Mix Work & Play for Fun & Profit

Clients often tell me that they socialize with friends and acquaintances who would make wonderful clients and/or referral sources.  And yet, no one wants to be that awful person who’s always shilling for business from social contacts, missing the “leave me alone” vibes.

But what a waste to nod along with a zipped lip when you might be able to benefit your contact and yourself by bringing business into the conversation.  We’ve all had the experience of wishing we could turn up some help with a thorny issue, and if you can offer the help, shouldn’t you?

The truth is that it’s easier to stay silent and avoid any chance of giving offense.  But what if you could briefly share what you do and suggest that you might be able to help, then turn back to pure socializing?

Mastering that art will benefit you, in getting a new opportunity, and benefit your contact, in finding a useful resource.  So, how can you talk business at a social gathering without risk?

  1. Discover the opportunity.  When you hear something that makes you think you might be able to help, listen for whatever your contact is sharing.
  2. Share your observation.  Whether you’re talking to your best friend or a complete stranger, there’s a good chance that she doesn’t know or hasn’t realized that what she’s discussing has any overlap with your practice.Your comment can be as quick as, “You know, I handle issues like that for my clients all the time.”  Or in a referral-related setting, perhaps you’d say, “It sounds like there’s some overlap in the kinds of clients we serve (or issues we address).”
  3. Watch the reaction.  You may get an unmistakable “tell me more” signal that invites you to proceed with business conversation right then.  Or you might get a polite, “Oh, is that so.”
  4. Offer to meet at anther time to talk about your shared interests.  Even if the person with whom you’re talking wants to go into a deeper business conversation on the spot, I suggest that you make an appointment to meet at a later time for that conversation.By doing so, you’ll separate business from social conversation, avoid having someone overhear a private conversation, and eliminate the risk of offering free, off-the-cuff advice.  Even if you agree to step outside the party or to move to your host’s home office, be sure to create a physical separation.

    A simple invitation is sufficient, such as “This isn’t really the time or place, but I’d love to talk with you and see if I might be able to help with that.”   You’ll gauge your next steps (exchanging cards, setting an appointment to talk again, or moving to another location) based on your contact’s response. 

  5. Approach the business conversation as an extension of a social relationship.  Even though you’ve moved to separate the business context from the social, your conversation will likely retain some familiarity.   At the same time, your business relationship must exist apart from a social relationship, and it’s likely up to you to set the appropriate professional boundaries.

As you move into summer socializing (whether that’s now or in six months from now), look for opportunities to spring from pure social contacts into business, and look with a light touch.  When done deftly, you’ll find that all of your relationships benefit as a result.

Set Yourself Apart

Sometimes I review lawyers’ marketing materials and get bored because “professional” is so often misinterpreted as a straightjacket.  Everyone has “years of experience” that will “create value” for their clients through “excellent client service.”  Important, necessary, but oh-so-very-dull, isn’t it?  In today’s economy, if that’s all you can say about yourself and your practice, you’re in trouble.

Do you ever feel that you’re just one lawyer in a large sea of clones?  Many lawyers wonder how to distinguish themselves from the hundreds or thousands of other lawyers occupying the same niche. Though the question may fade through development of specific expertise in a niche, it almost always re-emerges when a lawyer is preparing to grow her practice or is considering some shift in substantive areas.

Differentiation from other lawyers and law firms is important in marketing and business development conversations.  (A copywriter friend who’s helping me to prepare a new website has the fantastic tagline: It’s ok to fit in, but it’s better to stand out.  So true!)  As professionals, there are certain rules to follow and certain statements you must include, but looking like everyone else will do you no favors.

How can you differentiate yourself? While the options are potentially limitless, three examples may help you to create your own ideas.

