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ABA Journal Podcast

Shy Lawyer’s Guide to Becoming a Rainmaker

Posted Jul 11, 2011 8:30 AM CDT
By Stephanie Francis Ward

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Some people are talented lawyers, but find hiding out in a hotel room more appealing than attending a convention cocktail party, especially if they don’t know anyone there.

If you’re in private practice—or want to be—such fears need to be conquered. ABA Journal Podcast moderator Stephanie Francis Ward talks with guests about how lawyers can overcome their business development anxieties, and discover that they’re much better at networking than they think.

In This Podcast:

Larry Kohn

Larry Kohn, an executive coach, is president of Los Angeles-based Kohn Communications. He's co-author of Selling In Your Comfort Zone, which was published by the American Bar Association. Kohn Communications' blog about business development for lawyers can be found at http://www.kohncommunications.com.

Dalhi Myers

Dalhi Myers practices with Gaffney Lewis & Edwards. The Columbia, S.C., lawyer was previously the director of legal and regulatory affairs with MCI WorldCom.

Podcast Transcript:

This podcast is produced by the ABA Journal. We bring you the latest legal news every day from around the Web. Visit us online at ABAJournal.com.

ABA Journal: Some people are brilliant at lawyering but not so brilliant at selling themselves, and don’t have the confidence to ask for business repeatedly. So what’s a somewhat marketing-challenged lawyer to do? I’m Stephanie Francis Ward and that’s what we’re discussing today at the ABA Journal podcast. My guests today are Larry Kohn, the president of Kohn Communications and the author of Selling in Your Comfort Zone and Dalhi Myers, a partner with Gaffney Lewis & Edwards. Larry, when you’re dealing with clients who are lawyers, what are the common reasons they give you about why they think they can’t do business development?

Larry Kohn: The answer is that they’re too busy to market, but we’ve learned over the years that that is really not the case. People feel busy because their lives are, of course, full, and they’re doing the things that are important to them, but the real issues are they’re uncomfortable with the fear of being an imposition on other people, their fear about appearing needy, they’re afraid of looking bad. And so when you are uncomfortable doing something, it’s easy to default to the comfort of the things that are already proven to be important to you, so time is the biggest complaint, but it’s not the real answer.

Dalhi Myers: I would also add – I think Larry’s absolutely right. I’d also add that there is such a negative stigma attached to lawyers, and in some contexts, what they view as advertising, and so they sort of meld the two together, "business development" equals sort of "my shilling for services like an ambulance chaser," when in reality, you do have to have a plan for this like anything else. And to the extent that it is the way in modern legal circles, and certainly with so much competition for business, it’s the way that we do generate the most new business and are most likely to expand existing portfolios, it’s necessary.

ABA Journal: So how do you get past – if you’re someone that you don’t want to look needy or you don’t want to look tawdry or whatever, how do you get past that? What do you tell people if that’s their response or if it comes up?

Larry Kohn: Let me lead off with that. The fact is that you will appear needy if you say needy things. If you say, "I really need your business," then you’re gonna appear needy, but you would never do that. The key is to be valuable, and the phrase that I like to use is that marketing means communicating value to the right people, communicating value to the right people. So the job is not to ask for the business or to appear as though you’re imposing on people, but rather, be valuable to people, and if you get good at communicating the value you bring to the right people, you’ll be good at this. There’s not a lawyer around that can’t be good at bringing in business if they understand what marketing really is.

ABA Journal: So, Dalhi, how do you know who the right people are?

Dalhi Myers: I think you, first of all, have to evaluate what your core business is, what kind of business do you want to attract. If you use the shotgun approach, I think you will always appear needy, always appear desperate, always appear a bit tawdry, as if you’re just shilling for something, anything, someone, just give me something. But to the extent that you understand what your core capabilities are, what you’re really good at, and the market understands that because you’ve done a good job of being out there and being good at those things, I think you target, you selectively look at who the market segment, market leaders are there.

And depending on the size of your office or the size of your practice, you might also look at the up-and-coming market leaders in that area, and you go about doing what I call just plain old everyday making friends. I remind younger lawyers when I do training, both in house and externally, that lawyers are people too, and for the most part, you are presenting your capabilities to other lawyers.

