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Patton Boggs' Rain Man
An Interview with Mark Cowan
by Felice Wagner

Mark Cowan is pure Washington. Pictures of D.C. dignitaries, past and present, cover his office walls. Over the course of his career, heís served in the Central Intelligence Agency as an operations officer -- that is, a spy -- worked on the Hill, held senior policy posts at the U.S. Department of Labor, and played significant leadership roles in some of Washingtonís top lobbying firms. Today, however, he has a new and unique role: head of business development for Patton Boggs.

A 54-year old alumnus of Catholic University Columbus School of Law, Cowan is a partner at Patton Boggs, but his primary mission is to bring in business, not to bill hours. In fact, if he billed more than 500 hours in a year, he would certainly be disappointed.

Recently, Cowan sat down for an interview in the latest installment of our rainmaker series. A summary of his key tips and excerpts from the interview with Cowan follow:

Lessons on Business Development from Mark Cowan
1.Business development is a numbers game. The more you do, the more results you get. Be persistent and stay in front of the buyer as much as possible.
2.The only truly independent lawyers are the ones who can produce revenue. If youíre a young lawyer, ask to participate in pitches and/or the proposal preparation process. Youíll see what it takes to make rain and youíll start your learning early.
3.You canít maximize your revenue generation potential and build a pyramid around yourself unless you know how to delegate work to others. Learn this valuable skill as soon as possible in your career.
4.Put yourself in the buyerís shoes as often as possible. It will make you a better salesperson and a better lawyer.
5.Mass mailings donít work and telephone conversations are suboptimal. The majority of your business development time should be spent face-to-face with clients and prospects.
6.Thereís more to rainmaking than just building relationships. You also need to know how to price legal services and close the sale. Educate yourself on these aspects of the sales process and youíll find it much easier to ask for business and structure win-win relationships.

SUGARCREST: Tell me about your role in the firm.

Cowan: I work with partners across the firm to help them grow their practices. I bring them leads or work with them to develop leads out of their contacts. In addition, my mission is to develop outside referral relationships for the firm. And, I conduct a three-day seminar four times a year that helps partners and associates learn selling skills.

SUGARCREST: How did the attorneys in the firm respond to the hiring of a business development partner?

Cowan: The experiment has been successful. Iím now a tenured partner in the firm. Some people ignored it. Nobody fought against it. Over time, more partners have become participants with me. Now, I would say itís widely accepted.

SUGARCREST: Tell me about your process for identifying prospects for the firm.

Cowan: Three very talented people work with me full time. We look for issues and figure out who was affected. From among those, who do we know? We donít cold-call. We talk to people we know, which is appropriate and ethical.

We also look at our current client base for areas where cross-selling is appropriate. We get referrals, and I follow all those up. We also have people we work with who bring us opportunities. I essentially choreograph the process from lead to closure. Only after the process concludes will I segue out of the picture and have other partners move forward.

SUGARCREST: How do you facilitate the transition from you to other lawyers?

Cowan: They are in the process from the first meeting. We present as a team. The goal is getting the client, not the spotlight.

SUGARCREST: Do the clients object to having a dedicated "salesperson" calling upon them?

Cowan: I donít present myself that way. I introduce myself as a partner. I tell clients that Iím the head of business development, but I also do work on some clients. If the client wants me involved, or if I have some unique set of experience, I will stay involved.

My job is to bring business to the firm for others to do. I bring people in as early as I can determine that theyíre the right people. I donít want to waste my partnersí time and bring them to a lot of things that arenít going to pan out. And, a lot of things donít pan out. Part of business development is numbers. The more you do, the more you get.

There are many cases where I will have the initial conversation with the client and determine that we can help. At that point, Iíll say, "Iíd like to get you together with our experts."

SUGARCREST: Do you think business development is different for different practice areas?

Cowan: Selling litigation is different than selling public policy. People who buy public policy are proactive, [but] CEOs arenít sitting in their offices thinking, "I might get sued today. I better hire a litigator." The approaches have to be different.

People donít anticipate litigation. The people who get involved in litigation a lot often focus on the firm they have. Itís less likely that they will try someone new. Word-of-mouth is important in litigation. If I get sued, Iím going to call my friend for a referral. With litigation, itís also very important that marketing promotes the litigators and the litigation practice so it becomes a known entity.

SUGARCREST: What advice would you give to lawyers trying to grow their practice?

Cowan: Business development is a full-time endeavor and most lawyers need to spend a certain number of hours a week making new contacts, thinking about new people, and looking at issues. When the dry spell comes, there is a pipeline in development. There are new things coming in every day.

