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.