Cultivating the Courage to Ask for Business – Part 3
Debra L. Bruce, JD, PCC.
This is Part 3 of a 3 part series in which Debra L. Bruce talks to attorneys about less painful and more effective ways to ask for business from potential clients.
Networking Is Key
So how do you get into conversations with potential clients, or create the connections that can improve your likelihood of success, without making cold calls or being pushy? Networking is key. One in-house counsel said, “I enjoy talking to new people who introduce themselves at a conference or an event, particularly if they are confident, poised and friendly – without being overly aggressive.” Another said, “In order for a law firm attorney to have some chance of getting my business, I almost always would need to have met that person and ideally have had an opportunity to interact with them in a legal setting, such as serving on a bar committee or participating on the same seminar panel or co-authoring an article with them.”
So don’t give up on speaking, writing, bar service and trade association activity just because your phone doesn’t ring the next day. You are demonstrating your expertise and putting in place relationship building blocks. If you don’t meet a potential client, you might get to know someone who can later make an important introduction or referral. Corporate counsel frequently seek referrals from lawyers they trust, particularly other corporate counsel.
Companies Value Interpersonal Skills
Networking also gives you an opportunity to demonstrate your talent for communication and connection. If you get overly nervous or tend to keep quiet in group conversations, seek help in developing a confident presence. Decision makers use every interaction to evaluate your ability to work well with others. As one counsel said, “If the person I’m thinking about hiring is rude to the waiter at a restaurant, won’t make eye contact, or otherwise presents poorly in person, then I worry about how they will interact with business folks at my company, appear to a judge, etc.”
Asking for Business from Friends
Who needs networking when your friend has the power to choose legal counsel? If you have the necessary expertise, it might seem like you’re on easy street. However, as a lawyer-coach, I have often encountered women attorneys who worry that if they ask for business from a friend, particularly a female one, it might damage the friendship. Could the friend think the attorney is trying to take advantage of the relationship? Perhaps the client would feel uncomfortable providing candid direction or feedback to a friend. Maybe the client wouldn’t want to risk exposing their own mistakes, shortcomings and fears to a social acquaintance.
Interestingly, my survey elicited responses from some female corporate counsel who felt quite comfortable doing business with friends, and some male counsel who didn’t. One of the women said, “My company has provided management training so that I am comfortable creating commitments and holding people accountable to their commitments, regardless of whether they are a business colleague, friend or family.” Counsel who didn’t mind being asked for work by friends stressed that “the lawyer has to do a great job no matter who they are” and that they should understand that companies have policies and procedures to follow.
Given the variety of preferences among corporate counsel on the subject of doing business with friends, a wise attorney will watch for indicators of a friend’s attitude. Do they often socialize with outside lawyers? Do they share their concerns about business problems with you or seek informal advice? Do they seem to have an interest in seeing you succeed? Have they ever mentioned that they might call on your expertise one day? Does your friend generally have an informal and approachable demeanor? Those are all good signs.
On the other hand, if your friend tends toward a formal, reserved or cautious personality, tread carefully. If they never discuss work with you, they may prefer to compartmentalize things, keeping their home and social lives separate from their business life.
If you still aren’t sure whether your friends would be receptive, test the waters by showing interest in their career success and welfare at work. From time to time venture casual questions about what they like about their work, what kind of stresses they deal with, or what they think about recent developments in their industry. Share information about legal news that may be relevant to their company or their kind of work.
If your friends are responsive to such conversations, they will gradually begin to think of you as someone to discuss business issues with. They may begin asking for your casual advice. If they don’t, to safeguard the relationship, you can approach the subject obliquely. Mention that your firm helps with those kinds of issues, and you’d be happy to email a relevant white paper or invite them to the next seminar the firm conducts. If they brush off the offer instead of expressing appreciation and interest, back off.
Ask questions that ferret out a client’s needs. Generously share solutions and useful insights. Take incremental action. These behaviors help you avoid pointedly asking for business, while actually increasing your likelihood of success. One way to bolster your courage is to eliminate the need for the activities that cause you fear and discomfort.
Originally published in the Summer 2012 issue of the ABA’s Newsletter: The Woman Advocate