GPSolo Magazine - July/August 2005
The Power of Story: Making a Memorable Presentation
In first grade my daughter reported to her class that her father was a lawyer and his job was to stand on the street corner giving people directions. She is now in high school and has a much better idea of what I do for a living.
Unfortunately, most people’s concept of what lawyers do is not much more accurate than my daughter’s first-grade understanding. To add to this difficulty, most solo attorneys practice over a wide swath of legal disciplines. The challenge when asked, “What kind of lawyer are you?” is not only to resist responding with the common retort, “A good one,” but to say something that people actually will understand and remember for more than five minutes.
If you try listing all of the things you do—commercial litigations, wills, estate planning, bankruptcy, divorce, and a bit of corporate work as well—you’ll find standing in front of you a dazed and confused individual, who, unbeknownst to you, has early on in your elevator speech retreated to thoughts of last night’s televised pro wrestling match.
So how do you get people to remember what you do as a lawyer? Perhaps just a generic label such as “family law” will work. Your listeners might remember “family law,” but most likely they won’t have a good idea of what it really means, and their memory of meeting you will fade pretty fast.
A Better Way
What sticks in people’s heads? Stories. Stories about how their friends met their spouses, about some sports legend breaking a record unchallenged for a decade or more, about how a friend at work managed to get that big raise.
Your many legal talents will run in and out of your prospective client’s heads like water through a sluice, but if you tell people a story that’s interesting and engaging, they’ll remember it months later.
So what story should you be telling a prospective client standing in front of you? First, you should still give your prospect a brief description of your practice. But then, by way of illustrating an aspect of your practice, tell a story of how you hit a home run for a client, either by winning a big case, saving a lot of money, or negotiating a great deal in a business transaction. If you have been practicing law for at least a few years, you will have one or more of such “war stories.”
If you are newer to the practice of law, tell the prospect about something impressive you did in law school (a big win in moot court) or something that you accomplished as a young lawyer—this may not be as impressive as an accomplishment of a more senior lawyer, but no one expects you to have won any U.S. Supreme Court cases just yet.
Perhaps you are thinking that this is a pretty silly idea. But take it from me, this really works. From my own experience I notice that people nod their heads politely when I describe my practice, but that they really get engaged when I tell them about the time a service company client came to me with a one-year service contract that a customer had canceled after three months, for which payment was due. Not only did I collect for the unpaid three months, but I also collected for the remaining nine months of the contract because I noticed that the one-page contract did not contain a termination clause.
After the “wows” and “that’s pretty goods,” I can see them making sure that they put my card somewhere they can find it, rather than just carelessly throwing it into one of their pockets. Their faces are awake and alert, not unfocused as they were when I listed off what kind of law I practice.
I have a number of war stories that I can tell, each to highlight a different skill or talent of mine. Sometimes I’ll even tell more than one story and explain how they are linked by a common skill that I possess. It is always encouraging to see them connecting to what I am saying, rather than giving the otherwise polite smile and nod of the head.
“Aha,” you say, “but telling a story does not tell people about your entire law practice, only one small part of it.” Well, here comes the truly shocking part of this article, so make sure that you are sitting down before you read the next sentence.
It doesn’t matter if they don’t know everything that you do. Now I bet you’re really confused. Here you thought I was offering the antidote to people’s forgetting what you do as a lawyer, and now I’m saying that it doesn’t matter whether they know what you do or not. Well, not exactly.
What matters the most is that they remember you as a capable and effective lawyer. You need to stand out from the barrage of sales messages people receive every day.
Have you ever noticed that when people find a good doctor, dentist, or lawyer, they love to recommend them? Typically, their enthusiasm stems from their direct experience in using the professional. Well, your job is to create that enthusiasm before they retain you. The power of the story is that it can do that, making listeners feel as though they know you a lot better than they actually do, and thereby implanting that enthusiasm in them.
So even if they don’t remember everything you do, they will remember that you are a good lawyer, increasing the likelihood that they will remember you the next time they or a friend of theirs needs a lawyer. Even more interesting is that in spite of their not being sure whether you do the kind of legal work needed, they still will call because they “know” that you are a good lawyer. So, although you do want them to know as much as possible about what you do, it becomes less important because the prospects are now more motivated to call you whenever any legal need arises.
This technique is also good for leveling the playing field between you as a solo attorney and an attorney from a larger firm. Provided that you have the capabilities to handle a matter, getting a client is about gaining the trust and confidence in a prospect, not flaunting the number of attorneys in your law firm. It is a highly personal process that requires establishing a strong and positive relationship with the prospect. Using one or more war stories, you are just as capable of doing this as another attorney who happens to come from a larger firm.
Putting It to Work
Think of some war stories that you can tell and rehearse them with a spouse or a friend. Then go out there and try them out on some prospects. I think you will be impressed with the impact that they have. At the very least I’m sure that prospects will not walk away thinking that your job is to stand on a street corner giving people directions.
David Leffler is a member of the New York City law firm Leffler Marcus & McCaffrey LLC, which represents clients in business matters and litigation. Prior to that he was a solo attorney for more than a dozen years. You can write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.