No matter how brilliant a lawyer is, he/she is unlikely to steadily bring in business throughout their career solely through providing high-quality legal services.
In any relationship-driven business, the vast majority of work goes to those who not only do great work but who understand their clients’ businesses inside and out, make their clients look good both internally and externally, and are the kind of people with whom clients genuinely like working. That being said, building relationships takes patience, persistence and a personal touch, which are skills that all of us can refine and polish.
I’ve put together tips for lawyers at any level focusing on cultivating and strengthening relationships (although they can be adapted to anyone in pretty much any field). I hope they inspire you (and lead to new clients)!
- Everyone is important. Remember that every single person who you meet is someone who is in or could be in a position to be a client or a referral. That means that the person sitting next to you on the train or on the buffet line at a family function could be a potential source of business. So, be friendly and kind to everyone. Because you never know. And always put your best foot forward, carry business cards and don’t drink too much at professional events. Trust me on this. A lawyer I know casually started talking to someone on the buffet line at a wedding and walked away with a new connection who soon after became a client. Another lawyer I know drank too much at a social event filled with prospects and walked away with nothing but a hangover. Don’t be him.
- It’s never too early (or too late) to build your network. Maintaining strong professional relationships are important because they can open doors to new clients, referrals and other business connectors. A powerful source of prospective business will often come through individuals with whom you went to school or worked with early on in your career, so find ways to cultivate these relationships. Also, join the alumni networks (on their web site and on LinkedIn) of your former educational institutions and firms – these can be prime referral sources. Use online alumni directories to track job moves of key contacts, and attend alumni events to develop leads and reignite relationships.
- Don’t forget about your connections from the trenches. I want to quickly underscore the power of keeping relationships with former colleagues “warm” because many firms scoff at the idea of inviting competitors to their events or including them on mailing lists, which can be very short sighted. I believe lawyers should build relationships with their peers throughout the industry on an individual and firmwide basis. For example, one of my clients receives regular referrals from his first- and second-year associate office mates from more than 20 years ago – all because he stayed in touch with his buddies all of these years. Their shared experiences in the trenches were formative and bonding – so don’t underestimate the connection you have with them and how much they would welcome hearing from you, even if you haven’t been in contact for years.
- Connect electronically. Online networking is powerful, fast and gives you a powerful way to extend the reach of your brand. LinkedIn is the most important professional social media channel for lead generation – it’s the primary channel that clients are using to research outside lawyers and consume content. We live in a digital world where everyone is researching each other online (PS – Your LinkedIn profile is one of the top Google search results when someone looks you up online), so spend the time to develop a strong LinkedIn profile that highlights your professional attributes and background. LinkedIn’s job moves and work anniversary notifications provides great reasons to reestablish contact with VIP contacts – I have seen them serve as the catalyst to opening the door to new matters numerous times. You can read my JD Supra article on how to Build a Stronger Professional Network Today with These LinkedIn To-Do’s for more ideas on how to use LinkedIn to your advantage.
- Maximize every event and networking opportunity. I recently listened to a panel of general counsel say that when they go to an industry conference, they are often shopping for outside counsel. So, no matter how busy you are, don’t immediately make a beeline for the exit after attending or speaking at a conference. Nor should you sit in the back of the room furiously checking emails, which can give attendees the impression that you are too busy or disinterested in speaking to them. Remember they are there to “shop” for outside counsel – you have a captive audience! So stick around and actually network. If you can get a copy of the attendee list in advance, take the time to do some due diligence on targeting who you want to meet or reconnect with and make an action plan.
- Actively listen and connect. If you want to build a strong relationship with a new contact, the key is to shift your focus to them not you. Instead of talking about yourself, ask questions about them, actively listen and make them feel important. Another way to build a strong bond with someone is to connect on a personal level by finding commonalities regarding school, background, family, sports, a hobby or work (studies show that people like you more when you have something in common with them). In addition, giving an authentic compliment can create a strong connection. Remember that no one ever dislikes a compliment.
- Make yourself first useful, then indispensable. Make a note to regularly follow up with important contacts by sending them value-added content with a personal note. Perhaps it’s an article, blog post or industry study that you saw, your firm wrote – or better yet – you wrote. Sharing useful information will show that you care, position you as a thought leader and can lead to new business and referrals. Several of our lawyers regularly send thoughtful notes with recent client alerts to key contacts on why they should care about this legal development. Occasionally those contacts write back with responses that lead to new engagements. The lesson here? Sometimes all it takes is the personal approach.
- Partner together. Even better than sending an article or inviting a client to an upcoming event, why not offer to co-author an article with them or invite them to speak on a panel with you? Investing in your clients in a way that enables you to help them showcase their talents while building the relationship is a surefire way to cement the relationship and provide value beyond the scope of the services you regularly provide to them.
- Become a superconnector. One of the best ways to build relationships is by linking people to each other. For example, bring several clients/potential clients together who are in a related field (virtually for now). Create a quarterly dinner/drinks series for in-house counsel by industry or geography (again you can do this virtually for now). They will appreciate you for introducing them, and you will strengthen your relationship to all of them in the process, which is a win-win for everyone, most importantly, you. Plus, you will have shifted some of the one-on-one conversation burden off of yourself and gotten another night back on your schedule for something for yourself.
- Ingrain “How can I help you?” in your head. We are in the service business and these words should be front and center at all times every single day. I learned this concept from Karen Kahn and her terrific business development guide Daunting to DOAble. If you think about ways in which you can help someone without expecting anything in return, you will build strong relationships over time. Giving before you get will translate into real business if you are patient.
- Give it away. Offer to do educational CLE programs for important clients and prospective clients at their office. This is a great opportunity to provide clients with value-added content and showcase your expertise. You will rarely find a client who will turn you down if you offer to do an educational program on your own time (or dime). Also, consider creating a takeaways piece from the session. It’s a great way to leave attendees with something substantial after the program as well as a great way to brand your firm.
Relationship building efforts such as the ones above can be weaved into your everyday life if you are attuned, organized and focused. It’s important to make sure that your head is not always down in the substantive work – you must be attuned to relationships around you or opportunities will pass you by. It’s unlikely that you will generate leads if you just sit at your desk churning out work. You must incorporate a combination of in-person and online networking into your routine. Plus some human interaction is good for you!
I’ll leave you with a parting thought – if you always remember that everyone you encounter is someone who is a potential source of business or a referral source, and that being a successful lawyer requires the continual nurturing of relationships, you will build a more robust professional network. These tips can be applied to anyone, in any industry, at any point in their career. Try them out, at the very least, you’ll build stronger connections and there’s no downside to that.