We all just want to get to know each other and be known for who we are, and if you approach it as you would in any context of meeting new people, making friends, understanding what they need first, and then figuring out how what you’re capable of delivering fits into that, you have a better shot at business on any level. So I would say, first of all, evaluate your core capabilities, look at what kind of business you want to be in the market as a leader for developing and for successfully completing for a client, and then look at the clients in that strata and I would say the strata right below or a couple of tiers down so that you can begin to build a pipeline of business.

Larry Kohn: I’d like to comment on what Dalhi said. She used the term, “segment,” and that’s the most important term, I think, for identifying who your target should be. The concept in marketing is called market segments, and your job is to be a big fish in a small pond, which means you want to identify the most fertile environments for your ideal market. Market segmentation means that you take the entire world that you might be able to do business with, let’s say you’re a corporate lawyer and you could do business with different segments. Well, one segment might be referral sources.

That segment might be CPAs. Or you could maybe go after the end use, the business community directly, and then you want to segment by industry; you want to segment by geography; you want to segment by title; you could segment by gender and hobby and areas of your specialty. So by zeroing in on the most narrow segments possible, when you do want to make time for your outreach, you’ll have a better ability to define the environments where you can meet those people. The more you know about your target, the more effective you’ll be in finding environments to find them.

ABA Journal: I have a question for you, Larry, and I know the market is so tight out there right now. Are there some really clever ways to think of a really fertile market that everyone else isn’t trying to tap into?

Larry Kohn: I think that you, as Dalhi said, you look at what you do to see where you have the best fit, so where you have real comfort. You also look to your existing clients to see what industries they’re in and you also look to existing relationships who are well connected to the target markets that you want to reach out to.

One of the most effective ways of meeting new people is meeting people through the people you already know, and in fact, many of my clients make huge amounts of money with just that philosophy, nothing else, just focusing on every time they meet a person in their target market, they are good at finding out who those other people know and they develop wonderful non-invasive ways of meeting those people.

Dalhi Myers: And just to piggyback, for a moment, on what Larry is saying, I think, in fact, it is still true that your best marketing tool is to do a really good job because your clients will sell you. Clients who are really pleased with their external counsel make it known to the world. They take you to conferences with them, they ask you to speak in their offices, they ask you to do workshops, and there is no better marketing tool than a satisfied customer because that customer, then, goes abroad and does a better job of selling you than you ever could.

ABA Journal: Larry, you mentioned non-invasive ways of meeting people. Dalhi, what are your suggestions on some non-invasive ways of meeting folks?

Dalhi Myers: I think that there are two ways that I look at it. There are some things that I think if you’re serious about building your own business and your own practice so that you’re independent of getting work from other lawyers within your firm (if you’re in a firm), there’s some bit of marketing that is outside of your comfort zone that, frankly, you will need to do, and you will need to learn to enjoy the cocktail parties where there’s no one in the room whom you know. You should see it as an opportunity, I think.

I always do. Just as actually meeting new people, generally, as an opportunity. I think you ought to see just going out and potentially meeting new client as the same kind of opportunity, but I think you have to look at the kinds of conferences you’re attending, what kind of speaking engagements are you making yourself available for? Are they all consistent with your targeted goal of winning business within – Larry is absolutely right – this segment, or is it just a broad approach and you’re throwing everything against a wall hoping that something will stick.

I tend to only do conferences, seminars, and speaking engagements where there is some from the pre-conference registration, I have some clear notion that there are potential clients there for whom I can meet a direct need so that I am always at least on a panel or facilitating a panel in some way that allows me to demonstrate my knowledge base, my experience base, and my capabilities to those people in a non-threatening way. I’m not walking up to them, giving them a hard shakedown.

And so it presents an opportunity afterwards for me to introduce myself to them, if they have not already come to introduce themselves to me, and then I have the follow-on opportunity to say, was there something of particular interest in this panel discussion that we opened up or can I just, maybe, have lunch with you and we can talk about what your business needs are, what your business does? Just so that you get an understanding, first and foremost, of what they need. I think it’s impossible to ever sell your services to a client without some clear understanding of their business goals, their objectives, and personally, what you can do to make them shine within their organizations.

Larry Kohn: Let me comment on something, Stephanie. The issue of working the room or going to a conference will make people so uncomfortable and one of the ways that you can overcome that is looking at those organizations or being involved in those things as not a social experience, but rather, reframing it as a research experience.

If you are embarrassed or feeling introverted and don’t like working the room – I have clients that will go to conferences and stay in their hotel room the whole time because they’re so uncomfortable, but once I explain to them that their job is to go down into that room, not for fun, but for research, who’s in there, why are they there, why is the organization good for them, what does the organization do, does it meet your values.

