Winning in Legal Business Development: Lessons from the Paddle Court

Did Charlie Sheen ruin the word “winning” for us all? I hope not, because I love to win. I can’t help it, that’s just how I’m built. I can even remember the moment when I became competitive. Playing ping-pong with my dad in the basement was a regular thing. He’d spot me 10 points and still beat me regularly. When I decided to beat him and did, things just took off from there. Every sport I played, I played to win.

Recently I had a paddle/platform tennis match (YouTube it) to keep my reign as the club champion at my racquet club, Tennaqua, in Deerfield, IL. We were clearly not favored to win by anyone’s expectations. In fact, when I told people I had made the finals and shared who we were up against, they rolled their eyes and said, “Good luck with that.” So how did we pull off our amazing victory, coming back from down 5-2 in the third set to win? I evaluated all of the possible variables and came up with these four. 

  1. Planning to win
  2. Greater communication to eliminate errors
  3. Looking for openings and weaknesses in our opponents
  4. Changing up our strategy and executing upon it

Let’s go through these point by point to see how clearly this relates to winning at business development as an attorney

#1. I’m sure you’ve heard the saying, “A failure to plan is a plan to fail.” My partner and I drew up a few scenarios to enter the match with the right approach (defense) and how we were going to communicate. Our opponents surely did not. They didn’t think twice about us or how to beat us; they were simply winging it. In legal business development, less than 5% of the lawyers, your competition for clients, have an active plan for growing and expanding business. Simply having a written plan open on your desktop gives you direction and accountability to win the business that other lawyers are most likely missing.

#2. One of the predominant advantages a good paddle tennis partnership utilizes is solid communication. In some cases I would call out “yours” or “mine” throughout the points and games to assure we wouldn’t make an error by going after the same ball. Increasing communication in business development internally and externally can have the same positive effect. For example, if you are overwhelmed by your partners giving you too much work, communicate that you are overwhelmed or at capacity.  Or share that you need a little space to work on your own client matters and development. Or, externally, you could over-communicate with your clients to develop more relationships or ask for quality introductions if the relationship is already solid. It’s amazing when I see my clients communicate– and actually get what they want. Being silent or choking down your feelings may not be the best move.

#3. In reflecting on my big match, we really exploited the other team by playing less offense and focusing on letting them make the mistakes. At one point, they were egging us on to go for offensive winners. We didn’t take the bait. In business development, it’s critical to review your competition’s strengths and weaknesses, such as: 

  1. Where are they marketing, advertising or networking?
  2. What do their social media profiles and websites look like or communicate?
  3. How are they going after business differently than you?

Ultimately, most attorneys are marketing like a horse with blinders on, not seeing what’s going on all around them. Take an hour to look up the top five competitors in your space and see how you stand up to them. Then make the appropriate changes to advance your marketing and business development efforts.

#4. One of the most obvious tactics in any doubles sport is to play to the weaker player. Generally, one opponent is less talented or more easily agitated. In our match, we had just such an opportunity. This is the point where you feed that player 80% of the balls and watch the house of cards come tumbling down. In legal biz-dev, you have to continually evaluate what’s working and what’s not. If you are focusing on making presentations, look at the business generated (or lack thereof) and make a move to change it or stop investing time there. I speak with other podcasters who are not getting business from their podcasts and refuse to change things up. Big mistake. Another famous quote is, “The definition of insanity is doing the same things over and over and expecting a different result.” Mix things up and find a better way to win. It’s just common sense.

The reality is that in sports and in growing business, we must continue to improve and adapt to the changes around us. It’s very difficult to “win” if you’re not looking at the principles I’ve just outlined. You know what’s more fun than winning at a sport you love? Having an amazing career in law, and life in general.  As you know, growing your book of business leads to freedom, control and the ability to control your own destiny. If you’re looking for the winning plan and the moves that will drive you forward, don’t hesitate to DM me or email me at Happy to evaluate your moves and see where there’s room for growth and development. 

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