Lawyers seem to spend the bulk of their marketing time hosting or attending receptions and other business events such as conferences and trade shows, where they hope to network and make contacts that will lead to getting business. Most, however, come home tired, empty-handed and discouraged. Worse, they feel guilty for having wasted yet another evening away from their families for nothing.
Seldom have so many put in so much time and effort and gotten so little out of it. For most lawyers, that about sums up their view of networking. I’ve seen no statistics, but I’d be willing to bet that attending networking events eats up a huge chunk of the time lawyers spend trying to get business.
For most, the thought of hanging around at yet another networking event, making small talk but not knowing how to get anything out of it, is discouraging. You may recall thinking, “Why did I buy a ticket to this event? I hate these things. A bunch of lawyers, standing around, smiling, trying to hustle work from businesspeople who usually have attorneys already.”
Why do so many lawyers have such difficulty with networking events? There are five primary reasons.
Let’s examine the perspective most lawyers have regarding networking and how it sets them up for failure and frustration.
Mistake #1: Wrong Perspective
The label we use to describe these encounters -- “networking events” -- suggests that we’re there to meet a lot of people to initiate relationships that will somehow become clients or lead to referrals.
The problem is that most lawyers are innately uncomfortable with, and ill-suited for, the grip-and-grin routine, so they’re less likely to succeed at it.
In her article, The Unique Psychological World of Lawyers, Robin Muir Rolfe cites the work of Martin Seligman, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and the founder of the school of Positive Psychology, which focuses on attributes and behaviors that produce success and happiness.
Dr. Seligman identified optimism as a critical attribute for both. In his book, Authentic Happiness, he reviewed his research as to whether any personality attributes (particularly optimism) were consistently correlated to success in any of 104 careers he studied. The only career for which he found consistent correlations was “lawyering.”
Pessimism and Skepticism
And the attribute? Pessimism.
Pessimism was so highly correlated with success in law practice that the higher the pessimism in law students, the higher their grades. Dr. Seligman points out that while pessimism is evidently a positive attribute for the practice of law, it can have profound effects on the individuals who score high in that quality, affecting their resilience and their personal and professional relationships.
Skepticism is a trait that ranges from being cynical, judgmental, questioning, argumentative, and self-protective on the high end to accepting, trusting and giving the benefit of the doubt on the low end.
The general population has an average score of 50 on skepticism, while among lawyers it is consistently the highest scoring trait, averaging 90. This trait can be very useful in the practice of law, particularly litigation, tax and M&A.
However, most people tend to use their strongest traits in every arena of their lives, so this high level of skepticism is also carried over into personal relationships that may call for more trust and collaboration.
Urgency, Autonomy, Resilience
Lawyers also test very high in urgency (sense of immediacy or impatience) and autonomy (prizing independence). They test particularly low in resilience (processing feedback and recovering from defeat) and sociability (interacting with others and initiating intimate connections).
Organizational psychologist Dr. Larry Richard has written extensively in his Lawyerbrain blog about the lawyer personality and how it impacts their success with modern practice challenges. He, too, cites lawyers’ high degree of skepticism, observing that “they focus on problems rather than on what’s working well.” He points lawyers to the work of Dr. Judith Beck, who establishes a key principle that emotions drive behavior, but thinking drives emotions. In other words, when you change how you think, it changes how you feel. Thinking and feeling are not “opposites”, as we often are told, but rather they are complementary functions that work together in the brain.
“Lawyers are skeptical and exhibit a disproportionately high degree of negative thinking, which is fine in their lawyer role but an impediment in the other roles that they are called upon to play these days, such as rainmaker. They are very low in Sociability, low in Interpersonal Sensitivity, low in Resilience, high in Urgency, and are very autonomous. These traits help them be effective as lawyers, but interfere with their effectiveness as rainmakers.”
Unless you’re an outlier among lawyers, with a much higher Resilience quotient, and much lower Skepticism quotient, this meet-a-lot-of-people philosophy is ill suited to you, and cannot work.
I trust that we’ve now established that a “networking” perspective, i.e., meet-and-greet as many people as possible, can’t work for most lawyers. However, who says we have to view it through that lens?
Hunting vs. Networking
There’s a different approach that’s much better aligned with the lawyer personality: Hunting.
When you hunt, you’re looking for something specific, which changes your purpose from meeting as many “anyones” as possible to filtering the crowd in search of specific people. By definition, this narrows the nature of your interaction and shrinks the time you’ll spend with any individual at an event. It also simplifies the process of choosing which events to attend.
Here’s an illustration from my own lawyer-training career.
It may surprise you to learn that a sales guy like me has little tolerance for the facile chatting that characterizes most of our interactions at networking events. So, I devised a strategy that minimized it for me.