And lawyers are wonderful at research, which means lawyers are wonderful at working the room, but if you think of it as social, it will make you uncomfortable because you’re not funny and you don’t like small talk, but if you think of it as research, you can immediately begin to enjoy it. And my book, Selling in Your Comfort Zone, stresses the importance of not thinking that you should go out of your comfort zone, but rather, identify the things that make you comfortable, and clearly, lawyers can learn that working a room is comfortable.

Dalhi Myers: Exactly right. I so agree with that. To the extent that you view it differently, you do, in fact, convert it from something that is not within your traditional wheelhouse to something that wholly is. I think that’s an excellent point.

ABA Journal: I want to ask you guys about – you mentioned referrals a bit and cross-referrals, referrals from other people in different professions or from your clients. Now, of course, as a lawyer, you cannot pay for those referrals. Are there any ways that you can give incentives for referrals that doesn’t cross ethical lines?

Dalhi Myers: As a lawyer, I stay very far away from the line completely. I just don’t. That is never a line that I want to ever be close to. There may be ways of doing it; I’ve just never explored them. I think what I tend to enjoy doing is referring out work to people when I know they’ll do a good job for my clients. And I don’t have the fear that they’ll ultimately end up exclusively with my clients because I work every day and bust my chops every day to do a better job than anybody else and to make sure that my clients understand that I am nimble, and if there ever is something that needs to be fixed, that we will immediately get whatever problems there are rectified.

So I think that, for me, that it’s just a personal sort of line that I just don’t cross. I don’t look at it as how can I incentivize someone to give me a referral or to – I just work with people who do a really, really good job and who are known to certainly be very upfront and honest about their intentions, so far as getting the referral business and who don’t have any untoward intentions. But I don’t – those ethical rules are there for a really good reason and I am very careful to not give the appearance of something that might violate those rules.

Larry Kohn: I agree that the ethical rules are very important and everyone should live by them very carefully. Many states do allow for lawyers to share fees among themselves, and those requirements vary. Some lawyers have to stay involved in some way –

Dalhi Myers: You have to participate in the work.

Larry Kohn: If it is ethical, then I support it because a lawyer who could send you business because you’re good, if they want the fee and they could send it to somebody else who will pay them a fee, they’re very incentivized to send it to the other lawyer, even if you’re good. With that said, people do have a collection of lawyers that they like to refer to who do the job for their clients, so that’s important. But I do want to mention that there are many ways of incentivizing people that are absolutely ethical, that are fun, and that’s in the area of entertaining people.

And if you can provide as simple as taking someone to lunch, which is a minor incentive, but incentive, and if somebody were to send you a client and you sent them a nice gift, I prefer gifts that are durable gifts, like legal writing leather pads or a crystal clock for their desk. Now there are ethical standards with that, too. For example, there are many companies were in-house counsel can’t take anything or banks that could refer business can’t take anything, but there is a wiggle area and I think it’s really fun and really effective to be good at giving gifts to people. And I think it’s very worth considering.

ABA Journal: Let’s switch gears a bit. Let’s stay on the referral topic. Let’s talk a bit about getting referrals from other lawyers. I know, as I said earlier, it’s very tight out there with business. And how can you market yourself to other lawyers for referral services without appearing like you want to steal that other lawyer’s business? Dalhi, what do you think?

Dalhi Myers: I think I’ve gotten really good referrals from colleagues, historically, and most of that has come from working with colleagues on projects in the bar, working on boards and different commissions, doing just community work with friends who have – when the need arose, then they were able to say, "Oh, Dalhi might be the person you want to use for that, or maybe she can refer to someone."

And so I think I have seen dividends increasingly over the years from just basically being a part of – a vibrant part of the legal community, the non-legal community, the volunteer community in my state, and certainly, with the ABA, just I’ve seen dividends from helping people work on projects that are of import, but don’t pay. And so I think that the better people know you, the more comfortable they are with referring work to you or asking you to help them find a good person to do a task that may be outside of your traditional area of practice.

So that goes back to something Larry said earlier, just sort of making yourself comfortable with figuring out what you’re good at and making every opportunity to do that. Lawyers are good at research, converting sort of the cocktail party into the research hour is an excellent idea, and using every opportunity that you have to be out and about in your community, and certainly, even at church. I have spent a lot of volunteer hours doing Saturday clinics for my church or churches statewide, and certainly, churches nationally for my church’s organization, and even things like that pay dividends.

