Legal Business Development: How can you revive a neglected professional relationship?

Despite the best of intentions, it’s easy to let a relationship slide.
 You get busy, you lose track of your contact schedule, you run out of ideas for keeping in touch…  And next thing you k now, your relationship has atrophied.

But, like a muscle, an atrophied relationship can be rebuilt.  By focusing time and attention on your relationship and maintaining consistent effort, you’ll often be able to revive a good relationship more easily than you built it in the first place.

But you might feel awkward trying to re-energize a stagnant relationship, especially if you aren’t sure that the relationship can be reinvigorated.  If you find yourself about to write off a relationship, you need to be sure that the relationship can’t be resurrected.  It’s easy to allow discomfort to lead you into turning a neglected but visible relationship into a dead one, and lawyers far too often write off relationships before they’re truly finished.  But how do you know?  Or, as someone often inquires when I’m presenting a business development workshop,  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 to do 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 the 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 to 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.  If you deliver an invitation by mail or email, be sure to attach a note saying that you look forward to reconnecting.  This personal touch will indicate to your contact that your interest in 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.

Got Purpose? (If you want a successful and satisfying legal practice, your answer had better be yes!)

I recently started listening to podcasts again after getting out of the habit for some reason.  (Isn’t it interesting how even successful and enjoyable habits can erode if we don’t stay on top of them?)  My new favorite podcast that’s also available via video:  Good Life Project™, by Jonathan Fields.  The Good Life Project™ presents a weekly deep-dive interview with an entrepreneur, artist, author, or thought leader.  The interviews are educational, informative, and often moving.

As I was pulling into my garage after a 90-minute drive last week, I was listening to Fields’ interview of Simon Sinek.  Sinek’s story and insights (covering storytelling, leadership, impact, service, and purpose) were so fascinating that I sat in my garage for another 15 minutes, too spellbound to move.  Here’s why…

When you connect what you do with why you do it, you fuel your efforts.

Why do you do what you do?  I’ve written before about the importance of connecting with your “big why” to help propel you even when times get challenging in your practice or in your business development efforts.  And that’s important, especially when you need some extra motivation to power through the tough spots.

Perhaps even more importantly, feeling a sense of purpose and service will embolden you to go further than you otherwise might, because it’s the right thing to do.

My clients are sometimes reticent to get in touch with a new contact (potential client or referral source) for fear of seeming too pushy or annoying.  And I get it.  On occasion, I’ll have a consultation with a potential client who will promise a return call and then disappear.  In the past, I wouldn’t follow up with that person because I didn’t want to pressure someone into a decision.  I still don’t, but I now follow up because I can’t let something as important as moving ahead (or not) in building a book of business slide just because I’m uncomfortable.  Being of service demands that I follow up.

A sense of service outweighs discomfort every time.

If you’re working to grow your practice, if you’re a leader in your firm, or if you’re feeling a hollowness in your career and life, listen to Sinek’s interview.  You won’t be sorry.

Also, ask yourself the question Fields asks to close each interview:  What does it mean to you to live a good life?  Are you doing that?  If not, how is your practice (and your life) affected?

Efficient Email Processing (So You Can Get to the Real Work!)

You’ve probably heard the time-proven suggestions about email:
  set aside the first 90 minutes of your day for productive work, not for checking email; disable “new email” notifications; be careful when you address an email; use descriptive subject lines…  On and on and on.  If these tips are new to you, you have an opportunity to recover some of the time you’re now spending on email.

But these tips don’t tell you what to do when you’re faced with an overflowing in-box filled with client communications and requests, administrative matters, newsletters of professional and personal interest, and who knows what else.  An in-box isn’t designed for storage; important emails can easily get lost.  You need to take charge so that your daily activity isn’t subject to other people’s priorities as expressed through their emails.

Here’s how to process an overwhelming in-box easily and effectively, so you can get on to the real work.  (Be sure to set aside a block of time — at least an hour — to complete these steps if you have more than 100 emails.)