Also, build a pyramid. Bring in work, but farm out as much of it as possible to others so there is more time for business development.

SUGARCREST: What business development techniques work for you?

Cowan: Persistence and tenacity are key. Even if we have a good product and the client is inclined to use it, people are busy. Part of business development is staying in front of the potential client and continuing to persuade them that now is the time to act.

Thinking is also important. A lot of people donít think about what motivates someone to buy our services. Looking at it from the perspective of the buyer helps you be a better salesperson and a better lawyer.

SUGARCREST: What doesnít work?

Cowan: Mass letters donít work. People donít read them. When lawyers spend most of a client meeting talking about themselves, that doesnít work very well. Youíre not addressing the clientís needs. Telephone conversations arenít optimal. Ultimately, youíve got to sit across the table from that client.

The buying decision is as much emotional as it is substantive. If the person thinks it would be fun and productive working with you -- itís not dispositive, but it helps. Also, knowing how to price and how to close are extremely important. A lot of people get nervous when it comes to both of those, and you need both to be successful.

SUGARCREST: How do you close?

Cowan: It depends, but generically, the way you close is by causing the potential client to decide in their own mind that they want to buy your services. I close by asking, "Would you like us to work for you?"

You also need to know when youíre done. If a client says, "Could you write me a proposal?" the meeting is over. The answer is yes. Next, you call them and say, "What do you think of the proposal?" Itís amazing to me how many people never ask what the client thought about the proposal.

You want to make your potential customer a co-conspirator. You want them to be working with you to figure out how to do the deal. If itís got to go to a higher level, you want them to be your champion inside the company.

You also want to overcome any problems. Once, we had a client that said, "Weíd love to start, but our financial cycle doesnít begin until January." It was October. I asked, "What if we could start now and you wouldnít have to pay us until January?" He said, "Then we can start now." We made it happen.

Part of good selling is engaging with your client as a peer. In selling, lawyers often deal with the client in a respondent-superior situation, and theyíre not the superior. So the client says, "Twenty thousand is too much -- what about five?" Instead of saying no, the lawyer says yes. At the end of the month when theyíve billed 100 hours and the bill [should be] $18,000 instead of $5,000 -- then they wonder why the managing partner is upset.

SUGARCREST: Why does that happen?

Cowan: I think itís fear of selling and fear of rejection. Lawyers tend to automatically accept what the client says. If the client says they can pay only $5,000, I believe theyíd like to pay $5,000, but I donít believe they canít pay $12,000 or $8,750 or some other number.

SUGARCREST: Do you think that itís a lack of belief in their value?

Cowan: Yes. If you donít believe youíre worth what youíre asking for neither will anyone else. Realize that youíre worth $450 an hour, or lower your rate, make less money, but be happy that everybodyís getting a good deal. Clients are going to pay you what they think youíre worth and, in fact, what you think youíre worth.

SUGARCREST: Have you experienced discomfort with business development? What advice do you give people to overcome that discomfort?

Cowan: I donít experience it anymore. For some people, education breeds comfort. One of the sections of my course is called Common Mistakes Made in Selling. I talk about the different kinds of mistakes people make. I also try to help them understand the kind of mistakes that will lead to no. We talk about the various objections that clients raise and ways that they might answer those objections. If you give them ideas, they will take those ideas and mold them to fit their own style. I also do a refresher lunch for people that have been to the selling skills seminar. Itís very enlightening. Recently, one guy said, "One thing Iíve learned is to ask for the business. The client is always amazed because they havenít heard it before."

SUGARCREST: What advice would you give to a young lawyer about business development?

Cowan: Participate. Spend a couple hours a week thinking about leads and forgetting that youíre young. Ask partners if you can participate in the pitch -- even if just to watch. Offer to help put together the proposal -- itís an offer thatís almost always accepted. Of course, thereís always a competition between the need to bill hours and business development. Here [at Patton Boggs] they get credit for business development. Thatís not true everywhere, but I would still give the same advice. The only way to become an independent lawyer is to have the ability to produce revenue.

SUGARCREST: What do you know now that you wish you had known 20 years ago?

Cowan: That if it doesnít get done today, itís not always a problem. Everything doesnít have to happen immediately.


Felice Wagner, a former practicing attorney, is CEO of Sugarcrest Development Group, Inc., a D.C. firm that gives seminars and training programs throughout the country on business development and client loyalty. She is also president of the Legal Marketing Association's Mid-Atlantic Chapter. She can be reached at (202) 828-1242 or felice@sugarcrest.com. Want to see how you measure up as a rainmaker? Take the Rainmaker Reality Check today!

This article first appeared in the February 9, 2004 issue of the LEGAL TIMES.
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