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Two weeks ago I asked what percentage of your business really came from lawyer referrals. Assuming that you track and measure it, I bet that it’s lower than you’d like to believe. I argued that, compared to the time and effort it requires, investing in referral relationships with other lawyers was generally a risky, low-yield strategy.

A safer, higher-yield bet is to pursue a relationship with an industry rather than with other lawyers. 

Why an industry?

That’s easy.

  • Industries are forever. When’s the last time you heard of an entire industry disappearing? It doesn’t happen. If you doubt that, Google “failed industries.” All the search results will be about individual companies, which fail far more often than you might think irrespective of size. Industries morph and evolve, and get disrupted, but they endure.
  • Lots of buyers. Industries host, communicate with, and assemble dozens, hundreds, perhaps even thousands of companies. 
  • Similarly-motivated buyers. Companies tend to be affected by similar issues, face similar challenges, share similar concerns, and pursue solutions to similar problems.
  • Somebody’s always buying. The fortunes of individual companies vary, and at any time some will be retrenching and stop buying, but in a sizable industry somebody’s always doing well, pursuing opportunities, and looking for help to overcome obstacles and achieve their purpose. And, somebody is always experiencing the problem that you've associated yourself with, the one that drives demand for your service.
  • Lots of communication channels. When you add up the number of industry-specific publications, magazines, newsletters, blogs, podcasts, email subscriptions, video channels, LinkedIn groups, social media outlets, conferences, etc., plus reporters who cover those industries for mass media, there’s no shortage of ways to get your thinking in front of potential clients.
  • Ease of entry. While it might take you many attempts over months or years even to gain an audience and initiate a sustainable business conversation with executives or counsel at a single company, you can “speak” with all of them at once via industry media.
  • A percentage of them are guaranteed to agree with you. If you stake a clear position on an issue that affects the industry, those exposed to you will self-segregate. A percentage will strongly disagree, another percentage won’t care much either way, and another percentage will strongly agree with you. By contrast, if the two or three people you meet at a single company disagree with you, there’s nothing to build on. All your time and effort investment has just been wasted. 

How do you have a relationship with an industry?

First, you have to redefine “relationship.” Lawyers’ longstanding definition has tended to mean friendships or social relationships, which is defined as “the connections that exist between people who have recurring interactions that are perceived by the participants to have personal meaning.” The practical application of “recurring” is one-to-one encounters.

However, what if people derive their “personal meaning” not from personal social contact, but from being exposed to your thinking? I call these “idea relationships.” People who have been reading this weekly tip sheet for 20+ years may not know me at all personally, or be able to pick me out of a lineup. But they have a relationship with my ideas about marketing and sales, what works and what doesn’t, etc. Those who disagree with my philosophy and expression stop reading what I write. Those who do tend to stick around, forward my posts to others, share them on LinkedIn, comment on them, etc. They don’t know me, but they definitely know how I think.

It’s no different than when you speak at industry conferences. Instead of sharing your ideas about an issue with one person at a time, each of whom you have to jump through hoops to get in front of, you’re sharing them with a room full of people, all of whom have chosen your session because they perceive it to be relevant to their circumstances, and potentially useful and valuable.

That roomful of people can be literal, as above, or virtual, via the array of communication channels that reach those to whom you aspire to have pay attention to you. The idea is to put yourself among the people who actually experience the business problems or challenges that you solve, and who welcome fresh thinking about said problems and challenges. This initiates a sustainable business conversation that we now call “engagement.”

No more networking

Continuing this philosophical shift, it’s time to jettison your longstanding view of networking, i.e., meeting as many people as you can in the hopes that the network effect will lead to new business. That’s horribly inefficient, it’s ill-matched to lawyers’ low-resilience personalities, and it triggers huge post-introduction overhead. Every person you meet comes with an obligation to stay in touch in some manner.  

Do you really want to gamble like that, trying to stay in touch with dozens of people about whom you can’t define a specific business connection? Instead, go to industry events with a specific business (not legal) problem in mind, and a hunter’s mindset, by which you hunt for people who will acknowledge having a specific problem that drives demand for your expertise. 

At the very least, in the minds of those you meet, such an approach will associate you with the problem that drives demand for your expertise.

Mike O'Horo

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