  1. Sort the folder by sender.  Sorting by sender will let you drill down quickly based on how important the information is likely to be from a particular email correspondent.
    1. First, handle emails from clients, opposing counsel, or other professional contacts.  Respond quickly if possible, and if a response requires more thought or research, highlight or flag those emails or move them to a folder labeled “Respond ASAP” or similar.  Whatever you do, do not allow them to recede back into the chaos.
    2. Delete any emails that you don’t need to read, including those from retailers and spammers.  Yes, you might miss the deal of the century, but it is unlikely — and certainly not your top concern.
    3. You will likely find any emails that contain good information — perhaps ABA newsletters or other newsletters that you find useful (maybe even this newsletter).  Delete them.  If you’re concerned that you’ll miss something, move the emails to a “Review Later” folder and calendar a date by which you’ll delete anything you haven’t otherwise handled.
  2. Sort your in-box by subject.  Sorting by subject may help you recognize important emails that you haven’t already caught.
    1. Delete or file everything that does not require a response.  (And note that the standard is “require”, not call for or deserve.  Your goal is to streamline.)
    2. If you can respond to an email within two minutes, do so.
    3. If the response will take more than two minutes, highlight or flag the email or move it to a follow-up folder.
  3. Respond to all of the emails you have marked for follow-up.  This step will require the bulk of your time.  Set a goal to have it completed in no more than a week.
  4. Resolve to process your in-box regularly going forward, using these steps:
    1. Scan your email for important emails.  During this step, delete anything that you can tell immediately does not require attention, such as a reminder of an appointment of which you are well aware or spam.  Do not read any email, though, even if you know you will delete a message as soon as you have read it.  The only purpose for this step is to find anything important that may be buried in your in-box.
    2. Read each email.
      1. Delete or file every email that does not require a response.
      2. If you can respond to an email in 2 minutes or less, do so.
      3. If an email will require a more in-depth response:
        1. If you are checking email on an hourly basis, move the mail to a folder labeled “Respond Later”, and return to it during your designated time to deal with correspondence.
        2. If you are checking email only 2 or 3 times a day and processing your email fully during that time, respond to each email — and be sure to keep track of your time, if billable.  Your initial review of your in-box will allow you to address all emails pertinent to a particular matter in one block, which will facilitate billing for your email review.
    3. File or delete each email after sending your response.

Applying these steps may take some practice, but they’re integral to avoiding email overwhelm.  Where will you start?

Legal Business Development: Client service lessons from a hospital stay

Client service is one of the foundations of business development.
 Why?  First, client service is the heart of your practice and should be well-executed for that reason alone.  And second, excellent client service makes it more likely that you’ll get repeated and expanded client engagements as well as referrals from happy clients.

As lawyers, though, we tend to focus on the substantive aspects of client service and diminish (in our own minds, and possibly in execution) the experiential aspects.  Some clients can and will judge a representation primarily on the basis of the substantive work you do.  Many, however, will not…  And all clients will take note of how you treat them in the course of the representation.

In the words of Maya Angelou, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

When I had to call an ambulance to our cabin in the Grand Teton National Park, client service was the last thing that was on my mind.  However, the lessons started immediately and will linger for some time.  Here’s what I learned.

  1. Be aware of your client’s emotional state, even though you may not reference it directly.  The emergency dispatch officer sending an ambulance to help used short, direct sentences as we spoke.  Her tone was initially more clipped than ordinary conversation, and if I’d felt panicked, her tone and cadence would have grounded me by prompting me to focus on responding to her, not on the larger situation.  As we talked, and as she concluded that I was fairly calm, her tone and language pattern relaxed.Legal clients are much like medical clients in that the issue motivating the contact may be routine, with relatively low emotion, or an urgency or emergency that may carry more pronounced emotion.  When you’re aware of your client’s emotional state, you can adapt your own communication to speak most effectively with your client.

    For example, an angry would-be litigant may not have the emotional capacity to hear you urge restraint until you acknowledge the emotion in some way.  A fearful client may need you to provide written information that his fear may prevent him from hearing when you share it orally.  You need to know your client’s emotional state so that you can adapt how you communicate.

  2. Make it easy for your client.  We were in Jackson, Wyoming, nine and a half hours from the Denver airport.  The doctor suggested that we fly out of Jackson to avoid driving through sparsely populated areas.  Flights from Jackson would require a 14-hour travel day with three flight legs, which provoked much consternation, until a nurse suggested the 5-hour drive to Salt Lake City.  Easy.What do you know (that your client may not know) that will simplify things for your client?  Be sure to share that information.  It’s easy to dismiss what you know as common knowledge that doesn’t bear repeating, but it may be just the piece of information your clients needs to understand a process or to make good decisions.

