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For most of your career you’ve probably heard the adage, "It's not what you know, but who you know." That reflected the relationship-centric nature of doing business in a Seller’s market, where demand exceeded supply, and everyone who expended even a little effort got business. Now that you’ll face a Buyer’s market for the remainder of your career, where supply exceeds demand, it’s past time to upend that longstanding belief. Today's version is, "It's not what you know. It's not who you know. It's what knowledge people associate you with."

The source of legal work

Think about the source of your legal work. Legal matters don’t just spring up, fully formed as legal tasks, awaiting a lawyer to perform them. They derive from human business activity, informed and driven by human desires and aspirations.

Somebody has an idea for a new product. They need to:

  • raise capital,
  • recruit a team,
  • find a place to house operations,
  • create the product,
  • market it,
  • sell it,
  • deliver it,
  • service it,
  • improve it, and
  • maybe cash out of the whole enterprise some day.

These are just a few of the verbs that would make up an exhaustive list. Then there’s the whole array of others’ reactions to our someone doing those things listed. Those other someones may perceive that these actions are to their disadvantage, and they need to stop us. Or they may want to partner with us. Or acquire us.

As you read that list, an entire array of legal issues came to mind, right? Because those legal issues derive from those activities. You can’t think of one without thinking of the other. Human decisions and actions are the origins of all legal matters. (Yes, that includes governments.) So, if this mental and physical business activity is the wellspring for your legal work, how can you not participate and still expect to stimulate or expose demand for your expertise?

Contribute to the conversation

You have to contribute to the ongoing conversation. To do that, you have to understand the business context. You have to know something that these business people need to know if they want to optimize their success and minimize their problems. They don’t know the legal ramifications of their decisions and actions. You do.

However, because they’re not aware of those legal ramifications, you can’t get invited to the conversation if you’re speaking “legal.” It’s like trying to join a conversation about housing by discussing construction materials. Within the housing conversation, materials will eventually have a place. But introducing them as your entry point won’t work; you must first establish context for them.

Before you can contribute what you know about the legal issues, you must establish yourself as relevant to the current context of the conversation, which is the business activity. What you know about that gets you admitted, and allows you to remain in the conversation until the legal issues become relevant.

You have to be relevant, or you’re a distraction, and unwelcome

If you stay on the sidelines until the conversation evolves to the legal aspects, you’re too late. Then, you’re a vendor, being considered to perform a task. However, since there are many such vendors available, buyers perceive little difference among them and seek the lowest price, or other considerations. And then, when the legal task is complete, you’re back on the outside because they’ve returned to the business conversation, to which you’re seen as irrelevant because you’re isolated in the "legal discussions" box.

Learn your clients’ business, and make yourself welcome in the conversations that generate demand for legal service.


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