By Jill Schachner Chanen
Oct 24, 2006, 10:41 am CDT
After years of struggling to balance work with family and other interests, Jay Parkhill finally left the safety of full-time employment to hang his own shingle.
So far, he says, the experience has been a breath of fresh air. He’s busy—but not so busy that he feels overwhelmed. And he is able to spend more quality time with his wife and three young children.
But if he wants to maintain his newfound balance, Parkhill knows he’s going to have to start adding business development into the mix.
Theoretically, getting clients should not be a problem, considering his experience as a transactional lawyer representing sophisticated clients in San Francisco and Silicon Valley. Yet jump-starting the process is proving problematic. “I’ve never been the sort of person who feels remotely comfortable going to a party and making small talk,” he says. “That is why I’ve always felt that business development was painful and odious.” Indeed, when Parkhill realized that successful lawyering often relies as much on one’s skills as a salesman as on technical ability, he questioned whether he even wanted to continue trying to progress up the law firm pyramid. After much thought, he decided the role change only made sense if he were to work for himself.
Parkhill will be the first to admit that embracing this change is a struggle. Even if this new challenge directly benefits him, he still must overcome his dislike of asking others for work. And he’d prefer to master this important new skill sooner rather than later—while he came to his practice with a financial cushion, he does not want to waste time or effort. “I need to figure out what strategies are going to be most effective for me,” he says. Life Audit work-life balance expert M. Diane Vogt says Parkhill is already two steps ahead of the game by acknowledging what needs to be done and his discomfort in doing it. If he can put his emotions aside and approach business development in a methodical and systematic fashion, she guarantees that he’ll have more work than he knows what to do with well before his savings run out.
So far, Parkhill has been approaching business development in a scattershot manner. He’s attended a few networking events and reached out to a few contacts, but he feels the process is not working for him.
Vogt wants Parkhill to take a more long-term view. Practice development does not happen overnight. He needs to make a plan, act on it and cultivate it. “It’s like improving your fitness level. You don’t see results after one day at the gym or even after three months. It’s being out there every day and then seeing results after a year,” she says. Before Parkhill can actively engage in any sort of business-building activity, Vogt wants him to take a step back and define his practice. What is it that he wants to do, she asks? And how will he define success?
Parkhill has answered the first question: He wants to fill a niche by serving as an outsourced, temporary general counsel for growing companies in need of one but unable to afford one yet. He has yet to answer the second question. Vogt encourages him to because it will help him better target potential clients.
So, too, will defining the kinds of contacts he wants to make before attending any networking events. Vogt wants Parkhill to go to at least three such events a month. To make them effective, he must consider what he expects to get out of them. “Before you go, think about what kind of person you are looking for at each event. Identify one or two people, not necessarily by name or looks but by their business, age range and job title.” Once Parkhill is at an event, Vogt wants him to take the initiative to find people who fit the bill. “Just go up and talk to them,” she advises. “The person will be willing to talk to you.” After all, that’s why they’re there as well.
Plan Your Approach
To ease the awkwardness of these inherently awkward situations, Vogt tells Parkhill to have an intro planned that will break the ice and encourage interaction. “I used to tell people I am a lawyer and I do civil litigation,” Vogt says. “I phrased it that way to start a conversation and used the term civil litigation because most people don’t know what that means, and they’ll ask the follow-up question.”
Once Parkhill has developed his introductory line, Vogt wants him to practice saying it in the mirror over and over until he’s comfortable.
Random networking events can sometimes lead to new business. But Vogt says Parkhill is more likely to get referrals from people who know him. She wants him to actively seek referrals from former colleagues and clients. Arrange lunch with at least five people a month and plan to ask for referrals, Vogt counsels. “Work out a speech saying, ‘I have started my own practice; here is what I am doing, and if you hear of anyone who needs a lawyer, think of me.’ ”
She reminds him to say he’s looking for business. “It might sound stupid, but a lot of times people do not realize you are looking for clients. They might think you just started a new practice and are up to your ears with work.”
Parkhill also should reach out to friends and colleagues who can introduce him to other contacts. But be respectful, Vogt cautions. If your friends and colleagues say no, don’t question them—they have their reasons. More than likely, though, they’ll be happy to help. But let them handle the introductions as they see fit.
Once Parkhill gets introductions, he must make sure to capitalize on them, Vogt says. But she also cautions not to expect these new contacts to offer immediate business; instead, ask them to keep you in mind when their friends or business colleagues ask for a referral.
Because Parkhill is uncomfortable doing this, Vogt suggests that he view the conversation as a chance to do them a favor by presenting himself as a good, reliable attorney to whom they can refer friends, colleagues and clients. “Think about when you were at your firm and friends asked for referrals to other lawyers. Didn’t you want to know you referred your friend to the right lawyer? You are just trying to be that person,” says Vogt.
While practice development takes time, Vogt says Parkhill should enjoy the freedom he has now to enjoy his family and hobbies. Because if he follows her advice, he should have more clients than he can shake a stick at before he knows it.