  1. My background is in patent litigation, and when in practice I often referred to the Patently-O Blog by Dennis Crouch. Patently-O is known for, among other things, its full coverage of every patent case decided by the Federal Circuit. It is the go-to reference for patent law developments. I was astonished when I learned that Dennis started the blog less than a year after being admitted to practice. Crouch has since moved on to academia, a move that was quite likely assisted by his blogging efforts as well as his other credentials.It is overstatement to say, “blog it and they will come,” but blogging provides a platform through which a lawyer may share resources, analysis, and enough personal content to become known to readers. Blogging is a good way to build your reputation as an expert in your field. It’s also a good way to begin to form relationships with other bloggers and, perhaps, with your readers. Of course, there’s work to be done (in defining the scope of the blog, writing the posts, and engaging with others) but if done correctly, it’s a fabulous avenue. Read more here from the masters of legal blogging, LexBlog.
  1. Create a unique experience for your clients. What can you offer clients that other lawyers can’t, or don’t? The opportunities vary widely by practice area, but any value-added service is a good step toward differentiation.And remember: how you practice is just as important as what you do in practice. Be attentive to the habits that may set you apart from others. Opportunities to set yourself apart abound: quick responses to telephone calls and emails, regular case updates, and educational resources on topics such as how to prepare to give deposition/trial testimony or what to consider when getting ready to make estate plans, to give a few examples.

    Another idea: introduce your client to every member of your legal team who will be involved with the representation. Even something as quick as an introductory letter identifying other lawyers, paralegals, and office assistants (complete with contact information) that is signed by each member of the team can offer a client comfort when contacting your office. Consider, of course, what is appropriate for your practice: what will impress a family law client may be radically different from what will impress the CEO or general counsel of a multi-million dollar corporation. (Or it may not.  Think!)

  2. Beyond adding value for your clients, look for ways to create value for them. If your clients’ children often accompany them for visits to your office, have some books and toys in a kid-friendly corner. If you become aware of a new issue or development that your clients need to understand better, create a presentation or an article that you can use to educate them, about the development and (more importantly) what it means for your clients and what they need to do in response. What can you bring to an engagement that others can’t or don’t?
  3. Become active and visible in the community. Volunteering, serving on boards, or working with non-profits in other capacities is a good way to become known. It provides a context and opening for conversations that reluctant networkers may find more comfortable. Your pro bono work may even present you the opportunity to offer guidance and suggestions that serve as a taste of the service you offer clients. Moreover, you may have opportunities to speak or write through these channels, both of which will serve to raise your profile.

Get clear about what makes you different and communicate that. If you want to differentiate yourself from other practitioners, it’s imperative to connect with an internal compass that will point to what does indeed make you different. If you don’t know what that is, you won’t be able to convince anyone else.

 

Trading on a margin?

When I shifted from practicing law to consulting and coaching, I realized that it’s critical for me to protect my own time and energy.  I began to get a deeper understanding that in a very real way, I am my own product and I must protect that product.  The irony, of course, is that the same was true when I was in practice.  My hunch is that if I’d come to this realization sooner, I would have been less stressed out and I probably would have accomplished more.

One of the tools that’s been most important to me is building margins into my schedule.  Rather than scheduling myself back-to-back, I leave gaps throughout the day so that I can catch a breath, handle the small fires that inevitably arise, and take advantage of new opportunities that pop up.  The gaps can be fairly small, such as leaving 15 extra minutes on either side of an appointment so I don’t need to worry if we run a few minutes long.  Sometimes, a gap can be as simple as a pause between calls to grab a glass of water, stretch a bit, and breathe deeply to get the oxygen and energy flowing.

When working on a big project, though, a big margin is helpful.  That’s why I shudder a bit when a potential client calls me and tells me that it’s urgent to build his clientele because he has only two months of expense money in the bank or because she’s expecting to be up for partner in the next year.  Is it possible to build a solid book of business quickly?  Of course.  Is it probable?  Not on a tight deadline.

