So asked a young lawyer in the Corporate Lawyer group on LinkedIn. It triggered a predictable spate of suggestions, e.g., “network with law school classmates,” “be active in the state bar,” etc.

OK, I guess somebody will have to be the contrarian here.

Enough about building relationships with other lawyers, whether in-house or private practitioners. Every lawyer is trying to develop relationships with in-house counsel, which is like a trying to catch fish by going to a spot where there are 500 fishermen and 50 fish.

What percentage of a company’s employees are in the Legal Dept? It’s miniscule, compared to the number of line-of-business employees who

  1. are dealing with the emerging business problems every day at the pointy end of the operational stick, and
  2. are the Legal Dept’s clients.

Do you want to dance with the people who make the rules, or those who are paid to follow them? The Legal Dept owns the past, i.e., the mature services that they buy every day, and that every inexperienced saleslawyer is misguidedly fighting to get a slice of.

Instead, invest your time making yourself relevant to the business people who actually run the business, and who allocate ALL the funds (including the Legal Dept’s budget). Establish industry-specific thought leadership around an emerging business problem, preferably one whose legal implications are further down the road.

Become an industry expert. Legal problems, corporate personnel, and corporations themselves, go away. Industries are forever. That’s where you build your equity, in the industry. As it evolves, you’ll evolve with it, way out in front of the legion of reactive lawyers begging the GC for a few crumbs from the legal-spend cake.

Whereas mature legal service prices must trend inexorably downward — and your level of access with them — emerging business problems with sufficient strategic, operational, or economic impact command whatever resources are necessary to deal with them. If you hear, “It’s not in the budget,” your issue is old and you’re behind the curve. The fact that there’s a defined budget says that it’s a mature problem.

As for networking, most lawyers seem to behave as if anyone and everyone is worth meeting. I strongly discourage this “fog a mirror” approach in favor of defining what problem you’re associated with and screening everyone at the event for their willingness to acknowledge that their company faces that demand-triggering problem now — or not. Only invest in cultivating people for whom you’re relevant.

The conventional wisdom is that everyone is a potential referral source. That’s true only in the most theoretical sense; as a practical matter, most people have no reason to remember you because you’re not relevant to their world. “Nice guy met at the XYZ event” isn’t memorable. Your impact has a shelf life measured in minutes, if not seconds.

So, how can a young BigLaw lawyer bring in clients?  By becoming relevant to prospective clients, who will then choose to pay attention to you and engage with you via your blog, articles, speeches, Tweets, etc.  If you become relevant to a big chunk of a sizable industry, a percentage of those people will decide they like how you think, perceive you as credible, and eventually, some of them will give you a chance to be useful.  That’s otherwise known as hiring you.

Mike O'Horo

RainmakerVT offers interactive virtual training to guide you through this process:

Make Yourself Relevant:

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