The biggest obstacle lawyers must overcome to achieve their business-generation goals is the ease of abandoning a BD-activity commitment in favor of non-BD responsibilities, e.g., billable work, firm demands, etc. It turns out that a couple of simple mechanisms can make a big difference to honoring our commitments to ourselves.

We coaches wear many hats, and serve many purposes. Often, we’re teachers of tactics and technique. Other times, we’re sales-situation and -strategy analysts. Sometimes we’re cheerleaders, encouraging you during a tough stretch. Throughout, though, we have to be accountability partners, the witnesses that prevent you from making lame excuses for a lack of commitment or effort.

Ironclad commitment contracts

The Rain Group’s excellent eBook, The 9 Habits of Extreme Productivity, cites Yale economists Ian Ayres, Jordan Goldberg, and Dean Karlan, who “surmised several years ago that people who sign ironclad commitment contracts would be more likely to stick to a commitment they made to themselves than if they didn’t make a contract.”

They found that those who

  • Make a commitment contract with an accountability partner you report to every week increases chances of success by up to 200%, and

  • Putting money at stake increases chances of success by up to 300%.

According to Goldberg:

  • When a referee is used in the commitment contract, the average success rate is 61% for goals related to money and finance

  • When the goal involves using both a referee and a financial stake, the success rate for financial resolutions is 87%

A commitment contract will help whenever you implement it, whether late in a process because whatever you’ve tried wasn’t working, or early to prevent failure.

They conclude: “In any case, if you want something badly enough, put your money and reputation where your mouth is. Make a commitment contract. Put something at stake. Have an accountability partner.”

Typical goal-setting

When I first begin working with a lawyer, we establish goals. The first pass yields pro forma answers, e.g., “Increase business by 10%,” or such. To test that, I ask, “Why is that goal important?” The answers usually relate to factors inside the firm, e.g., income, prestige, autonomy, influence, etc.

That’s a bit more useful, so we push it further: “What will achieving that goal do for you?” This causes most people to visualize the practical impact of success, e.g., “I can pay my daughter’s way through college so she doesn’t have to start her career saddled with debt.”

OK. So far, so good.

But the real test is, “What negative consequences do you anticipate if you fail to reach that goal?” This is when it moves from the purely cognitive to the visceral and emotional: “I’d feel like a failure knowing she’s struggling under a mountain of debt.”

The final test: “Is that consequence acceptable?”

This is the critical question because, if the consequence is acceptable, it’s of no consequence, really. The goal isn’t real. It’s just an obligatory answer to a question, pumping sunshine up your coach’s...well, you get the idea.

Short shelf-life

Despite this rigor, it doesn’t take long for lawyers to slip back into old habits. That’s not surprising. Human beings don’t drop old habits and form new ones instantly.

To reinforce the commitment, I’ll now include the goal in the calendar invitation description, and reference it at the outset of our weekly call.

Taking a cue from the work of Ayers et al, I’ll help lawyers I coach formulate a measurable weekly activity goal, and encourage them to sign a commitment contract with themselves on StickK, with monetary penalties to a charity (or anti-charity, e.g., an organization they loathe), and making me or someone else the referee.

Mike O’Horo