Resolve to add margins into your plans.    How?  Consider these approaches:

  1. Wherever possible, build time between appointments into your schedule.  When that isn’t possible, make a conscious decision to move your body and your mind between appointments to create a shift in your own energy.  Doing so will improve your ability to take on the next appointment with a fresh mind.
  2. When you’re working on a big project, estimate the amount of time it will take and add up to 25% of that time as a cushion.  If your goal is to design and host a client seminar and you expect to need six weeks as lead time, allow yourself eight weeks.
  3. Use project management principles to plan out all of the steps in your project and take advantage of technology so that you can shift the steps and schedules as necessary.  At times, despite your best effort, you will need to adjust your schedule or your project despite building in margins.  Using a task management system that automatically shifts intermediate deadlines when a project deadline changes will minimize the time you’ll need to spend on designing the deadlines so you can maximize your time on the project itself.
  4. When others are involved, communicate not only the deadline but also the margin – but do so selectively.  If a team member is a relentless procrastinator, you might choose not to include your margin when discussing timelines.
  5. Underpromise and overdeliver, especially with clients.  This has become something of a cliché in recent years, but its validity is beyond reproach.  If you promise a client or a potential client something, be sure to allow yourself extra time just in case your plans go awry.  Far better to promise a deliverable for Friday and provide it on Wednesday than vice versa.

When you add in margin, you increase the chances that you will be able to stick to the schedule, you create opportunities to respond to intervening circumstances as they occur, and you set yourself up for reduced stress.  Will margins always work?  No.  Projects sometimes go haywire.  “No fail” software systems fail.  Critical team members get sick.  When that happens, you’ll have to adjust, but building in a margin in advance means that your magnitude of adjustment will be less.

Where do you need to build margins into your schedule?

A Tale of Two Sales

I went shopping a few weekends ago.  I’m in the market for a new car, and I need a dark rose or burgundy tablecloth for my dining room table.  I haven’t purchased either just yet (though I’m moving closer), but two very different sales experiences have offered plenty of insight.

Saturday afternoon, I went to the home department of a local department store and asked for tablecloths.  The sales associate (Michele) told me that the store no longer carries tablecloths in the stores, only online.  Great, I said, turning away, I’ll take a look.

But Michele wasn’t done.  She asked what size my table is, and what color and fabric I was hoping to find. Michele suggested that I send her the dimensions on my table and offered to make the first cut of the hundreds of tablecloths I’d find online to narrow down to the ten or so that I might actually consider.  I can’t wait to see what she finds.  It’s an extra step, but how nice to have someone willing to shepherd me through the search and guide me based on my needs.  That’s service.

What was right about this sales experience: Michele’s questions and suggestions were directed toward helping me get what I want and need with the least amount of effort and trouble on my end.  As a result, I left feeling that she was helping me, not just out to get a sale, even though I’m sure she’ll get a commission if I order through her.  Our exchange wasn’t about the sale.  It was about the service.

Next story: Sunday afternoon, I went to the car dealership where I take my almost 14-year old car for service.  It’s time for a new car, and my only questions were regarding the model, and whether I could find a color I’d like.  I’d done some nosing around online, so I just needed to drive the cars and to get a little more information.

A salesman walked up right away, and I told him I was interested in model XYZ.  I mentioned that I’d looked at it online.  The salesman said that online research would give me the most information, and he invited me to come back when I was ready to place an order.  A bit surprised, I asked whether he was telling me that he’d recommend I decide based on my online experience only, and he said yes.  He also told me that stock of the car I’m interested in was limited, so I would need to place an order within the week.  As he started to walk away, I mentioned that the colors shown online were rather dull (several shades of grey, black, white, and just one blue) and that there was some suggestion that other colors might be available.  I don’t control colors, he said, what you see online is what there is.  And with that, he walked away.

After doing a bit of looking at the models in the showroom to glean what I could about the differences, I returned to my computer and did a search to see what each dealership in my area had in inventory.  And there, in stock at the dealership I’d visited, was a car I loved: “passion red” exterior, beige interior, all the options I’d want plus a few I wouldn’t object to.  It was a bit more than I’d expected to pay, but if the salesman had shown me that car, chances are reasonably good that I’d own it right now.

What was wrong about this sales experience: where do I start?  First, the salesman sent me back to the Internet without even offering to point me to the most helpful parts of the website or to help me through the page after page of details.  He told me, in so many words, that his role was limited to taking an order.  And, most tellingly, he didn’t ask the basic questions that would have allowed him to discover that there was a car on his lot that matched what I was looking for.

What can you learn from these stories?

