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July 25, 2016 Asked and Answered

How to build a book of business without looking desperate (podcast with transcript)

By Stephanie Francis Ward

Business development doesn’t come naturally to all lawyers. Some hesitate to take advantage of social opportunities out of fear of looking desperate or needy, but that’s wrongheaded, says business development coach Larry Kohn. He speaks with the ABA Journal’s Stephanie Francis Ward about ways that attorneys can promote themselves and their skills in ways that help both the lawyer and their potential clients.

Podcast Transcript

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Stephanie Francis Ward: If you’re focused on getting more clients, how should you view social interactions in terms of business development opportunities? I’m Stephanie Francis Ward, and on today’s episode of the ABA Journal’s Asked and Answered, business development coach Larry Kohn is chatting with me about how lawyers can do a better job of getting more value from social interactions. Welcome to the show, Larry.

Larry Kohn: Thanks, Stephanie, I appreciate your inviting me.

Stephanie Francis Ward: Of course. Tell me first, what do you see as some fundamental obstacles of a business development in terms of offering value and putting yourself out there when you are in social situations.

Larry Kohn: Well, the biggest obstacle that lawyers face, in their marketing, is the fear of in some way feeling humiliated. They are so accustomed to being sold by other vendors, who use strategies of being pushy, or invasive, or manipulative; and that’s an extremely distasteful experience. So too often, lawyers believe that they have to use those same strategies and the thought of being pushy, or invasive, or appearing needy in any way is enough to stop almost every lawyer in their effort to reach out and get new business.

So, the solution is to first understand that, under no circumstances, should you do anything that would make you feel uncomfortable. And the solution, to that problem, is to always be valuable in every interaction that you have with people that you want to do business with. The idea is not to be pushy, or manipulative, or invasive but rather, to be a person of value. And as lawyers really begin to embrace this concept of really being valuable, the fear of humiliation absolutely goes away.

Stephanie Francis Ward: All right. You mentioned two words that I do think that’s, kind of, what scares some lawyers off about business development. That aspect of being pushy or needy or we hear “looking desperate.” It sounds like really if you want to do business development, pull those terms out of your mind and think more about offering value, being charming, and also advocating for yourself in a charming way. Would you agree?

Larry Kohn: Well, you know, the word charming is fraught with difficulty because—

Stephanie Francis Ward: OK.

Larry Kohn: —yes, it’s true that you want to be pleasant, but the notion that you have to put on some kind of an artificial charming face might be a deterrent. The best word, I think, is sincere. You know, your goal in business development is to communicate that you offer value, that you are a beneficial ally to the person that you want to do business with. And there’s been a great disservice done to lawyers, over the years, who have been taught that the key to business development is building a relationship. And that word, relationship, has gotten confused over the years, and been misinterpreted as build a friendship.

And if somebody believes that their strategy for developing business is create a friendship with somebody, and then once you’re friends then you lean on your friends for business; that is a very distasteful concept. So, the goal is to understand that the word relationship really should mean alliance. Your goal is to build an alliance with the people that you want to do business with, and your strategy is to build a large community of well-targeted allies. So, charming if you mean, pleasant and professional, absolutely; but not the charming of being insincere and “kissing up” kind of charming that, I think, people would find distasteful.

If I may, I’d like to just go into this concept of needy, a little bit, because for so many years lawyers have been taught that the best marketing is being a good lawyer. And unfortunately, that concept has morphed into the concern that if you do anything that in any way appears to be marketing, it must mean that you are not a good lawyer. Because if you were a good lawyer, you wouldn’t need to be marketing, you’d just be getting clients all the time. So many for lawyers, the thought that marketing, in some way, reveals neediness, comes from this belief that if you were really good you wouldn’t need to do this.

And so, there’s a lot of projection going on, people imagining that you must not be good at what you do because you’re out there marketing. Of course, nothing could be further from the truth. Some of the greatest lawyers are also some of the greatest marketers; and it has nothing to do with neediness, and everything to do with a desire to build your practice and to be valuable to the people who you serve.

Stephanie Francis Ward: Well, and I wonder, too, if there’s kind of this fallacy, as what you just said, is people think that good lawyers don’t need to market themselves. Do you think in reality good lawyers, who have great books of business, market themselves all the time, but they do it in a way that, perhaps, it’s not glaringly obvious?

