For over a thousand years, rice farmers throughout Asia have had to identify, address and successfully overcome a number of daily threats in order to survive.  Unlike other occupations, being merely “good enough” in the farming of rice is ultimately fatal.

As legal practitioners and professionals in a rapidly changing competitive environment, we too face issues–some routine, others unprecedented–that must also be appropriately addressed and properly resolved if we are to remain successful.  Principles of rice farming, applied to the practice of law and to the management of firms, suggest some unexpected parallels.

Focus on the future by embracing change today.  Successful rice farming requires a precise balance of a number of key elements.  At the beginning of each planting season, farmers take two major factors into account.  First, they consider the knowledge and lessons learned from prior harvests in order to manage the risk of a future crop failure.  Second, they choose from the hundreds of varieties of rice available, each offering a slightly different trade-off, as to the mix they will plant to achieve the greatest yield.

Just as Asian rice farmers have to analyze and consider the past in order to profit from the future, so must we learn from past experiences in order to facilitate the change within our firms that will keep us competitively in the game.  The most significant results come from addressing the difficult issues that can be pervasive throughout a firm, yet are all too often avoided.  Such issues differ from firm to firm, but may include:

Compensation.  An ever-changing business landscape requires the occasional evaluation of attorney compensation.  Identifying current models that align with client expectations, reward attorney performance, and incentivize future potential is critical.  Sharing origination credits is one method for motivating non-originating attorneys to take a more active role in client service; it also fosters an attorney’s willingness to cross-sell the firm’s other practices.

Incentives need not be solely monetary in nature, but can include other perks such as opportunities to participate in non-legal professional development programs, leadership opportunities within the firm, and interpersonal, communications or presentation coaching provided by the firm’s marketing department and/or outside consultants.

“Difficult” personalities.  Too often, individuals with challenging personalities and bad behaviors are tolerated as a result of their ability to produce results and/or generate revenue.  They create an unhealthy–sometimes illegal–working environment, and they are a drain on firm administration and morale.  Turning a blind eye, firm management’s lack of action communicates to the firm that certain behaviors are tolerated.  Resolving these highly sensitive situations, either directly through firm management or indirectly through outside consultants or third-party experts, will have a positive, long-lasting effect on firm culture.

If such issues are not formally addressed, the firm will continue to be vulnerable and unable to reach its full potential.

Recommitment to a higher standard of contribution.  Rice farming is a family affair.  Engineering the paddy’s hard, clay floor to retain the proper amount of moisture, adding the right amount of soft mud for the seedling to take root, and building the water canals to irrigate are just the beginning.  In addition, farmers must weed and groom each individual shoot by hand to rid the paddy of unwanted plant life and insects, use the proper amount of fertilization at exactly the right time, and harvest the rice crop at the precise moment of ripeness.  Even though different family members take on different roles throughout the process, all are necessary for the rice paddy to flourish.

Although performing multiple roles within our firms is not a new concept for any of us, handling the tasks for which we are best suited may be.  Rainmakers should be responsible for business generation, other partners for maintaining and expanding client relationships, and associates for producing excellent work product.  Practice group leaders and  marketing professionals, who have their fingers on the pulse of the firm, can assist in determining the most effective use of human talent. Activities everyone can engage in include:

Networking.  Identify and join at least one business networking group, industry/trade association or non-profit/community organization that appeals to you.  Through regular participation, you will demonstrate your expertise, form new relationships, and increase your firm’s visibility within the business community.  Best selling author Napoleon Hill said it best, “[Networking] provides a path, a way of getting from point A to point B in the shortest possible time over the least possible distance.”

Face-to-Face meetings.  Create opportunities to connect with clients, prospects, and referral sources.  Whether you meet over a meal, utilize entertainment/sporting event opportunities, or host a dinner party at your home, get out among your network and build relationships so you are top of mind when contacts have business to give you or referrals to make.

Reevaluating individual contributions and holding people accountable for that which they do best will increase the efficiency and activity of the firm as a whole.

Be more intentional.  Unlike in Western agriculture, where an increased yield requires more sophisticated technology and more land, Asian farmers do not have the resources to buy equipment.  Nor is there any extra land that can easily be converted into new fields.  Rice farmers improve their yields by being more intentional—by making better decisions as to their time and resources.

Especially in our current economic state, resources are limited and therefore must be used with purpose and intention.  “What is the business objective of this activity?” is a question worth considering as you go through your day.  With a laser beam focus on the business objective, you will align your actions with firm and client goals while avoiding the distractions that only serve to derail and detour.

Develop a game plan.  It is easy to get caught up “in the business” without taking time to focus “on the business.”  Developing a strategic marketing/business development plan will allow you to assess where you are now and provide the roadmap to where you want to be.  Plans do not have to be intricate and long in nature; a specific, one-pager will suffice.

Share your plan with your mentor, a fellow coworker, or a member of your firm’s marketing department.  These individuals can help you to further refine your plan, hold you accountable to the goals you have set, and help you to measure your progress.

Follow-up.  Failure to continuously follow through is the number one reason professionals never reach their potential.  Attending functions, meeting people and collecting business cards is only a small fraction of the overall exercise.  Implement processes, like a reminder system, which will help you to stay on top of your relationships and activities.

As legal practitioners and professionals, it is not enough to be “inherently good enough.”  The recent news of firm dissolutions and drastic cutbacks demonstrates the need to rise to the challenges before us.

If we heed the grains of wisdom refined over decades of rice farming by embracing change, increasing our commitment and contribution, and being more intentional in the opportunities we pursue, we will harvest a great crop.  But, getting the mix of all these elements “close” but not quite “right” is the difference between feast and famine for Asian rice farmers and could be for many of us too!

Jonathan FitzgarraldThis article was originally published by the Los Angeles Daily Journal.

Jonathan Fitzgarrald is Managing Partner of Equinox Strategy Partners.  For nearly two decades, he has coached and trained service professionals on how to drive revenue and increase market visibility. He can be reached at 424.377.3200 or Email.