The Problem With the “Elevator Speech”

The Problem With the “Elevator Speech”

TexasBarToday_TopTen_Badge_VectorGraphicFlashback 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.[1]

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 world-champion 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?

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Zach Wolfe (zwolfe@fleckman.com) is a Texas trial lawyer who handles non-compete and trade secret litigation at his firm Fleckman & McGlynn, PLLC.

After writing this post he realized it has way too many rhetorical questions, but hey, what are you gonna do?

[1] 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.”

Guest Post by Business Development Expert Maria Granovsky

Guest Post by Business Development Expert Maria Granovsky

This week we’re thrilled to have a guest post from Maria Granovsky, who works with lawyers to help them generate business. She provides some great insight on not missing the “gold bricks” that are sometimes right at our feet. – Five Minute Law

Are you stumbling on gold bricks in your search for copper deposits?

“No one is litigating!” My friend, Emma, declared during a recent coffee chat I had with her. “I’m so sick of marketing, and networking, and keeping in touch, and being top-of-mind.  All people want is compliance training.”

“Are you going to offer them compliance training?” I asked.

Emma harrumphed in irritation. “Maria. I. Am. A. Li-ti-ga-tor,” she enunciated each syllable.

“I know you’re a litigator,” I responded, fighting the urge to mimic her. “But I also know that, for most of your potential clients, litigation is a rare event. Which means that, if you’re going to stay wedded to being a pure litigator, you do have to keep marketing and doing all these other things you don’t much like in order to catch them at the precise moment when your services will be needed.”

I could see I had her attention now, so I continued. “Your potential clients are offering you an alternative – a way to get paid and become a trusted advisor at the same time. If you offer compliance training, you’ll showcase your expertise in this area, and you’ll be able to sprinkle your training with references to your litigation successes, all while getting paid! And it’s almost always easier to expand your service offerings for an existing client than acquiring a new client.”

Emma said nothing for a while. She squinted in concentration, and I could imagine the cogs whirring in her brain as she considered this new angle.

“You’re right!” she said at last. “This could be a very lucrative opportunity, and I’ve been throwing it away for months now.”

***

Emma is a good example of a blindness we all experience from time to time. It’s not a visual blindness, but rather it’s our inability to perceive new ideas or opportunities because they don’t fit with what we’re concentrating on at that moment.

If we’re prone to this perception deficit, we can miss what our market is telling us, to our business’s detriment.

An easy way to overcome this perception deficit is to practice asking open-ended questions and listening to the answers. For example, if you know that new regulations will soon be imposed on the industry you serve, ask industry people what challenges they think they’ll be facing in implementing these new regs.

As an experienced professional, you probably already know some of the challenges that industry will be facing, but the people in the trenches may have a very different view of that pain that’s coming their way – a view that may afford you an opportunity to provide a service you didn’t know was needed.

There’s an added bonus to this strategy: by asking and being genuinely interested, you’ll leave your conversation partners knowing that they were heard and understood. And in today’s shouty world, where many of us feel like no one is listening, that’s a surefire way to make a lasting impression and keep yourself top-of-mind.

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Maria Granovsky, Ph.D., J.D., helps lawyers generate new business and get more clients with innovative business development strategies and high-impact copywriting.

In her work, she relies on her background as a scientist, a lawyer, a writing teacher, and an author. She has a Ph.D. in medical and molecular genetics from the University of Toronto and a law degree from Georgetown. While at Georgetown, she taught legal research and writing to J.D. and foreign L.L.M. students. A decade-long patent-litigation practice followed.

Maria has written scientific papers and book chapters, law review articles, and general interest articles (which appeared in HuffPo, Ladders, and Fast Company). She has written the copy for the websites of several law firms, and has advised many lawyers on content development. And she wrote and published a legal thriller.

Download her free guide, titled The One Thing That Will Transform Your Legal News Alerts Into New-Business Magnets here.

How Do We Solve the Baby Litigator Crisis?

How Do We Solve the Baby Litigator Crisis?

TexasBarToday_TopTen_Badge_VectorGraphicFirst let me say for the record: I think it’s great when senior litigators give young lawyers opportunities to do things like arguing motions and taking depositions. That happened to me when I was a “baby lawyer,” and I’m grateful.

Having said that, I have to confess it has finally happened. I’ve become a grumpy old man. At 45 years old, I feel like I’m not even at the half-way point of my career, and I still think of myself as young. So what has me feeling like throwing open my front door and shouting “you kids get off my lawn”?