Larry Kohn: Well, that’s exactly right because those lawyers, who are good at marketing and who are also good lawyers, are blending their good lawyering and their ability to demonstrate a concern for the well-being of their prospects and that’s the key issue. Professionals, in order to be honorable in their marketing, need to put the needs of their clients before their own needs, to a great extent. And the way to do that is to not brag about how great you are, but rather, simply be valuable. So many lawyers misunderstand business development, and they think of it as, what I call, the “two Bs”: brag then bother.

First, you brag about how great you are and then you bother people by asking them, “Let’s have lunch” or calling to see how they are doing when, in fact, your real goal is to get to do business. And if you own this belief that business development is bragging and bothering then the likelihood of your doing it is remote, you really have to understand that effective business development is communicating your ability to offer value.

Stephanie Francis Ward: Now, I think you’ve said that, for business development, you can offer value in almost every interaction you have. Do you really mean every interaction?

Larry Kohn: Absolutely. The last thing that you want to do is have an interaction be a burden on the people that you want to do business with, so you begin by—what we call, “a first follow up offer”. You meet somebody at a cocktail party, you meet somebody at an event; your goal is to offer something, to that person, in that initial meeting, that gives you the ability to stay in touch. So, the offer has to be a compelling offer, something that would be immediately valuable to the people that you’re talking to.

Stephanie Francis Ward: Can you give me an example?

Larry Kohn: Yes. You create an inventory of offers that you’re ready to make at any moment in time. Let’s say, for example, that you’re an employment lawyer; and you’ve really developed this wonderful checklist, that you’d be happy to share with somebody, on how you can avoid the fear of someone stealing trade secrets, of employees stealing trade secrets. So, you’re talking to somebody, and you learn that they have a lot of employees. You could say, “You know, we’ve created this really great checklist on how to protect trade secrets, and I’d be happy to send a copy to you, and we could talk about it right over the phone.”

So, you’re offering a valuable checklist, and it’s compelling, and it’s low barrier. It’s not the kind of thing that somebody would have to say, “Well, let me go back to my board and see if that’s something we want,” or “You know, I’ve already got another lawyer and I don’t want to do anything that would threaten that relationship.” But something that’s low barrier, like discussing of a really valuable checklist, would give you the ability to hear these words from your prospect, “Sure, Stephanie, I want that.”

And that’s the goal in the interaction, is to offer something of value: some kind of checklist, some kind of white paper, some kind of app that, maybe, you’ve created. One of the things we’ve created is, some software called BizDevCoach; and it took me two years to develop it, and it immediately gave me something to offer to everybody that I wanted to do business with, as a low barrier, compelling, offer. And just as an aside, using technology is one of the most important offers that lawyers can make, especially if their clients are any age under 45; technology offerings are really exciting.

So the goal is, in everything that you do, you need to ask yourself, “Is there a checklist that I could create here? Is there something of value that I could do, that I could have in inventory? So that when I go out into the world, and meet people, I’m always ready to offer some kind of checklist, some kind of app, some kind of discussion.” Or, you can customize offers. So, you have canned offers that you are always ready to offer at a moment’s notice, but also, as you listen to people, and they explain what’s going on in their lives, you have the ability to respond to their comments by making some kind of an offer.

For example, somebody says, “You know, I don’t need what you do right now, Stephanie. I don’t need that kind of lawyer, but what I do need is a corporate lawyer.” So you could say, “Well you know, I really know somebody who would be great for you. May I arrange for that person to have a meeting with you, or to contact you?” Or something along those lines, some kind of customized offer.

So you have canned offers that you’ve been preparing as you do your work, and notice ways of being valuable, and then you have custom offers, that you have, so that in that interaction you can say, “Well, let me do this for you,” and that person will then say, “Yes, I really appreciate that. I’d love to hear from you.” If you fail to make an offer the common mistake that most non-marketing lawyers make is that they create a false sense of security by thinking, “Well gee, this person was really a good person for me to meet, I’m gonna call them later.”

And then what happens is, you go back to your office, and life takes over, and the likelihood of your actually doing that follow up is remote. Unless, you can then come up with some kind of an offer and call and say, “You know, it was great meeting you, and I was thinking about what you said, and I wanted to mention to you that I have this offer that you might find interesting.” But it is much better to do it in the moment because, if you do it in the moment, you relieve yourself of the responsibility of having to do it later and that’s a real smart idea.

