Flashback to when I had a solo law practice: A recruiter calls me looking for candidates to join a large law firm. I wasn’t really looking to make a move, but I asked about the position because I was curious. “How much portable business are they looking for?” I asked. “At least a million,” she said (meaning dollars per year).
It took some restraint not to bust out laughing. Or to respond with a sarcastic, “a million, is that all?”
And in all seriousness, I wanted to ask, “if I had a million dollars in portable business, why would I need to join another firm?” or “if I had that much business, would I select a firm based on some random cold call from a recruiter?”
But I’m too nice for any of that, so I just said thanks, not interested.
Then I got to thinking, maybe I would have more business if I had a better elevator speech, or honestly, any elevator speech at all.
The Elevator Speech
An elevator speech is a short pre-set summary of what you do that you can share with new contacts you meet. The idea is to briefly promote your professional services in the time it takes for a typical elevator ride (around 30 seconds).
But some business development coaches will tell you it’s not enough to just describe your job. Ideally, you would identify the potential client’s need, explain how you address that need, and convey the value you would add to their business.
So instead of saying “I’m a lawyer, I do business litigation,” I’m supposed to say something like, “I help businesses resolve disputes efficiently and effectively.”
Rather than adding, “a lot of my practice is non-compete and trade secret litigation,” I would say: “Do you worry about your employees running off to competitors with your trade secrets? Well, I help companies like yours protect their goodwill and confidential information.”
You see advice like this a lot. And it strikes me as wrong, for at least three reasons.
Abstract expressionism: good for French art, bad for an elevator speech
First, I’m not big on abstract descriptions of what you do that leave people guessing.
Have you noticed that companies today have a hard time telling people exactly what they do?
When someone contacts me about a dispute or lawsuit, I’ll Google the names of the companies involved and look at their websites. It’s amazing how often the homepage won’t tell me in simple, concrete terms what the business actually does. When I click on “About Us,” it will say something vague like “we provide our clients with cutting-edge solutions for their data management needs” or “we help your business grow and connect with customers.”
Ok, I think, so you’re a software company? Or you do management consulting?
They must teach this in marketing school. But why can’t companies just come right out and say what they do? “We’re a construction company. We build things at refineries and other industrial sites.” There, that wasn’t so hard.
I think the simple and direct approach is better for the elevator speech too. Don’t make the person you’re talking to work too hard to figure out what it is you do. That’s annoying.
But even when your elevator speech is clear and concrete, it’s still a speech. That leads me to the second problem with the elevator speech.
Rehearsal: good for bands, not so good for networking
The second problem with the elevator speech is that it sounds like a speech.
When you meet someone for the first time, do you want to hear a rehearsed presentation about what kind of work they do? Of course not. You want to know some basic things about them and have a conversation (unless you are a misanthrope, in which case you don’t want to talk to them at all).
That’s because effective networking is not about presenting, it’s about connecting.
Wow, that sounded like something from a cheesy motivational speaker. But it’s true. You want to connect with people in a genuine way, because that leads to real relationships. You don’t want to sound like you’re just giving a practiced sales pitch.
Which leads me to the third problem with the elevator speech.
Good pitching: effective for the Houston Astros, not so much for relationships
The third problem with your elevator speech is that it’s all about you. If you spend your time giving someone a sales pitch, I predict in the future they are more likely to avoid you than to seek you out.
Think about it. If you’re a lawyer, you probably get contacted by various vendors who provide services to lawyers. Do you love hearing their sales pitches?
When legal vendors want to connect with me, I try to accommodate them. I figure they’re people just like me, trying to make a living, and I might need their services sometime. So I will hear them out when I can. But if all they do is ask me to send them my business, it’s not very effective.
For one thing, I usually don’t have a project right that second that I need their help on. But if I actually get to know the person, that’s probably who I will think of later when I have a real need.
For example, I’ve got a friend who works with an e-discovery company. I don’t think he has ever asked me for business, but when my firm needed help managing thousands of documents in a big litigation matter, I thought of him first.
Surely, people who may need a lawyer–or any kind of professional–are no different.
An analogy fraught with peril
Let’s analogize to dating. You’re single and you meet someone you find attractive. Are you going to give that person a little rehearsed speech? Like, “you should know, the ladies [or gentlemen] find me very attractive, I’m smart, highly successful in my career, and people say I have a great sense of humor.”
That’s like what Donald Trump said to Stormy Daniels (allegedly), prompting her to say “does this usually work for you?”
I’m no dating expert (I’ve been happily married almost 20 years now), but I’m pretty sure that telling someone how great you are is not the optimal strategy.
Similarly, business development experts like Karen Kaplowitz will tell you “pitching” is not always the best approach (see her guest blog post here).
So instead of saying, “I’m a lawyer, I handle cases that . . . blah, blah, blah,” how about saying “I’m a lawyer, I do business litigation, what do you do?” And then listen. And then ask more questions.
You might even want to do some reading about “active listening.” See, for example, What Great Listeners Actually Do. I don’t think there is any better way to get to know a person than really listening.
On the other hand, I don’t have a million dollars in portable business, so what do I know?
(After receiving some pushback on this original post, I reconsidered my criticism of the elevator speech in The Problem With “The Problem With the Elevator Speech”.)
Zach Wolfe (email@example.com) is a Texas trial lawyer who handles non-compete and trade secret litigation at Zach Wolfe Law Firm. Thomson Reuters named him a Texas “Super Lawyer”® for Business Litigation in 2020 and 2021.
After writing this post he realized it has way too many rhetorical questions, but hey, what are you gonna do?
 I’m not good, I’m just nice. See Stephen Sondheim, Into the Woods; Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind, Part One, “Relationships.”