One of the first things a business development coach will tell you is to identify people whom you believe can help you in your quest to build a practice. If you’re like me, this might cause you to look around and compile a list of people you think might hire you directly. If you’re an employment lawyer, for example, you might try to identify business owners and human resources directors you know who could have an immediate need for your services and finding a way to market to them.
This is probably not the worst approach. After all, you’re doing something in a calculated effort to build business, which is certainly better than nothing, right?
But better than nothing is not necessarily the best. I’ve lately come to think there is indeed an even better way. Based largely on my own experiences, as well as what I’ve seen with friends and colleagues who truly qualify as “rainmakers,” I believe now that the highest return on effort (ROE), at least when you’re first building your practice, is to leverage those who you are close to and who probably care about you most. Sure the two approaches might overlap; if a close relative happens also to own a business that, as all businesses do, needs employment counsel, then there’s no difference. But what I’m describing here does not involve asking a friend or relative to send you work directly, but allowing that person to act as a conduit to boost your chances of getting business through an introduction or referral.
Let me right away clarify two things. First, what you’re after isn’t a free lunch. You’re not looking for someone to hand you an envelope full of cash; you’re seeking the opportunity to perform quality legal services for a person or business who genuinely needs that legal service. Second, I do not mean leverage in the sense of use. Do not use those closest to you to get ahead. You will feel like a user and your friends and family will feel used. Don’t be a user.
On the other hand, if your relationship and trust are such that you would not hesitate to do something–take a chance, even–to give your friend or relative a boost, then why not give them the same opportunity? I would argue (based on experience I’ve had acting as a conduit to build my friends’ businesses) that the friend or relative who goes out on a limb to help grow his/her friend’s business is the one getting the biggest emotional reward. Have you ever enjoyed giving gifts more than receiving them? Plus, the one getting the business opportunity still has to do the work, while the one who did nothing more than make an introduction or referral gets to sit back and feel good.
What I’m talking about involves a two-step process. First, it requires letting that person close to you know that she can help you and that you’d appreciate that help. This is necessary because it does not immediately occur to everyone that they can help you or that the help is wanted. Some might even hesitate to make an introduction or referral–particularly if they are not familiar with the practice of law–because they are worried it will be viewed as meddling in your business.
The second step requires explanation. You must help those around you understand exactly what you do and who your clients typically are. An easy way to do this is to explain a recent case you handled. If you were successful on behalf of your client (hopefully you were in this particular story), explain how good it made you feel to help that person or business through a tough situation. You want to sell yourself without sounding like your selling yourself. The point is to make that person who knows you, who trusts you, and who would probably like to do whatever he/she can to make your life better understand both that you would appreciate their help and how they can help.
This can be a lot easier if you’re in a position to assist the close friend or relative toward reaching his or her goals first. I’m a big believer in “paying forward,” looking for opportunities to do a good turn for another without any expectation of payback. I know now, in a way I never understood before, that there really is karma when it comes to relationships and good deeds in the business world. Unless they are direct competitors, people generally want to feel like they’ve played an important role in a close friend or relative’s success.