In response to last week's post, a senior lawyer who I've coached for many years (let’s call him "Dave") sent me a thoughtful reply, politely pushing back on my reasoning. Here’s Dave’s challenge:

"The approach you advocate seems to be a high risk approach because it encourages the lawyer to place all of his or her chips on one strategy. If it turns out that oil producers end up not attempting to cancel service contracts, then the lawyer has wasted a lot of time and effort trying to position himself or herself as the go-to expert on an issue on which no one needs an expert, somewhat like the lawyers who positioned themselves to handle all the legal work that the Y2 K cataclysm would bring, which ended up being none. The downside of your strategy is the opportunity cost: the time spent becoming the expert on oil producer service contract cancellations is time not spent cultivating relationships or other opportunities.   

Your advice would work really well if lawyers were as good at predicting the source of future legal work as good stock pickers are at picking stocks. But unless a lawyer is like Warren Buffet or T Boone Pickens, lawyers following your strategy would seemingly run a big risk of picking the wrong place to invest their marketing time and dollars.

As your post suggests, for your strategy to work, lawyers would need to be taught how to find the next area that will generate lots of legal work before other lawyers find that area, which you would say falls into the HOW and not the WHAT, and which requires making a prediction, testing the hypothesis with a prospect, and having a sustainable conversation. But that process is also apt to involve going down a long road before knowing whether the hypothesis is correct.  Wouldn’t it be better to spend that energy asking multiple prospects what they see as the next issue on the horizon and let those conversations lead the lawyer to a few different places to be building expertise, rather than spending time trying to validate a single hypothesis and then, once the lawyer thinks the hypothesis is validated, investing time solely on becoming the expert in that area?  

Also, your discouragement of pursuing the “ill-defined” activities seems to place no value on reputation and profile building. While I agree with you that such activities often don’t produce a direct connection to new business (although sometimes they do, and I can cite examples from my own experience), I could make the argument that, absent these types of activities, lawyers run the risk of not having sufficient gravitas to develop a potential client’s trust.”

The oilfield-service example I used last week is a real one (although I've probably butchered the issue, providing comic relief for anyone knowledgeable in that space). I'm coaching a litigator who's invested in that industry. Combining his considerable experience, and news reports about the apparent Saudi strategy to drive down oil prices and make shale oil uneconomic with, we formulated a thesis that he's now testing with his industry contacts. As it turns out, we got conflicting signals about the primacy of that issue, and some have suggested another issue that we may shift to instead. Something similar occurred last year with an FCPA lawyer. Our original thesis didn't pan out, and we learned about a more viable alternative via the same type of conversations.

The good news is that there's no "long road before knowing whether the hypothesis is correct." It only takes about 4-5 calls to validate or invalidate a thesis and pivot if appropriate. That's a pretty modest investment. Once validated, the rest of the calls from that point serve to refine your understanding of the issue and the language that insiders use, and to manufacture a relevant network.

Unless you're completely new to the industry, the likelihood that your prediction is completely off base, to the point that you've wasted your time and damaged your credibility, is very low. I recall conversations with Dave where he speculated about developments in the medical industry and other areas where he’s experienced. Most of the time, he was “right enough.” Your projection doesn't have to be correct, only a reasonable conclusion from the evidence available to outsiders. (That's why you're talking to insiders.)

The open-ended approach Dave suggests, i.e., asking "What's the big issue," is precisely what I'm doing now to prepare for my business development session for outside counsel at the ABA’s upcoming Corporate Counsel CLE seminar. It works best when you know there will be a broad array of responses and you're trying to see if there's any kind of useful pattern. Otherwise, it can feel to the call recipient like you're asking them to do all your work for you. I've found that it's better to begin with something for someone to respond to. "Gee, it seems like [your conclusion]." People are better editors than authors, particularly when asked for an extemporaneous response. Reacting to what we pose gives them a context within which to index their knowledge and share it with you.

Here’s what I did in one week:

  • Dave supplied me with names of 20 lawyers likely to attend the event (1st generation).

  • I called and emailed all 20.

  • To date, I've spoken with 14 of those, who referred me to 20 more (2nd generation).

  • I've spoken with ten of those; they referred me to five more (3rd generation).

  • I’ve spoken with three of those, who referred me to two more (4th generation).

  • I spoke with one of the two, and got a referral. The other is scheduled.

Here's what it looks like:

network growth map

By applying this process diligently, I turned 20 names into 60. I’m tailing off now because I have to analyze and organize their comments, and prepare my presentation based on what I learned from them.

Just think how large a network I could create if I continued this same inquiry consistently for months. All lawyers can do this. You won’t be able to spend as much time on it each week as I do. However, even at a minimal activity level, you could make two attempts per day, leaving voice mail, and send each person an email briefly explaining your purpose and identifying the referral source. It would take you a maximum of ten minutes to make the call attempts, and your assistant could send the emails. By the second or third day, you’ll start getting return calls or email replies inviting you to schedule a short call. Your assistant can handle the scheduling. The calls can be 15-20 minutes, although sometimes the other party will be sufficiently invested in the topic to continue it beyond that.

For each BD challenge the lawyers I called cited, I learned the Cost of Doing Nothing, and how widespread they perceive the challenge to be among their colleagues. I explained that due to program time constraints I'll have to select one, at most two, of these challenges to address in the forum, so to thank them for their help, I coached each how to look at the problem differently and begin solving it. So far, each has ended the call by saying it was very helpful and valuable.

The point of all this is that the value of this kind of outreach is only partially the practical intelligence gained. The larger value is establishing relevant engagement with 60 people I didn't know a week ago, and creating a foundation for revisiting this issue, or others related to it. Having Dave’s list of 20 to begin with was a huge accelerator. However, if I'd had to start with just a few, or even one, I'd produce the same result; it would just take longer.

Too many people (not just lawyers) perceive the value of a speaking engagement to be the time they spend onstage. I disagree strongly. The real value is what I'm doing before the event, and what I'll do afterward. The onstage component is just the bright shiny object (I hope) that justifies everything else.

Mike O’Horo

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