CURIOUS MINDS: Law Firms Need to Rethink Their Approach to Business Development, Says Teresa Walker, COO-Emeritus at Waller Lansden

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Curious Minds

We continue our monthly column, “Curious Minds”, created by Rose Ors to tap into the minds of legal innovators, disrupters, and out-of-the-box thinkers to learn what influences and inspires their work.

In this installment, Rose speaks with Teresa Walker, Chief Operating Officer-Emeritus at Waller Lansden Dortch & Davis, about sociability and resilience, the research of Dr. Larry Richard, and the legal industry’s need to rethink its approach to business development.

Rose Ors: Who are the leaders and thinkers outside the legal industry who have influenced your work?

Teresa Walker: The person who has most influenced my thinking is a psychologist who has studied lawyers for much of his career, Dr. Larry Richard. I have followed his work since I first heard him speak at a webinar I attended in Florida. When I heard the concepts that he identified in his work, it was just so enlightening. It was one of those moments where the light bulb went off and I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, this explains so many things about myself and my colleagues.’

I had been working with some of my colleagues for about 20 years. Some of the things Dr. Richard said gave me a much greater insight into their personalities. That in turn gave me a better understanding of how different my personality was compared to theirs. It also helped me approach my work with in a whole different perspective.

Rose Ors: What are some examples?

Teresa Walker: What first comes to mind was rethinking our approach to business development. We tend to expect that all lawyers are naturally skilled at bringing in business. Dr. Richard’s studies have shown that is just not the case.

Sociability is a key trait for success in sales, for example. It is a desire to interact with people and be comfortable in initiating new connections with others. Dr. Richard found that lawyers tend to score very low on sociability compared to the general public. It isn’t that low scorers are antisocial, rather they find it uncomfortable to initiate new relationships.

Curious Minds

Teresa Walker, Chief Operating Officer-Emeritus at Waller Lansden Dortch & Davis

Another key trait for success in sales is resilience. In this context, resilience is the ability to take “no” for an answer without losing your interest in selling and without taking it personally. Dr. Richard found that a vast majority of lawyers score in the lower half of the overall population on resilience.

Recognizing that many lawyers score low on sociability and resilience made us realize you can’t put pressure on everyone to develop business. Pushing people to do something that makes them uncomfortable is counterproductive. Instead, capitalize on those people who have the skills to sell and are comfortable doing it. Let those folks take on the different roles that they’re good at.

Rose Ors: What other insights have you gained?

Teresa Walker: I have been working in the legal field for 42 years and I am convinced that many lawyers have some level of ADHD [attention deficit hyperactivity disorder]. Why? Because they are in an almost constant state of urgency. Dr. Richard’s work confirms that most lawyers score higher than the general public on urgency, which is characterized by impatience, a sense of immediacy, and a need to get things done.

Being results oriented can be very positive, however, urgent people can sometimes be impulsive, brusque, or poor listeners. Such behaviors can undermine their effectiveness both within the firm and in dealing with clients. We try to raise awareness among our lawyers that they may be prone to such behaviors so that they can avoid them.

Rose Ors: What books have influenced how you think about business?

Teresa Walker: One of my favorite books is a classic. It is David Maister’s, True Professionalism. Many of his concepts were new and different when I first read them more than 20 years ago. I particularly liked his approach to profitability and understanding the levers in the industry that can be impacted. I also liked how he encouraged partners to invest non-chargeable time in coaching team members and building relationships with clients.

Another excellent book is Leading Change by John Kotter. In the book and in his Harvard Business Review articles, Kotter outlines the key steps to implementing significant change and the importance of leadership in making change happen. In the legal industry in general, but in private law firms especially, much of what passes for leadership is management, at best. It is leadership by popularity. Kotter offers concrete advice to leaders who are striving to implement changes that may be difficult or unpopular.

Rose Ors: Where do you get your creative ideas?

Teresa Walker: Most of my creative ideas come from observing everyday life and trying to figure out a solution to whatever problem I am observing, regardless of how small it may be. I like thinking about ways to resolve a problem from different perspectives.

I am a very empathetic person, so looking at things through someone else’s eyes sparks my creativity.

Rose Ors: What is a big-picture question facing the legal industry today?

Teresa Walker: U.S. law firms are facing a challenge to the traditional partner-based capital structure. The challenge is coming from those who argue that it is time to change the rules and regulations that traditionally have banned outside investors.

In my opinion, the big question is not if but when will this ban be lifted.


This interview has been edited and condensed by Rose Ors.