  1. If you’ve ever dreaded feeling “salesy” when offering your services to someone, consider how helpful it is to take a potential client by the hand to help him sort out his needs. What could be more of a service than helping someone to accomplish something they want to do, whether that’s buying a new car or developing an estate plan to care for her family?  Being in service and getting paid for it is not the same as selling something that’s unnecessary in an effort to make money.
  2. The Internet offers an ideal way for clients to get information before they speak with you, but chances are good that they need to know more before purchasing. Think of your website as an introduction of your “product” – and for attorneys, your product is a combination of your legal skills and how you bring them to the table.  But remember that even the best website is only a conversational opener, not the end of the conversation.
  3. When you speak with a potential client, be sure you ask enough questions to get a sense of her real needs. Not only will you discover what needs you need to address in talking about your service, but also you’ll show your client that you seek to meet her needs rather than offering a “one size fits all” approach that may not be a good fit.

Is It Too Late?

I gave a 1-hour presentation about rainmaking last week in the Chicago office of a large law firm, and following the presentation, a lawyer approached with a question: Is it ever too late to rebuild professional relationships that have languished?

The short answer is that it depends on the relationship.  The deeper the relationship, the more likely it can be resurrected.  If, however, you meet once and fail to follow up, or if you follow up only once or twice, the relationship will lack the firm footing necessary to allow it to flourish following a period of silence.  That said, it never hurts to try to rebuild a relationship, particularly if your sole reason for reconnecting is to re-establish communication and not to seek a favor.

So, what can you do to rebuild a connection that has faded?  The simplest, and often the most effective, approach is to do precisely what you would do with a friend you haven’t seen in a long time: pick up the phone and say, “I realized it’s been a while since we’ve spoken, and you’ve been on my mind.  Is this a good time to talk for a few minutes? How are things with you?  What’s new?”  If several months have passed since you were in touch with this contact, you may even begin the conversation by re-introducing yourself.  (This is where my recommendation to maintain a database of contacts proves especially helpful: you don’t have to try to remember when and where you met.)  You may experience a few awkward moments as your contact gets back into the connection, but most people will pick up relatively quickly.

If, like many lawyers, you’d rather do nine hours of painstaking document review without a coffee break than pick up with phone, you do have other options.  For example, you might consider the following:

  • Send an email to reconnect.  You might suggest talking by telephone and either arrange a time or let your contact know you’ll be calling.  While you’ll still have to pick up the phone, you’ve created an expectation that you will call, and chances are good that you’ll avoid an awkward beginning.  If you suggest that you’ll call, though, you absolutely must do so – or run the risk of looking like a flake.
  • Send an article or other resource that will interest your contact.  The resource may address a legal or non-legal issue, but it must be tied in some way to a conversation you’ve had with the contact.  Attach a note that says, “I remember talking with you about [topic of resource] at [wherever you had the conversation] and thought of you when I saw this [resource].  Hope it’s useful!”  By doing so, you not only reconnect by offering assistance, but you do so in a way that will bring your conversation back to your contact’s mind and refresh the relationship.
  • Issue an invitation.  You might invite your contact to an open house or to attend a CLE or other seminar of interest with you.  Be sure to attach a note, if you deliver an invitation by mail or email, saying that you look forward to reconnecting; this personal touch will indicate to your contact that your interest is genuine.
  • Seek out news about your contact.  This may be a more challenging approach if you’re seeking to reconnect than to maintain a relationship, but it’s worth a quick search to see whether your contact has been in the news recently.  You may find news of a professional event (an honor awarded, a trial won, a leadership position attained) or a personal event (a new marriage, a new baby, a recreational or community activity).  Such news offers an ideal reason to get in touch again.

Take a few minutes this week to review your list of contacts. With whom should you reconnect? Choose three to five people and reach out to them. Building and maintaining your network is always a valuable activity, and keeping relationships alive will often pay off (often in unexpected ways) over time.

Five Steps to a Profitable Practice

Most of us didn’t have any law school training about business development.  (Fortunately for today’s students, that’s starting to change.) Law school classes tended to assume that the clients would just be there and that being a good lawyer is all that’s necessary to build a book of business. I’m not convinced that was ever true, but it’s certainly not the case in the post-recession legal economy. 