Because I can tell you, after doing this for 33 years and conducting over 32,000 coaching sessions with lawyers, I can tell you that it is easy to drop the ball in your follow-up. And unfortunately, all of the effort that you’ve put out to meet somebody, in a social situation or in a “work a room” situation, is worthless if you don’t do the follow up.

Stephanie Francis Ward: I know I think a lot of times, when lawyers think about business development, they think about, like, Bar Association events, or lunches, or trade shows. What are some interactions that maybe people, who aren’t really tuned into business development, don’t think about, which could be really good opportunities for them?

Larry Kohn: Well, it’s really a case of understanding who your targets are. The goal, in business development, first and foremost, is to determine who are the people you want to spend time with? Who are the people that are going to be your best allies? Now, it could be, if you’re a litigator that your best targets are going to be other lawyers because, for the most part, in commercial litigation, lawyers get business from other lawyers. A commercial litigator gets business from a corporate lawyer, and so you’ve got to be really clear about who you want to do business with, and then it’s easier to figure out where you’re going to meet them.

So, some people really want to interact with other lawyers, and going to Bar Association meetings can be a very effective place to do that. But you also might want to consider whether or not your targets are really the end user and that looking for referrals from other lawyers is not your best strategy, but rather, your best strategy is meeting the end user. And in order to do that, the smartest thing that I’ve seen, over the years, is trade organizations. Is this organization’s networking organizations that give you exposure to the person that you want to do business with directly? So, Bar Associations are great but it’s not the only place, by any stretch of the imagination; trade associations are really good too.

Stephanie Francis Ward: OK, we’re going to take a short break, and when we come back, Larry is going to speak to us about how people can handle situations when they feel uncomfortable talking to someone they don’t know.

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Stephanie Francis Ward: And we’re back! Larry, we’ve been speaking about interactions that people may not realize can help them with business development. Do you have advise for people who aren’t comfortable speaking to someone they don’t know?

Larry Kohn: Sure, the key to becoming comfortable is to feel welcome. Because if you feel as though you’re imposing information on people, then you’re right, you may be not welcome in your discussion. For example, if you’re a divorce lawyer and you walk up to somebody, the last thing you’re going to say is, “So, are you unhappy in your marriage?” I mean, there are certainly some social limitations to your ability to talk about what it is that you do. The solution to that problem is to think of interacting with people as research. Your goal is to find out who it is that you’re talking to. If you’re at a trade organization, you might wanna find out why it is that someone has chosen that organization.

What is it about the organization that they enjoy? You certainly have the ability to ask somebody, “What do you do for a living?” That’s a perfectly appropriate question to ask people, even in a social environment. And they, in turn, almost always will say what they do and then they’ll say, “What do you do?” And so, learning how to ask questions, and really being sincerely interested in the wellbeing of the people that you’re dealing with, sincerely interested in finding out what’s going on in their lives.

You might ask them, “So what is the impact of technology on your business? What’s the impact of the changing demographic in this particular market, on your business?” So, if you really get good at asking questions, then people will respond to those questions, and give you information that will subsequently allow you to offer something of value. And one of the reasons that lawyers make such wonderful marketers is because they’re so good at asking good questions.

So rather than thinking of this as being, once again, pushy, and invasive, and trying to bully your way into talking about how great you are, and what your practice is, be interested in people, ask them good questions and then they will respond, and that will give you the information that you need to be valuable.

Stephanie Francis Ward: Do you have any quick tips on “dos” and “don’ts” if you are at a networking event?

Larry Kohn: Well, yes. You know, we wrote an article called “Ten Counter-Intuitive Tips For ‘Working a Room” and it’s on our website at, in the publications section, and just a few of the cute things that we talk about because, it’s kind of a tongue-and-cheek article, but one of the things is to arrive really early. And that’s counter-intuitive for most lawyers because, they are so busy, and they get there late, and then they’re just in time for the program. And then—and so, learning how to get to an event very early is really an outstanding tip.

