Legal Management — March 2012
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Rainmaking Psychology
David King Keller

An administrator’s role in business development and the neuroscience of converting leads into clients

Every law firm administrator knows too well the truth and the burden of the lessons contained in The New York Times front page story on November 20, 2011 titled, “What They Don’t Teach Law Students …” The article quotes Edward L. Rubin, former dean at the Vanderbilt Law School, “To succeed in this environment, [law school] graduates will need entrepreneurial skills, management ability and some expertise in landing clients.”

Business development is essential to a law firm’s survival. However, newly hired associates arrive at the firm with zero law school training in this vital area. Consequently, some associates tell their firm they want to practice law, not marketing and sales. But don’t say that to Gay Grunfeld, partner with Rosen, Bien & Galvan, LLP, who works closely with her managing partner on administering various initiatives to train associates on new business acquisition. I asked Grunfeld what she says to the associates who just want to practice law and not worry about bringing in new matters or new clients. “We have a problem,” she said.

So, how does one train attorneys to acquire an expertise in landing clients? That is the challenge of every managing partner whose primary job description is to grow firm revenue. “As administrator of the business development program,” said Priscilla Murray of Spencer Fane Britt & Browne LLP, “we have had success with partners mentoring associates and recently hired an outside coach to train and support our associates.”

David Urbanik is COO for Halloran & Sage and he, too, has found that one of the best ways to provide client acquisition skills for their attorneys is through individual coaching. When asked what is the biggest impediment to an associate becoming proficient in new business development Urbanik said, “Self-imposed limitations.” He then added, “The reason we like attorney coaches is because a good coach will help the associate identify his or her strengths and overcome any self-perceived limitations.”

Sharla Frost, partner with Powers & Frost, L.L.P, said, “We have found that sending daily emails to our associates detailing a different business development idea really helped to educate the new attorneys on various ways to build relationships that can lead to new clients for their practice.” An interesting new trend in training lawyers to convert leads into clients is by leveraging neuroscience, the study of the brain. The firm’s business development administrator can expect a typical seminar on this subject to go something like this:

Lesson 1: Know Your Potential Cliente Brain

To land clients, first know their brains. This knowledge is the key to becoming a “rainmaker.” Rainmakers are masters at bringing in new business revenue. Competitors envy them. Managing partners would like to clone them.

Rainmakers have special skills. Primary among them is knowing how to reach the decision-making portion of the potential clients’ brains in order to convert leads into clients. Can associates be taught some of these skills?Yes. How? Through neuroscience which provides many of the answers and some training short cuts.

Fact: every interaction with a potential client is an interaction with their brain, or more specifically, with two key parts of their brain: the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex. The amygdala is the “fight or flight” portion of the brain. Within seconds of meeting a person the amygdala sends a stream of messages within the spectrum of “like,” “not sure yet, proceed with caution” and “don’t like.” Usually, but not always, these more basic and primal messages are operating below conscious awareness and simply manifest themselves as a “feeling” of increasing or decreasing trust of the person they are encountering. The prefrontal cortex is a key part of the brain where judgment is processed and decisions are made; this part of the brain is paying close attention to the messages coming from the amygdala. Without a green light from the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex parts of the brain, it is unlikely the potential client will sign an engagement letter with the firm.

How can administrators train their associates and other firm attorneys in techniques to connect with, and make friends with, a potential client’s amygdala, so, that, this potential client’s prefrontal cortex is less encumbered, and even encouraged, to make a decision to engage the services of the firm? You do that by training the attorneys in the art and science of establishing rapport. “I think the neuroscience angle on teaching business development is very intriguing,” said Vicki Scruggs, executive director Of Bone McAllester Norton PLLC. “It presents a fresh approach, not the ‘same ole thing’ any experienced administrator has heard about over and over again.”

Lesson 2: The Importance of Achieving Rapport with the Potential Client’s Brain

If a potential client feels rapport with an attorney, then, the “safe-not safe” part of the brain, the amygdala, says, “This person feels safe to me. I like this person. More contact is safe and desirable.” With that message the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain where judgments are made, is more willing to consider the logic of establishing a client relationship.

Lesson 3: The Art and Science of Establishing Rapport

Rapport is a form of “connection.” You can connect on a conscious and non-conscious level by using questions and words that create a sense of intimacy and safety. Can the art and science of rapport be taught? The answer is, yes.There are many ways, some faster and better than others.First we’ll review some foundational ways to establish rapport and later we will review more advanced techniques using research coming out of Stanford University.

Lesson 4: Basic Rapport Building Skills: Questions that Connect

Certain questions and words can serve to quickly forge a bond with another person. Over 20 years of neurolinguistic research, as well as countless meetings with clients, have helped to identify four questions and 12 magical words you can use that will soothe the brain’s gatekeeper, the amygdala, and encourage the client to like you. Once you have done that, you will find it easier to establish rapport with the client, and engage the prefrontal cortex in a way that leads to a decision in your favor.