But wouldn’t it be nice if you could just stay in your office, serve your clients, and still have a great practice?  Lawyers who are reluctant to market may dread the thought of trying to land new business.  You may have absorbed the idea that there’s a special breed of practitioner who can be a rainmaker, and others are destined to struggle. And if you’re worried about appearing to be too “salesy,” you may take on lots of activity with little to show for it.  If this sounds familiar, you’re probably a reluctant rainmaker. 

Here’s the good news: you can develop a sustainable book of business and still feel good when you look yourself in the mirror.  Here’s how to start.

  1. Identify specifically what stands in your way and address that issue. Do you avoid networking even though you know that relationships are at the heart of a successful practice?  Ask yourself why. When you can name your block, you can find your solution, For example, if you dislike big groups, you can build your network by meeting new contacts one-on-one or in smaller groups.  If you dread the thought of asking for business, find a mentor who can show you ethical and effective ways to ask, and then practice.
  2. Identify specifically which clients you serve and what you do for them. When you can describe your target clients clearly, you will know exactly who might be your clients and who will not.  Knowing that distinction will let you stop spending marketing time on those who will never hire you. You’ll also be able to help your referral sources to send you the right kinds of matters for your practice.
  3. Identify specifically what sets you apart from your competitors. You may have a skill, experience, or approach that distinguishes you from other lawyers in your area of practice.  When you identify and highlight that distinction, you make help your potential clients understand why they should hire you. Depending on your area of practice, you may also distinguish yourself from competitors who do not provide legal services but may meet your clients’ needs in some other way.
  4. Create a clear, cohesive description of your practice, build that description into a message that makes sense to your potential clients and referral sources, and then share that message in the right channels. Your message will encompass not just the work that you do, but also your credentials and other points of distinction. Look for ways to enhance your credentials (which evidence your competence) through writing, speaking, and otherwise engaging with audiences composed of your target clients and referral sources so that you can build useful relationships. As you connect with people who are relevant to your practice, look for opportunities to be helpful to them.
  5. Remember to ask for business in ways that fit your practice and your personal style. If you don’t ask for the business, you risk appearing uninterested. One pitfall common for reluctant rainmakers is waiting to ask for the business until some magical point at which the question arises naturally. There is no perfect moment or perfect way to ask for business. you must ask for the business—adhering, of course, to your jurisdiction’s ethics rules.

Using these steps as a guideline, you’ll find that you can be professional, genuine, and successful in securing the work you need to support your practice.  Take one small step each day.  Consistency in activity and in message delivers results, even for reluctant rainmakers.

Dread it? Do it.

I strive to avoid procrastinating or, if resistance is futile, to procrastinate productively.  Even before temptations like Facebook and YouTube existed, I learned that wasting time would only leave me further behind and frustrated.  (One exception: when I was working in a large firm, I once spent a delightful afternoon with a partner who was recreating Dueling Banjos on two micro-cassette recorders.  Total waste of time, total blast.

But sometimes, even productive procrastination is a poor use of time.  It’s the Tipping Point phenomenon: up to a point, the productive activity undertaken in lieu of what I should be doing actually moves me forward in some way… But sooner or later, even the most dreaded activity has to be done.

Dread is often the key factor in the procrastinate-or-do-it decision.  The more we dread, the more we procrastinate.

And yet, I’ve noticed that, more often than not, when I just get started with the dreaded task, it isn’t as bad as I’d imagined.   The longer I wait to do something I don’t want to do, the bigger the task grows in my mind, until it’s become so massive that getting started is almost unfathomable.  Charlie Gilkey, founder of Productive Flourishing, explained this phenomenon in a blog post:

[T]he “dread”… increases substantially with time. The longer the tasks sits there, the more you think about it, and the amount of time you’ve invested in thinking about and putting off the task somehow gets added to the psychological “size” of the task….

At a certain point, the distinction between directly working on that task and indirectly working on it blurs to the point in which it doesn’t make sense to make the distinction. If you’ve spent all day (or week) avoiding and fretting about it, then you’ve spent time and energy on it that you could have spent on other things. To think about it in terms of the “soft costs” of inaction belies the point that it’s still costly, nonetheless.