First, I defined exactly who I was looking for, and decided that I would only spend time with people who matched that definition. Then, I devised a simple method to reveal whether or not someone I met matched that definition. In BigLaw, the optimal person for me to meet is an official- (management committee, practice chair, CMO, BDO) or de facto leader (big rainmaker; senior partner) from a big firm that had a lot of partners with great contact lists, but who brought in too little business relative to their access.
With that, I became a hunter. In Mistake #3, I’ll explain how.
First, let’s look at how a lack of clear purpose guarantees lawyers’ frustration and failure.
Mistake #2: No Clear Goal or Purpose
Lawyers go to networking events because they're supposed to go, but they have only the vaguest notion of what they’re trying to accomplish (“make contacts,” “initiate relationships”). Handicapped that way, they can only hope something worthwhile happens. If they don't know what they want, it's hard to get it.
At networking events, as with your legal work, success begins long before you show up. Let's use that lawyer perspective to set a goal for the event.
Here are two guiding principles:
You already have all the skills you need to be a successful networker. You've had them all along. They’re the same skills that make you a good lawyer. You don't need new skills; you just need to apply your “lawyering” skills to this new purpose. OK? Good. Now, exhale.
You don't have to be good at "selling yourself" to be a successful networker. In fact, pitching your services or your expertise is one of the most counterproductive things you can do.
You've got plenty of other things to do with your time, so you’d better have a worthwhile purpose or it makes no sense to go to this networking event. Specifically, what do you want to accomplish from the time you invest?
Here are some typical responses:
Meet people with legal needs I can serve
Meet some potential clients
Spend time with current clients who will be there
Meet members of the local business community
Meet people with business problems that relate to my legal expertise
There is a long list of reasons beyond the scope of this article why the first four aren’t helpful. Suffice to say that you’ve already tried most of them and they haven’t delivered what you wanted.
To me, #5 is the only credible choice: “Meet people with business problems that cause them to need my legal expertise.”
Lawyers always talk about the importance of relationships. The root word is “relate.” However, the only thing people want to relate to is their world, their challenges, their problems. The only way they want to relate to us is how we can help them in some way with the challenges they’re obligated to care about.
Notice that “make new friends” isn’t on the list. There’s nothing wrong with making new friends, but don’t fool yourself by characterizing that outcome as a marketing investment.
Relating this back to my own networking challenge, my purpose and goal is always the same: Meet three law firm leaders who acknowledge that their firm has partners with lots of influential contacts but don’t convert those contacts into clients, and are willing to discuss the problem with me outside the event.
That’s why I’m there. Everything I do--and avoid doing--that night is in service to that goal.
OK, you now have a worthwhile purpose. Next, let’s examine the importance of having a strategy and plan to accomplish your goal.
Mistake #3: No strategy or plan
Even if we know what we want, if we don't know how we'll go after it, our chances of success are slim, and we're relying on blind luck. Most lawyers just kind of wander around at networking events, hoping to bump into someone who wants to hire them.
What’s my strategy and plan in support of my goal of meeting three law firm leaders who acknowledge having the problem I solve, and who are willing to discuss it with me outside the event?
Screen for profile
First, I scan name tags to make sure the person is from a law firm. If not, I keep moving, acting as if I was sorry I couldn’t chat but was looking for someone. The truth is that I am looking for someone, and if you aren’t with a law firm, it isn’t you. You might be a great person, but I’m not here to meet great people unless they’re with a law firm, etc.
When I spot a law firm name on a tag, I introduce myself and extend the expected courtesies of asking the lawyers their practice specialty. If I know something about the firm (another good reason to focus on one industry) I mention it. If I’ve never heard of the firm, I apologize for not being familiar with them and ask what type of firm it is (or feign vague recognition and ask what type of firm it is). I ask the lawyer’s role in the firm so I could assess whether or not this lawyer is a leader, or a potential path to one of the leaders.
Screen for the demand-triggering problem
Having dispensed with the necessaries, I immediately test for the presence or absence of the problem that drove demand for my service. “Gee, it seems like big firms like yours have a lot of partners with impressive contact lists, but not-so-impressive books of business. Is that true of your firm?” It’s a virtual certainty that they’ll laugh and acknowledge that I hit the nail squarely on the head. That’s because my demand-triggering problem is almost universal. It would be a rare firm that doesn’t experience it, so it’s pretty close to being bullet-proof reliable.
Size the problem
The only remaining tasks are to get the lawyer to estimate how many of his or her partners matched that description, and to speculate on the potential economic impact of converting a higher percentage. From this conversation, they’ll conclude that I understand big law firms pretty well, and ask what I do for a living.
My answer has nothing to do with what I do and how I do it.
