When lawyers first graduate and begin practicing law, most of their time and energy will understandably be spent on learning their craft. They call it “practicing” law for a reason—it takes a significant amount of time to become proficient. In Outliers: The Story of Success, Malcolm Gladwell posits that it takes 10,000 hours to become proficient in a skill, and most lawyers would probably agree with this premise. In addition, many lawyers do not become narrowly focused specialists, and particularly in smaller firms or in a solo practice, you may have more than one area of specialization or expertise. A lawyer may well work in several areas of practice before deciding to focus on one or more arenas that become specialties. Even at the largest firms, most lawyers are encouraged to spend the earliest parts of their careers focusing on developing lawyering skills and the technical expertise necessary to become proficient, not on trying to develop their own book of business.
It may then come as a surprise that the next phase of a lawyer’s career—marketing and business development—may require essentially a completely different set of skills than that which created the focus necessary to develop a practice competency. Not surprisingly, this knowledge often proves frustrating for many competent attorneys who do not inherently possess a strong desire to develop business, but do understand that it is a key factor in their long-term career success and stability.
While a small minority of attorneys would rather sell their work than do it, most lawyers who enjoy law practice, even if they enjoy client interaction, may have some inherent reluctance to sell their expertise to potential clients. Many lawyers who would gladly handle a heavy workload of cases do not have a desire, nor in many instances the knowledge of how to generate the cases on which they want to work.
Just as many lawyers feel that law school did not necessarily prepare them for practicing law, almost all would agree that law school did not prepare them for the necessity of marketing their practice expertise to potential clients. The slow but visible shift of law from being strictly a profession to more of a business has now left many lawyers unprepared to generate their own business.
Because most business comes to attorneys from clients they’ve worked with previously or referrals from other attorneys, a key to developing your own marketing expertise is to understand why and how you refer business to other attorneys. If you are in a small firm or on your own, you obviously have referred business to other firms. What factors do you consider when making such a referral? Yes, the possibility of reciprocity enters into the equation, but never at the risk of referring someone to an attorney who would not provide both skill and service. It is likely that these two factors are paramount in most referrals. Will the attorney to whom you are referring provide the expertise necessary to provide wise counsel, and will he or she provide superior client service? If these are your two primary goals in a referral, it is not unreasonable to anticipate this would also be true of your peers. So the questions become: What are your areas of expertise, and do others perceive you as both competent and service-oriented?
WHAT ARE YOU KNOWN FOR?
When you decide to refer business elsewhere, the people who first come to mind are likely those who have a practice area or areas for which they are widely known. If you felt competent to do the work yourself, you would have retained the case. So when you scan your contacts or your memory bank, the chances are good that some people stand out with regard to certain arenas. Or you may have witnessed their expertise by working with or against them.
One good idea is to ask your peer group about what they perceive your background and knowledge to be. What kinds of cases would colleagues refer to you? On what basis? Conducting some basic market research with your peer group and colleagues is a good way to get some information about how you are perceived by those who might refer cases to you. You have to be willing to seek unvarnished opinions and to respond positively to what you hear—even if it isn’t what you had hoped. If those you know best in the profession don’t know your best areas for referrals, you shouldn’t be surprised if you aren’t getting them.
You may also need to practice several different “pitches,” depending on your practice. Remember as well that if you are meeting a potential client, hearing about what they do before you launch into your pitch will likely be beneficial. It will help you target your message to their potential need.
WHAT IS YOUR BEST STRATEGY?
Knowing how you function best is important to determining how to implement a personal marketing strategy. Do you enjoy large social functions? Do you prefer small groups, or are you best one-on-one? If walking into a networking or industry event with hundreds of attendees daunts you, ascertain whether you can attend smaller break-out sections. Or make the big event more manageable by focusing on meeting just a few people and following up with them outside of the event setting. Knowing yourself and putting yourself in a position to execute in circumstances that are best for you will help you set yourself up for success.
ALLOCATING YOUR RESOURCES
Just as with any other aspect of your practice, there are two resources that you have available to foster marketing: time and money. Knowing that referrals and repeat business are the areas most likely to yield results, understand that spending financial resources to foster marketing efforts is not enough. For an attorney used to billing by the hour—and keeping your head down—working on matters is how you make money, so taking time away to spend on your business relationships may seem counterintuitive. But just as you invested in developing skills when you started practicing, now that you are in the next phase of your career, you must invest in developing the marketing skills necessary to feed your work pipeline.