What does this have to do with business development?  Reluctant rainmakers often dread business development activity.  There are plenty of ways to overcome that dread: get a mentor who can help, get educated on how to do the activity the “right” way, or work with someone to help you map out the process to follow, for example…

But the best way to overcome rainmaking dread is with action.

And the best way to get into action?  Just get started.  Whether the task is rainmaking-focused or otherwise, getting started counters inertia and will probably reveal that the task isn’t as bad as you’d imagined.

Stop right now and acknowledge the task you’ve been avoiding.  Take on that task right now.  Too big to finish at the moment?  Take five or ten minutes to get started, plan your next steps, and calendar a time for more action.  If necessary, set a timer for five minutes with the promise that you can then move on to something else.  You may find that it’s easier to finish it up (or make substantial headway) than to stop.

Taking a business development step consistently each day is one of the secrets to success.  Not only will you drop your dread level (and guilt as well), but if your steps are strategic, you’ll also start to see results.  Since success feeds on success, you may find yourself more willing to take on more and larger steps soon.

Need some accountability?  Comment on this post and let me know what you’re going to do and how it went.  I’ll be happy to cheer you on and perhaps even offer a tip if there’s some way I can help.

Procrastinating? What you don’t know can hurt your productivity.

In the fall of 2013, I offered a webinar titled Conquer Procrastination! How to Manage Your Time to Build a Profitable Practice and a Rich Personal Life. It turned out to be one of my most popular offerings yet. I walked through the five root causes of procrastination and what you can do to counteract each of those causes. After all, no matter how good a solution may be, if it isn’t a solution for the problem you’re experiencing, it won’t help.

How comfortable are you with the business of practicing law? Law is a profession that must operate as a business, and failing to act accordingly will eventually sink a practice, whether solo or a large firm. Lawyers often come to me because they realize they don’t know how to market their services so that the right potential clients can find them. Small firm lawyers also struggle with how to charge clients (especially with today’s emphasis on alternative fees) and other back end business. These lawyers often acknowledge that they’ve known they needed to take on business development activity, for example, but that they’ve put it off until they have no choice.

Not surprising. When you don’t know how to start on a task, or when you don’t have any idea how to do the task, it’s easy to procrastinate.

When you procrastinate on figuring out how to do the task, white lies abound. Promises about starting are made and then broken. You guarantee that we’ll figure it out as soon as you finish this project, or the next, or the next. And the dreaded task gets put off while you check email, organize files, clean the office, and do other unnecessary prep work that substitutes for the real work.

Sometimes you’ll even start searching for information about what you don’t know, but the research becomes its own distraction: instead of seeking enough information to start and then learning as you do the work, you research it so thoroughly that you could write a manual. You become the conceptual expert, but because you’re just reading, not doing, you still don’t really know what to do.

And sometimes a task becomes overwhelming because you can’t see a finish line, and so it’s daunting even to start. If you can’t determine what will mark the end of the task or the project as a whole, it may seem to be too big and too overwhelming to begin. A few clients have come to me with great ideas for a book or a client training program, but without breaking down the implementation into small steps, they remain undone.

Lack of clarity about the finish line often comes into play when you confuse tasks, meaning discrete to-do activities, with projects, which are larger activities composed of multiple tasks. Writing an article that addresses an issue relevant to your practice area is a project; tasks include conceiving the idea, offering it to a journal or newsletter, outlining the substance of the article, doing any necessary research, actually writing the article, editing then, and so on. (This same confusion also explains why you may feel that you never make progress on your to-do list. If your list includes projects that will take more than a few hours, you will likely find that the project will linger for a few days before it’s completed, just because it takes that long to put in enough hours to hit completion.)

When you realize that you’re procrastinating because you don’t know how to start or you can’t predict when you’ll finish, here’s how to stop procrastinating and start moving:

  1. Determine specifically what you need to know to get started. Sometimes knowing the first step is enough to get into action; other times you’ll need to have a better understanding of the project as a whole before you can be comfortable beginning. Either way, knowing a specific first step is critical.
  2. Define the actionable steps. If you can’t see a finish line, you probably need to break a project into tasks. (For more on this, read David Allen’s book Getting Things Done as soon as you can.)
  3. Decide on the help you need. Lawyers are especially susceptible to “lone ranger syndrome,” but sometimes deciding to go it alone is a massive mistake. Yes, you’re smart enough to figure out whatever you need to figure out, but the cost in time, energy, and missed opportunities is often too high.