Instead, I address the impact of my service, i.e., why law firms care what I do: “I help lawyers convert contacts into clients.” Then, rather than fall into the trap of yakking about how I produce this wonderful outcome, I graciously say I don’t want to monopolize their time at the event, and ask a next steps question: “Does it make sense for us to discuss this more by phone sometime over the next few days?”
If yes, we agree on a mechanism to arrange that. If no, I shake the lawyer’s hand and move on, continuing to hunt for my first, second, or third real prospect of the evening.
Mistake #4: No Concrete “Next Steps”
You see how perspective, purpose, and a plan combine to determine how successful you’ll be at networking events. The final and, operationally speaking, most critical step is establishing next steps with those who meet your criteria.
If you’ve applied what I’ve shown you so far, you’re only talking with people who acknowledge having your demand-triggering problem. That’s great, but you’re not going to make a sale during a networking event. You won’t generate any opportunities unless you create some means of continuity.
A high percentage of the coaching calls I get from lawyers are about the same thing:
“I met someone at a networking event last week. Her situation matches my practice very well. We exchanged cards and I gave her a call, but haven’t heard back from her. What should I do?”
The answer is to get a time machine, go back in time to last week, and establish concrete next steps.
Establish next steps now
If you don’t have a time machine, you’d better establish concrete next steps with this person before you disengage. (This automatically eliminates the need to agonize about how to manufacture some kind of artificial and awkward follow-up with the wrong people.)
The traditional networking approach is based on establishing relationships first, and pursuing business second. “Hey, let’s begin a relationship.” That makes it hard to suggest a concrete next step. There’s no basis for one. By tomorrow, tonight’s good intentions are forgotten, buried under the weight of another busy day.
What if you could do business first, then develop a relationship based on the success of that?
In the traditional networking scenario, you collect business cards from those you meet, and send each person the obligatory email saying “Nice to have met you last night. Let’s get together some time.” Be careful what you ask for; you might get it.
What if each of the five people you met and emailed replied, “Great idea. I’d like that. How about lunch next week?” Will you make time for five lunches, the value of which is unknown and, because of that, is a “someday, maybe” proposition, or will you claim (truthfully) to be jammed, or put it off in some other nice way, and never revisit it?
Let’s say that you’re willing to take the long shot bet on five lunches. Even if the restaurant is in your office building, you’re still committing to a minimum of five hours over the course of, say, two weeks. What percentage of your business development time budget does that represent?
Unless you’re an outlier, 2-3 hours per week is probably close to 100% of the time you allocate to business development. How wise is it to expend it on five people about whom you have no objective evidence that they’re legitimate prospects, all in service to some vague “relationship building” aim?
Continue the “relationship math.” You can’t develop much of a relationship over one lunch, which means that you’ve got to continue arranging contact with these five people via phone, email, and lunches. How often?
Nobody knows, but let’s say you have to be in touch at least every other month to have any expectation of a productive relationship, and any chance at the result you want. Assuming that 25% of your touches were over lunch (1.25 hours each); 25% by phone (20 minutes each); and 50% by personalized email (10 minutes each).
Since it makes no sense to go to one networking event, get five business cards and quit, let’s assume that you go to a networking event twice monthly, and meet five new people each time for a total of 10 new contacts per month. Sounds great, right?
Maybe not. Here’s what that would look like over 18 months:
The good news is that you’ll have added 900 contacts. The bad news is that you’ve added 900 “relationship obligations”—for contacts of unknown utility or value. Each of these will require meaningful time investment to develop, or to conclude that you can’t or shouldn’t.
Sky-high break-even point
Over the course of Year One, you’ll have invested roughly 200 hours staying in touch with, and trying to develop some kind of relationship with, people whose only initial qualification for such investment was being courteous to you and handing you a business card. At billing rate of $500/hour, that’s an opportunity cost of $100,000. At a 40% gross profit (which is very, very good for a law firm) you'd have to generate $250,000 worth of work from them—just to break even on the Year One relationship cost.
Because you’re building relationships, and there's no basis for a decision that would allow you to disengage, these people will remain in your pipeline indefinitely, creating a cumulative cost that will bury you.
Consider, too, that the people you met in the first six months of Year Two will only have had 2-3 touches each. Those relationships are immature, so you can’t count on them for any kind of business or referral results just yet. Combine those with the carryovers from Year One, and you’re on the hook for 230 hours of relationship overhead in just the first six months of Year Two.
Applying the same hourly rate to calculate opportunity cost, that translates into $115,000. That’s more than your relationship cost for all of Year One—for just the first six months of Year Two. Using the same gross profit numbers, you’ll have to generate another $287,500 to break even for the first six months.
Total amount of new business you must generate just to break even on relationship-building costs for 18 months: $537,500.
The marketing/sales budget norm for many lawyers is roughly 200 hours per year, so you’ll exhaust all of that developing relationships with random contacts. (This doesn't count the hours you’ll have spent at networking events creating this huge obligation.)