I think that the key is to pay close attention to every opportunity and not to accept opportunities where you can’t hit the ball out of the park, don’t allow yourself to get overextended because every time you are out and about as a lawyer in those environments, people are watching and they are evaluating whether or not they could use you if the need ever arose or you become indispensable to them in those contexts and they say, here is a really good person. So when the need arises, your name is the first one that pops to mind.

Larry Kohn: I have a comment on that. The best referrals often come from other lawyers. If you’re concerned about lawyers not sending you business because they’re afraid of your stealing the business, the obvious response is reach out to non-competitors. Estate planning lawyers can get business from corporate lawyers, corporate lawyers can get business from bankruptcy lawyers. There’s all kinds of different practices and those can be very complimentary where there’s no risk of people stealing business. If you’re getting your business from a competitor because there’s a conflict, then the best way to minimize their concern about your stealing the client is to guarantee you won’t.

Dalhi Myers: That you won’t do it, yeah. Just tell them.

Larry Kohn: That’s right. People get business from people they trust, that they have confidence in. If you say to them, look, let’s have an understanding that if you do send me a conflict, I will not allow us to take on any other work. I will only handle the conflict. And that really works.

Dalhi Myers: It does, in fact, work, and lawyers appreciate that. They appreciate the upfront honesty and they appreciate that you followed through on it and that their clients remain happy, they get great service, and they come back to them for the work that they were originally doing.

ABA Journal: And let me ask both of you, what do you think about some of the online referral services where either you pay for referrals or you pay to be listed? Do you think, can one generate a fair amount of business from that or it is, maybe, a waste of money?

Dalhi Myers: I’m gonna let Larry speak more broadly to that, just – but I will say I have not had the greatest success with online referrals, and it may be because it’s still in its nascent stages and there needs to be more sort of organic growth and development for it before it becomes a real source of business. I am probably an old shoe leather kind of person, anyway. I do believe that you have to put in the effort and the time with meeting people and providing services that they really need, and that’s how you’re gonna generate business.

But that having been said, I do think that there are some online things that you can do that generate business, not to include the fee-based services, just because I don’t know enough about those to speak intelligently and I haven’t had the greatest success. But I can say that you will see results from, for example, blogging on areas of blogs that have expertise because when people go to a blog, it’s because they are seeking you out, rather than your sort of sending a client broadside or some sort of client memo that people may or may not read that may or may not speak to any particular business interest that they have or business need.

But if you have an area of specialty and you, for example, blog in that area, and people come to your blog and from that, you begin to develop followers and folks who view you as an expert in that area, that, obviously, will generate business that – and you can reach more people with that blog than you ever could walking the street or pounding the pavement. So in that context, I think there are some things that you could do online to create an online presence that is helpful to building your brand and establishing you as an expert in a particular area of law that may be different than you sort of paying for a service to so-called send you client referrals.

ABA Journal: Let me rephrase the question, then, Larry, for you, and it’s still about the online referrals. If you’re someone who is this reluctant type that doesn’t want to go out and be social, could you do enough business development, do you think, online and with the referral services or it’s just not going to be enough as it would be with face-to-face time?

Larry Kohn: Well, it depends upon your practice and it depends upon your targets. If your targets are inclined to go onto the Internet and do research, they might stumble on an online directory and they may call you. I have clients who generally tell me that their expenses in online referral services at least get returned with some business. I have not heard of great success stories. One of the ways we can tell if these online services are working in your community is to see how long lawyers stay on them. If they stay on them for a long time, they’re not fools; they’re paying for them because they work. If they disappear quickly, then you know they don’t.

Also, you can ask the online referral companies who their satisfied clients are, and you can call them up and ask them and they’ll tell you whether or not – these are other lawyers – they’ll tell you. So I have seen some success. However, as clients get more sophisticated, as your targets get more sophisticated, they are less likely to use that kind of research as a way to find a lawyer and more likely to ask their friends, ask their colleagues, and not use the online referral databases.

ABA Journal: And let’s switch gears. What do you guys think about the publications, like the Super Lawyers, are they effective for marketing? Should attorneys try to get themselves featured in the publications?