If you’re procrastinating due to a lack of knowledge about how to start a project or when it will end, identify what you need to know to get back into action. The sooner you admit that you don’t know something, the sooner you can solve the problem and get moving again.

Don’t Underplay Yourself

When a law firm hires me to work with a junior associate, very often one part of the engagement centers on the associate’s leadership presence and self-confidence – how he or she presents to others.  (Of course, that focus is not by any means unique to junior associates.)

Although reviewers may use a variety of words such as proactive, poised, assertive, or self-assured, they’re usually looking to see to what extent the lawyer is able to present as a leader, as someone who is sufficiently self-confident to inspire others’ confidence.  Such a person typically contributes to conversations, asks insightful questions, and is willing to express an opinion or espouse a position. 

Interactions with someone who lacks this level of confidence tends to leave others (supervising lawyers and client alike) uncertain of the message being conveyed.  Does a lack of contribution indicate lack of comprehension?  Boredom?  Something else entirely?  It may be difficult to interpret what what’s happening, but the result is a lack of clarity and an unwillingness to rely on the lawyer whose self-presentation is found to be lacking.  The consequences can be significant, including unduly slow career progression (or even being fired) and difficulty in building client relationships. 

For instance, I was working with one client (let’s call him Tom) who was hoping to make partner and entered coaching to strengthen his performance so he’ll be a strong candidate.  He’d picked up on some comments that made him question whether he was viewed as partner material.  I found Tom to be intelligent, personable, and funny.  I also noticed that when I’d ask him a question about his work, he downplayed the role he’d played.

It puzzled me, because I could tell from the kind of work he was describing that he was a heavy lifter on the cases, but to hear him talk he was simply supporting work done by others.  One day, Tom said that a particular concern he held about making partner was that it didn’t seem like anyone regarded his work as being important or notable.  He explained the evidence for his feeling, and then I asked his permission to share an observation.

I told him that when he described his own work, he minimized and understated his contribution.  To hear him tell the story, he contributed little more than hours – and certainly nothing critical in terms of strategy or deep analysis.  But when I asked specifically and pressed, he’d tell me about tasks he’d done and decisions he’d made that were quite high-level.  My assessment was that because he was so careful not to overstate his contribution – and perhaps so uncomfortable being in the spotlight – he didn’t give a fair opportunity for someone to understand the kind and level of work that he was doing. 

We devised a plan for Tom to share more about his work, and he discovered that when he changed his communication style and became more open about what he was doing, people began to appreciate the scope of his work and to understand what he was capable of doing.  He got more and better work, and he felt that others’ perception of him was more accurate. 

Michelle, another client, was upset to receive a review that indicated that some clients didn’t want to talk with her because they felt that she didn’t have a sufficient grasp of the right legal strategy to accomplish their aims.  When pressed for details, a reluctant partner admitted that although he knew Michelle understood exactly what was at stake and how to advance the clients’ interests, her comments were so often peppered with words like maybe and possibly and her inflection was so often questioning that she just didn’t seem to be sure of what she was saying.

The result was that her communications undermined his confidence in her even though he knew she was almost invariably right about what she was saying.  After making a concerted effort to notice the habits that the partner identified, Michelle started speaking with more authority and more clarity, which over time (and along with other changes that Michelle implemented) increased the confidence that others put in what Michelle said. 

How do you know if your presence isn’t as strong as it should be?  Here are three common signs: 

  1. You create “wiggle room” with your word choice or with your vocal inflection.
  1. You feel the urge to speak up or to ask a question but you stop short – and then someone says what you’ve been thinking, and you feel frustrated. (Or you do speak up but your comments aren’t much noted, and then someone says effectively the same thing and gets more attention.)
  2. You find that you generally speak much less often than others in a meeting. (But this can be a sign of strong presence if, when you speak, others give significant weight to your comments.)

