavior it expects from associates;
  • Provides mentoring and coaching;
  • Provides constant feedback rather than just one or two times a year;
  • Has the most up-to-date technology and uses it;
  • Appreciates diversity and embraces it;
  • Focuses less on hours and more on the quality of the work done by associates; and
  • Is a fun place to work.
How do you make the business case? Your partners know they cannot make rain alone and your clients want your junior lawyers to be as prepared to help them as your senior lawyers.
When I was the partner responsible for attorney development in my firm, I made the business case to my partners. Knowing my partners would need proof of my argument, I offered it from two books. In Aligning the Stars authors Jay Lorsch and Thomas Tierney state:
  • “Starmaking” is more important to long term success than “rainmaking”;
  • The people you pay are more important over time than the people who pay you; and
  • Developing a star is a multiyear task.

David Maister produced evidence of these premises in Practice What You Preach. Based on his review of the most successful professional service firms, he concluded:

  • You must train, energize, and excite your people;
  • If you do, the quality of work and service will be increased; and
  • If it is, the profitability of the firm will be increased.


I was a practice group leader for many years. It was a thankless job. Each month I got a report on the “productivity” of each lawyer in my group and I was frequently told to “make” them more productive.

I finally fired our most “unproductive” income partner and learned for the first time that while I had the authority to “make” income partners more productive,  I did not have the authority to fire one who would never be more productive.

If you are ar regular reader, you might recall my blog: Is Your Firm Rewarding or Punishing Practice Group/Office Leaders?

I don’t see much has changed. I still see the same problems with practice groups. Here is my take on some of them:

  1. For client development and everything else external, it makes no sense to organize practice groups around law what the lawyers do (corporate, real estate, litigation.) For everything external, it makes sense to organize by industries.
  2. Practice groups rarely have a strategic plan or a marketing plan. (I created one for my group and was then asked to help other practice groups create theirs. If you are interested, I will share our practice group plan with you.)
  3. Practice group leaders are not asked to lead. They are asked to manage.
  4. Practice group leaders are rarely given any leadership or management training.
  5. Practice group leaders are not compensated or held accountable for the success of their group.
  6. Practice group leaders are not given the authority to allocate funds for marketing and other expenses to lawyers within the group.
  7. The lawyers selected to be practice group leaders are not always the best to take that role.
  8. Practice groups either have no budget or do not have the appropriate budget. (My old firm’s litigation and corporate practice groups were allocated the largest amounts for marketing and could barely spend a quarter of the budgeted amount.)
  9. Finally, for many law firms, the lawyers within the practice group are silos or fiefdoms competing with each other rather than their competitors outside the law firm.
If you are interested in reading more, consider reading Patrick J. McKenna and David H. Maister‘s book First Among Equals, or their 2002 paper ON BEING A PRACTICE GROUP LEADER.


I am frequently asked how a lawyer can differentiate herself in her clients’ and potential clients’ eyes. Given that in any city there are many talented lawyers in each practice area, the question is a good one. Seth Godin might ask: How can you be “remarkable” in your clients’ and potential clients’ eyes?

To be “remarkable,” you must do things most other lawyers are not doing. Lawyers I coach are likely surprised when I tell them that the one skill that will easily differentiate them is how well they listen. Most lawyers don’t do it very well. Just suppose your clients were out there telling their colleagues and friends that you listen to her better than any other lawyer, what do you think would happen to your practice?

I have written about the importance of listening and a few months ago my friend Eric Fletcher wrote a guest post for me titled: Intentional Listening: How To Find Practice-Changing Opportunities.If you have time, go back and read what Eric wrote.

Recently I read: Communications: Are You Listening? I found that the Canadian Bar Association was focused on lawyers developing this skill:

The Canadian Bar Association’s Task Force on Legal Literacy identified improving lawyers’ listening skills as an important step toward improving the delivery of legal services to clients with literacy challenges. The average person spends at least 55% of the day listening. Why not do it more efficiently?

Take a look at the article because there are some good ideas on listening. I found a recent blog post titled: 5 Simple Ways To Be A Better Listener. If you actually commit to the 5 ideas, I am confident you will listen more effectively.

