The Complete Communicator: Broaching ‘business’ with a personal contact

The Complete Communicator: Broaching ‘business’ with a personal contact

By Jay Sullivan

In the Apple TV+ series Severance, the characters’ memories are surgically divided between their work and personal lives. In case that sounds attractive to you, please note that Severance is classified as a horror show.

Many people in the real world complain about how their work and home lives are so enmeshed they never get a break from work. However, if you are trying to build or expand a law practice, you may want to think about how those two worlds might help each other. Most successful lawyers have personal networks that include successful professionals in other disciplines. Those other professionals likely have legal needs. Some lawyers think it’s distasteful to approach a friend or personal acquaintance to talk about work opportunities. Others are fine with the concept but don’t know how to broach the conversation, or who to ask.  Here is a way to think about the concept differently so that it’s less psychologically daunting, a specific approach to use that may make the conversation easier for you, and how to decide which relationships to leverage.

The concept

Many lawyers are loath to ask for business.  The idea of having to “sell” their services is off-putting and demeaning. They think, “I didn’t go to law school to be a salesperson.” Those who are successful at building their practice got over that hurdle long ago and accepted readily that if they don’t market what they do, they won’t be doing it for long.

Instead of thinking about selling as asking for something, think about it as offering something.  Do you believe that your services provide value?  Do you think what you offer helps other people solve a problem? Do you have a friend who has the kind of problem that you could solve?  If you saw your neighbor struggling to put a ladder against their house, you would instinctively rush over and help them with the ladder.  If you knew your friend’s child was struggling in school, you’d offer to introduce them to a tutor you know.

If your friend works at the kind of organization that has legal needs you can address, they need help.  In some ways, you could think of it as being selfish if you didn’t offer to help.  You’re not asking for business. You’re expressing a willingness to be of service.

The approach

How do you make the offer without seeming like you are shilling for work? It’s all in the questions you ask. If a friend shares that they’re facing a particular challenge, don’t start with an over-eager, “I can help!” Start by asking questions about the challenge, first broad questions, and then more specific ones as you understand the situation better.  Then, share a brief – very brief — anecdote about how you recently helped someone else with the same issue. “It’s interesting you are facing that challenge.  One of my clients recently had a similar situation.  They were weighing the pros and cons of doing X or Y. What options are you considering?”  By asking that question, you demonstrate how well versed you are in the issues at hand. End the conversation with a simple, non-threatening, no-pressure, “Good luck with that situation. Let me know if I can be helpful as this unfolds.” You’ve already been helpful by giving them food for thought. If you’ve done it well, you won’t be asking for business — you’ll be fielding their request for a meeting.

Very often, however, we know someone who works at a large corporate entity but who isn’t in the role of contracting for legal services. In that case, we are, in fact, asking for a favor. You want your friend to introduce you to their company’s general counsel or business leader who decides what firms to use. How do you ask them to make that connection for you?

If you simply ask for an introduction, you are asking your acquaintance to do your work for you.  Instead, do the groundwork so that instead of asking them to take action, you are asking them for advice. People love to give advice. Instead of saying, “Can you introduce me to your GC?” say, “I’ve recently been reaching out to Bill and Susan from your GC’s office.  Am I calling the right people?” If your friend is the type of person who likes to help others and is confident that introducing you to a colleague will reflect well on them, they will not only guide you in who to connect with but may volunteer to make an introduction.  If your acquaintance is, in general, cautious, insecure, or doesn’t know you well enough yet, they are more likely to shrug an “I’m not sure,” or “Sounds about right,” and then change the topic.  In that case, don’t pursue the matter further. Your friend just isn’t inclined to be an advocate for you. That’s not a judgment on them; it’s not where they want to take your relationship, and that’s fine.

The right connections to leverage

When considering who in your personal network you can approach, think about the particular individual’s nature. Extroverts are far more likely to be willing to provide an introduction. They understand the value of building connections, and that introducing you into their organization would reflect well on them and further their status as a resource for their organization.

Introverts, no matter how close they are to you or admire your services, are far less comfortable making those introductions. They may be willing to gather intel for you regarding who you should contact, but they are more hesitant to actually make the introduction. Be more cautious about asking for their help. There’s no reason to put someone in the awkward position of either having to decline your request or do something they find uncomfortable.

Leveraging your personal connections is a legitimate and time-honored approach to building your brand and your firm. However, they are personal connections, and it’s essential you consider the nature of that relationship before deciding to broach the subject with a friend. Ultimately, the friendship is more important than getting that particular piece of business. You have to ask yourself if asking for the introduction will strengthen the friendship, or risk it, and act accordingly.

Jay Sullivan is a former practicing attorney and the former managing partner at Exec/Comm. LLC, a communications consulting firm. He can be reached at [email protected]. He is the author of “Simply Said: Communicating Better at Work & Beyond,” and “The New Nimble: Leading in the Age of Change.”

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