Because if you get there early, if you’re one of the first few people in the room; you can then be the ambassador that greets people. If you’re standing there in an empty room and someone walks in, then it’s very easy to be able to speak with them, and that makes a big difference. Another thing that you could do is approach staff. When you go to an event and you’re unfamiliar with the event, as a matter of fact, the very first time I went to an American Bar Association meeting I didn’t know anybody. I went to staff and I said, “Excuse me, I’m new here could you tell me how it is that this function works, and who it is that maybe I should be talking to?”

And they took me under their wing, and they introduced me all around the room, and it was really easy. So asking staff for assistance in learning the way the meeting people—who’s on the board here, anybody in charge of membership that I should be talking to? That’s the way that you can really get involved very quickly. Another strategy, once again, kind of tongue-in-cheek, but really true is: pick the longest drink line. Conventional wisdom is, find the shortest drink line so that you can get your drink as quickly as possible.

But I say, pick the longest line so that you’ve got somebody in front of you, somebody behind you, and you’re just standing there waiting in line. Inevitably, you’ll be able to have a nice chat. Another tip is to leave late. I think that the common wisdom is leave five minutes before the program is over, so that you can avoid having to wait in the long line to get your car. Although, that would be good because you could meet people in front of you and behind you, but it’s a better idea to stay. Because often, the officers of an organization linger, and it’s easier to talk to people when there are fewer people around and it doesn’t feel so overwhelming. So there are lots of things that you can do to make it comfortable and easy, but they’re a little bit counter-intuitive.

Stephanie Francis Ward: And you mentioned, “working a room”, which I think that’s something that a lot of people think of when they think about business development. Do you have any advice on, perhaps, having interactions where you can do some business development where there’s not a lot of competition? For instance, as you mentioned, coming early but it might be easier to speak with someone right before a Bar Reception starts than when it’s at its peak.

Larry Kohn: Well, if you could get comfortable with the idea of research, then the only thing that really matters, at a meeting, is the number of quality targets that are in the room. So many lawyers tell me they don’t like to go to events, where there’s too much competition, because they’re just one person, among many, who are vying for the attention of a handful of good prospects. And while, on its face, that seems reasonable, the reality is that, it really doesn’t matter how many other competitors are there, as long as you have access to the people that you want to talk to, and quickly have the ability to negotiate the follow up.

You’re not going to convince somebody to hire you because you’ve got some fantastic elevator speech. In fact, I’m pretty hostile to the concept of elevator speeches, not that they’re—it’s not that it’s not important for you to communicate who you are, what you do, in a succinct way, but it creates an unrealistic expectation that you could create some kind of a comment that would promote ongoing interaction. The goal is to meet with people that you want to do business with, or that you want to get referrals from, and then in that first conversation negotiate an ongoing dialogue. And then, the rule of rules, Stephanie, is in every interaction, always negotiate the next conversation.

Because if you’re in an interaction, and you forget to negotiate the next conversation, then you leave that interaction and the burden is on your shoulders to then think of a reason to follow up, and once again, that often falls through the cracks. So if you always remember to negotiate the next interaction, then you’ll always have it in place, and your ability to follow up is demonstrating the quality that you have of good follow up skills and living up to your commitments, rather than imposing upon yourself the need to call later, or think of a reason to call later.

Stephanie Francis Ward: All right, Larry, that’s everything I have to ask you today. Did you want to add anything else?

Larry Kohn: I just want to mention that people need to realize that their self-image often stops them from believing that they have the ability to bring in business. They’ve developed this horrible notion that selling is, in some way, an unattractive experience. When in fact, what we have learned is, even for the most introverted individual, that business development can be a very exciting and joyful experience.

It’s the process of building a community of allies, and that process of building allies, is exciting and fun and is completely different than the notions that people have about business development. So if you could just, sort of, get into this notion that the goal is to build a community of allies, by being valuable, rather than “bragging and bothering” as your strategy, then you can actually not only come to be good at this, but really learn to enjoy it.

Stephanie Francis Ward: All right. Well, thank you so much for your time. I appreciate it.

Larry Kohn: Thank you very much.

Stephanie Francis Ward: Of course. You’ve been listening to the ABA Journal’s Asked and Answered. We’ll see you next time.

End of transcript

Updated on August 5 to add transcript.

In This Podcast:

Stephanie Francis Ward
Larry Kohn, an executive coach, is president of Los Angeles-based Kohn Communications. He’s a co-author of Selling In Your Comfort Zone, which was published by the American Bar Association.