    Be sure to consider how to make the process of working with you easy as well.  At the beginning of an engagement, ask how your client would prefer you to communicate with her.  You probably have your own preferred style of communication, but your client’s preference should govern the way you operate.  (For additional suggestions about making it easy for your clients to work with you, see Chapter 2 of The Reluctant Rainmaker.)

  3. Make your client comfortable.  After spending much of the day in the Emergency Room, I slept in my family member’s hospital room on the first night.  The Jackson hospital provided a comfortable cot that the nursing assistant set up for me while I was talking with the doctor, and she directed me to a small kitchen provisioned with sodas, coffee (complete with real mugs, not cardboard cups), and light snacks for patients’ families.  The hospital even offered room service meals for patients and the family, and the food was both good and inexpensive.  These touches offered much-needed comfort and allowed me to focus on what was most important.How can you make your clients comfortable?  Drinks, snacks, and comfortable chairs are easy and fairly inexpensive.  Consider what else your clients might appreciate.  A quiet spot to make telephone calls?  Toys and books to keep children occupied?  A list of resources?  Few clients will enjoy spending time in your office, but a little effort can minimize discomfort.


Take a few minutes today to audit your client care habits.  Consider asking a few of your clients what they like about working with you and what would make the experience better.  Don’t promise changes you’re unable or unwilling to make:  if you get a suggestion that doesn’t work for you, let your client know that you’ll look for other ways to offer a similar result.

Overwhelmed? Feel like you’re working too hard? Stop…and read this now!

“You’re working too hard.  Why don’t you look for ways to work smarter?”  
That was a key element of the feedback I received during this quarter’s mastermind meeting.  After hearing my colleagues’ suggestions, I put some new practices in place to help me work smarter, and I do believe I can already see a difference..

And you’ve no doubt heard this distinction before.  All sorts of management experts talk about how to work more efficiently, more effectively, maximizing the results of time.  Some of them even have good ideas.

I’ve been thinking about what it means to say that practicing law is hard work.  I don’t have any question that it is challenging and demanding, for reasons that I’ve mentioned numerous times.  When clients question whether it’s possible to “work smart” in practice, my answer is a resounding yes.

Working smart means managing your physical environment.  If you take the time to keep your desk clear, so it’s always easy to locate the files and the resources you need.  Nothing wastes time like clutter.  The simple act of taking an extra 5-10 minutes to clear and tidy your work area at the end of the day can yield significant time savings.  I had to learn this the hard way, but having learned it, it’s become a standard for myself in the office.

Working smart means managing energy.  If I’m exhausted and I try to power through rather than resting, chances are good that it’ll take me more time than usual to accomplish anything.  I’ll make more mistakes, and I won’t be as creative as I might otherwise be.  I’ve put structures in place to take advantage of my energy rhythms (you’ll often find me at my desk at 6 AM, but only rarely after 6 PM) and I’ve been working to enhance my energy with enough rest, enough exercise, good hydration and nutrition, and fun.

Working smart means managing commitments.  It’s easy to say yes to every demand, but it just isn’t smart.  Making intentional and purposeful decisions about which commitments to accept and which to decline allows me to avoid the frazzled, frantic pace that undermines good work.  By the same token, I aim to prioritize my work so that I accomplish what’s most important first.

Working smart means managing people.  Good delegation enhances effective work.  Whether it’s requesting research or asking an assistant to draft routine communications for my review and editing, delegation frees my time so I can concentrate on doing the things that others can’t do.  (Thanks to our global marketplace, getting help is easier and less expensive than ever before.  I’m hiring.  Should you?)

It’s important to note that what’s smarter for one person will be useless for another.  You must identify what makes sense for your practice, your preferences, and your clients.  (That’s why Seven Foundations of Time Mastery for Attorneys includes numerous exercises that make it easy to figure out how you can best apply the principles I share.)

Does any of this mean that it’s possible to take shortcuts and reap the rewards of practice without putting in plenty of time and effort?  Absolutely not.  But attention to smart management will make the time and effort you put into your practice pay maximum rewards.