A Word of advice, ask these questions in your own words and style. Be sensitive to timing and context. You may wish to ask them all in one session, or over a series of conversations. However, if you approach the client with sincerity, respect and genuine interest, you will find these questions arise naturally, within the first few minutes. After you’ve talked a bit with your potential client, look at him or her, with complete respect, appreciation and genuine interest, and ask:

• “ I’m curious, what are your business priorities? What’s most important to you?”

• Then – be quiet and listen.

• Remember, 90 percent of good communication is listening, proactive listening, particularly in a sales or marketing situation.

• When they have completed their response, then, you demonstrate that you heard their answer with one or more comments and, then, you transition to the following questions:

• “ I’m very interested, where’s the pain in your business? What keeps you up at night? What are the threats to your business?”

• Then just be quiet and listen.

• When they have completed their response, then, you demonstrate that you heard their answer by making one or more sympathetic comments, and then if appropriate and comfortable, you transition to the following questions:

• “ Hmm, so, that makes me wonder, where are the opportunities for growth in your business? Where are the opportunities for gain?”

• Then just be quiet and listen.

You’ve just very gently asked the potential client some really probing and personal questions — about their priorities, their pain and their opportunities — that really caused them to open up. If they perceive you as genuinely interested and sincere, their amygdala is signaling that you are a person who cares about them, shows an honest interest in them, someone they feel comfortable with, someone they like.

Again, when they have completed their response to those last questions, then you demonstrate that you heard their answer with one or more empathetic comments showing appreciation and understanding and, then, if appropriate and comfortable, you transition to the following question: “How can my firm and I support you?” Then just be quiet and listen.

The word “how” is one of the most powerful neuroscience based words in the English language. It forces the brain to go in the very narrow direction of coming up with a solution to the “how” question. The clients will ask themselves how you can support them. In answering, they will tell you how you can do business with them. In baseball terms, that’s like rounding third base and heading for home plate.

Encourage them to expand on their answer to that “how” question with another soft query asking for more details.Having gotten to that point, you can throw in a bonus Question: “How would you suggest we proceed to take the next step?” Remember — after each question, be quiet and listen.

“Introducing neuroscience as a tool to enhance rapport and getting the client to say ‘yes’ sooner is a novel idea in many ways, particularly in the legal world,” said Susan Baldwin, client relations manager for Fulbright Jaworski, “but you need to make sure to allow sufficient time to convey the brain science behind the recommended communications. This is not a 30-minute brown bag lunch training, but rather a half-day workshop. Attorneys need time to absorb the context of the neuroscience, observe the practical applications and then test the waters with the suggested questions to ask potential clients. The best way to achieve this is through a role playing scenario.”

Lesson 5: More Rapport Building Skills: 12 Powerful Words that Influence

Finally, there are 12 magical words that decision makers consistently say is music to their ears: “My goal is to make you look good. I’ve got your back.” Isn’t that the message you would like to hear from everyone you work with? To turn a lead into a client, convey that 12 word message — in your own words, in your own style, in your own time. The point of these questions and that twelve word message is to reach the client’s amygdala and prefrontal cortex, so that they will know that you know:

• What their priorities are.

• Where their pain is.

• Where their opportunities for gain are.

And, very importantly, they have heard the message that you’ve got their back, and that you want to make them look good to the people they report to. If you’ve achieved that level of communication, then you’ve gone a long way towards using neuroscience to convert a lead into a client.

Lesson 6: Two Advanced Rapport Building Skills

Utilize research from the 2005 Stanford University study on the “chameleon effect,” also known as matching and mirroring. We all know that standing with our arms crossed wearing a big frown conveys disapproval. We can also use body talk to communicate warm feelings of caring and positive regard. Examples of matching and mirroring include:

• Match body language: Adjust your body to be in a similar position as that of the other person.Example: if you are facing them and they lean their head a little to your right, you “mirror” by gradually and nonchalantly leaning your head to your right in a similar fashion.

• Matching verbal cues: Noticing and repeating back key phrases. If they say, “Do you see what I mean?” you answer, “Yes, I see what you mean.”

If you don’t understand, you can say, “I don’t quite see what you mean, can you give me more of the picture?” That way, you have repeated their key phrase, and demonstrated graduate level rapport building by staying within the same predicate mode, i.e., visual.

Research shows that these techniques can subtly inspire trust in you by the other person. They will optimize your potential for rapport in that exchange, assuming your tonality, physiology and other signals are in harmony and not sending a contrary message. Please note: matching and mirroring should never be done in a manipulative manner. You must use this technique with respect and the sincere desire to connect with the other person.

Now, as an extension of this discussion, you will want to expand your definition of client and potential client to not only include people and businesses that can engage your practice and increase your firm’s reviews, but also to include anyone whose goodwill you want to engender or whose approval you need to help advance your career,e. g. a judge, jury, witness, managing partner, practice group leader, firm chairman or opposing counsel during a negotiation critical to your client, child, a spouse or a date. All of these people can make a difference in your life, and since that is true you want as much rapport with them as possible. So, use the skills you’ve learned from the neuroscience of converting a lead into a client and see what happens.

About the author

David King Keller is an attorney rainmaker coach, MCLE instructor, speaker and author of 100 Ways to Grow a Thriving Law Practice and The Associate as Rainmaker, Building Your Business Brain.Learn more at