If you recognize yourself in these signs or if you’ve received feedback that you need to be more proactive, perhaps we should talk. While learning to project more confidence and a stronger leadership presence requires stepping outside a comfort zone, the impact can be dramatic. Your job and your client relationships may depend on your ability to inspire confidence. Ready to take the first steps?  Click this link to schedule a complimentary consultation.

Top 10 Tips to Overcome Overwhelm

Overwhelm can tank a day faster than just about anything else.  When you have more email than you can handle, an out-of-control task list, and phone calls that just won’t stop, it’s almost impossible to operate effectively.  Even if you manage to limp along, you may find that you’re distracted and that things are falling through the cracks.  Over the years, I’ve honed in on a variety of methods to beat overwhelm, and these are the top 10, based on my own experience and client feedback:

  1. Move.  Overwhelm tends to cause paralysis, and the fastest fix is a quick burst of activity.  Walk around the block or your office floor, dance for 30 seconds (close the door!), or do 10 jumping jacks.  Get your blood pumping.
  2. Lift your mood.  Overwhelm brings a heavy energy.  Use music, fresh flowers, aromas, or whatever works for you to get a lift.  I keep a bottle of orange essential oil at my desk because I find that a drop of two perks me up almost instantly.
  3. Focus intently for a short time.  After my computer a telephone, my most-used piece of office equipment is a digital timer.  When I feel stuck, I’ll set the timer for 45 minutes and power through that time, knowing that I can take a break as soon as the timer beeps.  I also compete against myself using the timer to see how quickly I can sort through papers or complete other dreaded tasks.  The timer gets me going, and I usually keep going (thanks to momentum) after it sounds.
  4. Clean it up.  Clutter reduces productivity and creates overwhelm.  If your desk is messy, set aside 15 minutes to clear it off, even if that means stacking papers and moving them to the floor.  If your email in-box is so full that you feel anxious when you open it, set aside an hour to tame it.  (Don’t know how to accomplish that in an hour?  Help is coming soon.)
  5. Call in the reinforcements.  Find the right help for the source of your overwhelm.  Perhaps your assistant can help your clear your desk, or a colleague may be able to give you feedback to help cut through mental clutter.  When you feel overwhelmed, it’s hard to see outside the bubble of stress.  Get some help.
  6. Dump it.  One common source of overwhelm is the mental task list.  When you’re juggling “must do” items in your head, fighting to remember all of them, you’re pulling energy away from productive activity to simple memory maintenance.  Do a brain dump and get the tasks on paper and free up your mind for more useful work.
  7. Get out of the office and do something else.  Admittedly, you can’t always implement this tip, but it can be very effective.  Have you ever noticed how often brilliant ideas strike while you’re in the shower, running, walking the dog, or doing other activities unrelated to work?  When the body is working and the mind is free to wander, creativity flourishes.
  8. Access a different part of your brain.  One litigator I know uses art to focus himself before trial.  Art allows him to pull back from the logical, analytical side of his brain and bring forward the emotional and creative parts.  What can you do to bring balance?
  9. Mind map.  If you’re searching for an elusive link between facts or trying to form a creative argument, try using a mind map.  Get a clean piece of paper, draw a circle in the middle of the page and label it with the problem or circumstance you’re contemplating.  Think about related subjects, actions you could take, and people who might be helpful in addressing the issue, and draw lines and branches to represent the ideas that come up.  If you’re really stuck, you may find a mind map more useful than an ordinary list.  Click here for a video on this technique.
  10. If you’ve tried several of these approaches unsuccessfully, you may be exhausted.  Think of your energy as a pitcher of water.  If you pour and pour and pour without replenishment, the pitcher will empty and nothing you try (except adding more water) will allow it to pour more.  If a quick break or quick spurt of energy doesn’t refresh you, your pitcher may be dangerously close to empty.  Identifying that spot and taking action is a critical professional competency.

If you’re feeling overwhelmed in your practice and uncertain about how to turn things around, perhaps we should talk.  Whether you’re trapped in the day-to-day minutiae of a subprime practice management approach or looking to improve your practice as a whole, click here to schedule a 30 minute consultation.