When lawyers I coach ask me for recommended books to read, one I frequently recommend is The Trusted Advisor  by David Maister, Charles Green and Robert Galford. The book includes a great chapter on The Art of Listening. In an earlier chapter the authors identify two problems I see in many lawyers:

The prime obstacle to focusing successfully on the other person (in our experience) is the apparently common belief that mastery of technical content is sufficient to serve clients well…

Another major obstacle is the inability to focus concentrated attention on the client. In the midst of a conversation with a client, we are likely to find ourselves with thoughts like, “How will I solve this problem?” “How will I get the client to buy this idea?” “What am I going  to say when the client finishes talking?” “How can I appear expert?”

I know the authors have it right. I have caught myself on more than one occasion having one or more of the very thoughts they describe.

At the end of their chapter on The Art of Listening, The authors list 23 things that good listeners do that make them good listeners and a second list with 10 things great listeners don’t do. Both of the lists are well worth studying.

Ok, I have given you lots of potential reading on the importance of listening and how to do it more effectively. I want to hear from you. What are you doing to become your clients’ best listener?


Over the years since I left practicing law, in addition to coaching, I have helped firms, practice groups and offices develop their own strategic plans. That involves the firm/group/office focusing on improving. Here are seven suggestions:
  1. As David Maister suggested years ago in an article, focus on Balance Sheet (long term profitability) as much as Income Statement (current profits).
  2. Be purposeful looking for “First to Market” opportunities by focusing on what is happening in your clients’ industries.
  3. Focus on how services can be delivered more efficiently and effectively
  4. Train your younger lawyers not only on law; but also on client relations, law as a business, client development and career building.
  5. Help each lawyer prepare a written plan and establish goals. Help each Practice Group/Department and Office prepare a strategic plan and establish goals. In each case make the goals both financial statement (short term) goals and balance sheet (long term) goals.
  6. Ask each Practice Group Leader/ Department Chair and Office Managing Partner: What is your Practice Group/Department/Office doing to improve your level of client satisfaction? What are you doing to develop, inspire and energize the lawyers in your Practice Group/Department or Office?”
  7. Measure and reward collaboration, teamwork, client service and satisfaction for partners and career development for associates.

I have shared my Construction Law Practice Group Strategic Plan with you before. If you want to take a look at it to help you with your own Practice Group/Department/Office plan, click here.

Three weeks ago many of us were glued to our television sets for the NCAA final game between Duke and Butler. It was one of the most exciting  NCAA final game ever. Players on both teams played as a team and the coaching was outstanding. Watching it made me think of how well lawyers play as a team.

They say business school teaches MBA students to collaborate and law school teaches law students to compete. If that is true, then it is no wonder why some law firms, offices or practice groups are made up of individual lawyers who are focused on themselves. 

My old firm and many other law firms remind me of the 2004 US Olympic basketball team. Very few firms remind me of the 2008 team, or the Duke and Butler teams we saw three weeks ago.  David Maister wrote about this problem in Are Law Firms Manageable? One humorous point Maister made was: 

If lawyers deal with each other so poorly, why do they do so well financially? My answer is only partly humorous: The greatest advantage lawyers have is that they compete only with other lawyers.

David Maister is right. I remember several years ago the great fear law firms had about the prospect they might some day have to compete against accounting firms.

The 2004 U.S. Olympic basketball team included the most talented NBA players, but took a third-place bronze medal because the players had a “me first” attitude, and were less focused on the basics than the Argentine and Italian teams.

With Coach Mike Krzyzewski coaching, the 2008 U. S. Olympic team got back to basics and teamwork. The players may have been less talented than the 2004 team, but they built a team and focused on fundamentals. Coach K spent three years molding what became known as “The Redeem Team.” When they won a hard fought final game against Spain, the entire team showed up for the press conference. Coach K had built a relationship with the players that not only caused them to win for him, but also caused them to want to win for each other. Coach K proved once again that there is no ‘I’ in teamwork. Somehow, he got superstars like Kobe Bryant and LeBron James to suppress their egos and concentrate on the team.

What does the difference between the 2004 team and the 2008 team have to do with your firm? If your firm’s lawyers have a “me first” attitude focused and getting credit, it will be very hard to develop a collaborative effort. If your firm is focused on primarily on billable hours and profit per partner, it will be very hard to get your lawyers to anticipate client issues and provide solutions better than your competitors. Bottom line if your firm is like the 2004 team you will eventually lose to firms that focus on hiring, training and retaining the best talent, molding them into a team and providing exceptional service to clients.

If you are trying to get the members of your firm, office or practice group to collaborate and put the team ahead of themselves, here is assignment for you. Read Coach K’s book: The Gold Standard: Building a World-Class Team and see if you can lead the way Coach K did.