Larry Kohn: Once again, it depends upon your target. If your targets are really interested in those status issues, then they can be very important. But then again, it varies on who it is. If it’s Chambers, which is a highly regarded organization that in-house counsel really value, then it’s extremely important and very worthwhile. Some of these Super Lawyer things could be pay to play where they’ll list you because they’re hoping to sell you an ad in their publication and I’m uncomfortable with that, but at the same time, lots of people are super lawyers and pay for it and find that their clients are very impressed with that and they like to be able to put that on their bio.

So I think it’s a cost/benefit issue. If it’s not a lot of money and your clients like it a lot, then it might be something worth doing.

Dalhi Myers: I would just say that it’s been my experience that it matters more to lawyers than it does to even some of their lawyer clients, and certainly, their non-lawyer clients, just because although it is, for the most part, at least the Super Lawyer designation that is done by the ABA group, it’s peer-reviewed and there are other things that go into it, but we all also know that, at the end of the day, clients don’t rely on that to pick a lawyer. And we think it’s great for our firms, but clients rely on your marketplace track record, which doesn’t necessary come exclusively from your peers, which that might.

And certainly, if they’re pay-to-play Super Lawyer designations or other accolades that you’ve received, it’s not to figure that out in the marketplace, either; so I would say it is certainly nice as you practice and you spend your time dedicating yourself to becoming an expert in this area of law, it certainly makes you feel good to have that designation, but I don’t know that it carries over into actually translating into business.

ABA Journal: Dalhi, based on your practice, what do you think is the most successful thing you’ve done, in terms of business development?

Dalhi Myers: I would say that there are two things. I have always tried at every opportunity to just be sure that I’ve done an outstanding job, the best job that I could possibly do, and I’ve involved the right players and have not been afraid of asking people for help when I need help and giving them the credit for having done something that I couldn’t do otherwise. But also, that I have always, at appropriate times, gone back to my clients and said, "I know we got paid for that, but tell me where you were most dissatisfied." Because it’s easy to find out what pleases your clients, but I think one of the keys has been that I have always said to my clients, "Tell me where the areas for improvement are."

And I’ve acted on that. And my clients even tell others, this is a lawyer who is not afraid to be told what you want her to do better the next time. And certainly, it doesn’t bother me because that is the easiest way to retain happy clients is to make sure that you are ever evaluating what they’ve told you you’ve done really, really right, but certainly, what they sometimes don’t tell you that you haven’t done in a way that they would have liked. And I think, for me, that has proven to have been one of the best strategies for success that I could have had. And I didn’t realize it when I started doing it, but it’s become one of the things that my clients tell everybody.

Dalhi does not mind you telling her, for example, that you never expected that that would have taken longer than ten hours, even though it was an outstanding job, that you would have expected that it would have taken maybe ten hours or less when, in fact, you got a bill that said 17 hours or 15 hours and that was the price. And even if you were happy to pay the bill, the fact that you could go back and say to Dalhi, "Okay, next time maybe we’d like to know in advance if you think this is going to take more than the average amount of time or maybe we should communicate to you what we think is the average amount of time."

It is that I’m an open communicator and I always want to know what I’ve done that can be improved for the next round.

Larry Kohn: I have a comment on that, with regard to all of the clients that I’ve worked with over the years and of course, Dalhi is right, it’s so important to do good legal work because you keep your clients, but frankly, and I hope I don’t sound too radical here, I know an awful lot of lawyers that aren’t necessarily the best lawyers but are great at bringing in business, so it’s a given that you should do good legal work.

Dalhi Myers: That’s right.

Larry Kohn: But the fact is you’re gonna do that. That’s not a part of your marketing effort, in my view. You’re going to do good legal work and that will bring you more business. I think the single most important thing for lawyers to do is to meet more good targets. By far and away the greatest weakness that we see, and I’ve been doing this now for 25 years, the greatest weakness that we see is that lawyers don’t know enough good targets.

If you were to assess how many targets do you really know who could give you business right now, who could refer business to you right now, if that number is five or ten, you’re way, way, way behind the curve, and you need mechanisms for meeting new people, whether those mechanisms are getting involved in organizations or meeting people through other people or my very favorite, which is public speaking and seminars. I think that the vast majority of lawyers way underestimate the number of people that they need to meet in order to make a significant dent in their new business development effort.

ABA Journal: And that’s everything for today. I want to thank you both so much for your time. I really appreciate it.

This podcast was brought to you by the ABA Journal. For more podcasts on the legal issues of the day, visit us online at ABAJournal.com or subscribe for free to the ABA Journal Podcast on iTunes.

Updated July 11 to include transcript.

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