The rest of the bad news is that this time overhead doesn’t include time required to sustain and grow relationships with current clients. You’ll have to choose between neglecting them in favor of attention to these random strangers, or boosting your time budget by an amount that isn't possible.
You'll do neither.
Instead, you’ll make random, infrequent contact with some of them, and ignore most of them. So, why begin something that you know you can't sustain or see through to a productive end?
You may argue that these numbers represent the worst-case scenario, or that they’re otherwise worthy of challenge. That’s fine. Adjust them in any way that reflects your circumstances. Wherever your numbers end up, the point is that accumulating random contacts yields a bloated, unwieldy, stale pipeline that has too much overhead, too little yield, too little throughput, way way too much frustration.
Even if lawyers were full-time salespeople, with 50 hours per week to devote to business generation, this approach still wouldn’t make any sense, which is why sales professionals don’t do it.
This is a crude example of calculating your cost of sale, or cost of client acquisition. Unfortunately, few lawyers pay attention to that, and fewer still attempt to measure it. However, it’s important to do because otherwise you’ll continue to invest in marketing and sales activities that lose money.
Returning to our “hunting” approach, if you apply the principles properly, you’ll have met 2-3 people at the networking event who have a specific business problem that triggers demand for your service. Under brief probing, the person you met will have demonstrated that the problem has real impact. That means there’s a reason to hire someone like you.
Because your interactions with them are based on a specific problem, you can get a decision from them that, whether “yes” or “no,” removes them from your pipeline, avoiding the cumulative bloat and stagnation common to the illustration above. By contrast, there’s no way to get random contacts out of your pipeline other than by ignoring them, which is neither prudent nor considerate.
If you hunt instead of network, you’re far ahead of every lawyer who’s merely meeting nice people who may or may not have a real reason to engage with them.
No more rejection
What about lawyers’ low resilience, which manifests itself as avoiding confrontation or risk of rejection?
Hunting solves that problem, too. How difficult is it to suggest continuing a relevant discussion already begun? It’s the most natural thing in the world. There’s no risk at all. If they decline to explore the issue further, they’ve done you a favor by keeping themselves out of your pipeline. They’re rejecting the issue, not you.
By hunting, you’re not engaging in relationship-building. You’re initiating a problem-solving investigation, which gives the person with the problem a chance to experience what it’s like to work with you. They experience your insight and judgment, and your astute questioning. Unless you’re a green lawyer just beginning your career, isn’t insight, astuteness, and judgment what you’re really selling?
The oldest marketing technique in the world is product sampling. “Try it, you’ll like it.” That’s exactly what you’re doing, giving them a taste of what they’ll buy. Experiencing you in a relevant, practical context raises the odds that they’ll hire you.
Do your relationship-building after you get hired, not before.
Mistake #5: Not taking immediate action to improve
The marketing and sales practices employed by pre-2009 rainmakers cannot work now. That year marks a bright line separating 25 years of a Sellers Market, i.e., steady, high demand for traditional legal services and law firms (and the pricing power that went with it) from the permanent Buyers’ Market that you’ll wrestle with for the rest of your career. I’m not trying to scare you or discourage you. I’m merely pointing out that in the history of business, once that shift occurs, it never shifts back.
It’s time to acquire the knowledge and skills about practices and processes that your clients respect, and have already proven work. Fortunately, in the Internet Era, knowledge is free, and skills training is inexpensive and convenient. There’s no excuse not to acquire the skills to succeed.
What to do now
Take a concrete step today. First, embrace Dr. Beck’s principle that “emotions drive behavior, but thinking drives emotions.” Change how you think; it changes how you feel. Think about purposeful activity; you’ll feel more confident knowing you’re no longer hoping for the best. Then, take concrete action to get the skills training you need to produce the future you want.
Mike O’Horo is known throughout the law business for almost 30 years simply as “The Coach.” He’s best described as a “serial innovator.”
Mike's most recent breakthrough is Dezurve, a curated library of business development content that enables firms to offer business development education inexpensively and conveniently. It also measures each subscriber’s effort and consistency. This data shows their firms whom they should invest more serious amounts for training and coaching.
RainmakerVT is interactive virtual rainmaking training that not only teaches lawyers how to earn high-value clients, but also enables them to gain practical experience in the virtual world far in excess of anything available to them in the real world.
Coaching: Throughout his law firm-support career, Mike has served as the personal sales trainer and coach for more than 5000 senior lawyers, who attribute more than $1 billion in new business to his processes and advice.
ResultsMailVT is the longest-running marketing and sales blog for lawyers, containing more than 700 searchable posts on every imaginable business development topic.
Contact Mike at 702-879-4837, or email@example.com