“Most Attorneys Are Not Really Built for Sales”

Written By: Claire Bushey

Steve Fretzin coaches lawyers on how to improve at an exercise that many detest: selling their services to prospective clients. A former salesman himself for advertising and franchises, he started his Chicago-based coaching business, Sales Results, 12 years ago. His new book, “The Attorney’s Networking Handbook,”was released this week and contains tips and endorsements from lawyers in the Chicago offices of Paul Hastings, DLA Piper, Nixon Peabody and Jackson Lewis.

Your father was a lawyer. Is that what led you to coaching lawyers on business development?

That’s not really why, but I think it helped me understand the mind of a lawyer. I spent obviously my whole life with my dad, who was one of the best, and he was constantly grilling me, he was constantly asking me questions. It was never-ending.

So what brought you to it?

I was teaching sales to everybody except lawyers, because why would a lawyer need my help? They don’t ever have a problem. My father, the phone always rang, he always had business, and there was never a problem. When 2007, 2008 happened and the recession hit, I’d built a strong enough reputation that when lawyers started asking their friends, who do you know who can help me with this stuff, networking and sales, my name kept coming up. . . . Next thing I know, 95 percent of my time is being spent with attorneys.

Why are they so famously bad at sales?

There’s a couple reasons. No. 1 is most attorneys are not really built for sales. They’re built to be compliant and analytical and thoughtful, and in many cases, they’re built to be kind of dominant and competitive. But most sales people and actors—they fall in the same category—are built to be very experiential, very outgoing, and they want to meet everybody. Lawyers for the most part aren’t built that way. Which is why they get into law. They don’t want to go out and sell.

The other part of it is when you’re an associate, especially at a bigger firm, they don’t want you doing business development. The culture has been learn the law and crank out as many hours as we can get out of you. The last thing they want is people running around on the billable hour trying to create business. It’s finally coming around where I think firms are starting to appreciate that both have to happen simultaneously, but that hasn’t really been the case in the past.

Do attorneys resent the amount of time it takes to develop business contacts, and how long it can take to see the return on that investment?

Oh, yeah. It’s very disheartening to them. Many of them just throw their hands up in the air if they have another wasted hour over coffee. They’re just not really able to qualify the people they’re meeting or the events they’re attending, and therefore they’re just spinning their wheels. It doesn’t take long to be very frustrating, and they get resentful, sure.

But does this idea of “qualifying” who you spend time with sort of get to the heart of what people are uncomfortable about with sales?

There’s this feeling that you’re using them, or they’re using you.
That’s incredibly uncomfortable. The last thing a lawyer wants is to be is seen as a salesperson or feel like a salesperson. They absolutely dread salespeople. The idea that they’re going out and looking for something or asking for something is very, very challenging. So, again, what we’re working on to try to help them – and a lot of this is covered in “The Attorney’s Networking Handbook” – is the focus on, how do we help people? Don’t think about how to sell somebody. Think about how to help somebody. Think about the questions you can ask to understand what this person’s needs are. And what you’ll find, as you help more and more people, they’re going to want to help you.