Well, lately there has been some handwringing in the legal community about the fact that younger lawyers don’t get to stand up and talk in the courtroom very often. (And forget about the decline in jury trials–that ship has sailed; we’re just talking about hearings and oral arguments.)

As a result, programs designed to give younger lawyers more courtroom speaking opportunities are now a “thing.” Some judges have even adopted formal policies designed to encourage more experienced lawyers to allow less experienced lawyers to argue cases in court.[1]

A First-World Problem?

The shortage of courtroom speaking opportunities for young litigators strikes me as a great example of a First-World Problem. If you’re not familiar with the concept, a First-World Problem is something that causes great annoyance to the upper-middle class in America, until you stop and think about whether someone in a third-world country would consider it a problem.

My personal favorite First-World Problem is when I order a cappuccino at Starbucks and they make it more like a latte. As I get the urge to complain to the barista, “more foam, less milk!” I have to stop and think to myself, “dude [I like to call myself ‘dude’], there are millions of people in this world who don’t even have clean water to drink.” And in the wake of Hurricane Harvey, I’m even more reluctant to complain about my relatively trivial problems.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that the lack of courtroom opportunities is not a problem for younger lawyers. But I have two concerns about the reaction to the problem.

What’s best for the client?

First, the reaction seems too focused on the needs of the lawyers, rather than the needs of the clients.

Mind you, I’m not suggesting the reaction is based on heartfelt concern for the job satisfaction of the young associates. Please! The problem big law firms are concerned about is “how can we justify charging $750/hour for a junior partner who never got much courtroom experience?” (Note to self: update this post once a year to increase the rate by $100.)

Maybe this is naïve, but I like to think that law firms should assign tasks based on what is best for the case and the client. For a routine motion or a deposition of a minor witness, there’s no reason to send the senior partner when a junior associate can do the job—and at a lower rate.

But who should handle a more difficult assignment, like arguing a case-dispositive motion, taking the deposition of a key hostile witness, or telling the CEO “we need to image your smartphone”?

In those cases, the overriding question should be who is going to do the job most effectively.

That doesn’t necessarily mean the assignment goes to the more senior lawyer. Sometimes the junior lawyer who knows the facts, documents, and case law inside-out may do just as good a job (or better). In those cases, I say give the young lawyer a chance. My Young Associate Development Program would simply be this: a tie goes to the less experienced lawyer.

The point is to focus on what is best for the case, not what is best for the law firm. Most clients don’t want to foot the bill for training young lawyers.

A radical alternative solution

The second problem I have with the reaction to junior lawyers not getting enough courtroom time is that the whole thing seems a little BigLaw-centric.

If you’re an associate slaving away at a big law firm and not getting enough courtroom experience, you have a few options. You could complain to the partners and hope they throw you a few more breadcrumbs. But if taking the lead in the courtroom is truly important to you, then the better solution is to bring in your own clients.

The problem, of course, is that not many third-year associates are going to land the kind of blue-chip clients who will pay BigLaw rates. So you may have to swallow your pride and find a job at—brace for it—a small firm, where you may have a better chance of developing your own business.

Or if you really care about being in charge of your own matters, you could take the plunge and hang out a shingle. In a solo practice, there is a very good chance the managing partner will let you argue the cases in the courtroom all you want.

Now we’re getting to the nitty-gritty. Because these options may mean shifting your expectations. You may need to trade in that new Lexus for a used Subaru. You may need to take your next vacation in Paris, Texas, rather than Paris, France. You might have to—gasp!—cancel your membership at the country club. You may be embarrassed at the law school reunion when you see your friends from law review and they ask where you’re working now.

And your clientele may have to change. You may no longer find yourself reporting to the Deputy Assistant General Counsel for Employment Litigation, Southwest Region, of a Fortune 500 company. Instead, you may find yourself reporting to Jim Bob, a middle-aged guy who dropped out of college to start a plumbing supply company.

But you know what? You may find that Jim Bob is smarter than you thought, and representing his company can be a lot of fun. Plus, when you’re in charge, you’ll get to argue his case in court all you want.

And, who knows, after a few years you may be the one sending a baby litigator to the courthouse in your place.

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Zach Wolfe (zwolfe@fleckman.com) is a Texas trial lawyer who handles non-compete and trade secret litigation at his firm Fleckman & McGlynn, PLLC. He is much nicer to younger lawyers in real life.

These are his opinions, not the opinions of his firm or clients, so don’t cite part of this post against him in an actual case. Every case is different, so don’t rely on this post as legal advice for your case.

[1] An interwoven issue is providing more opportunities for women and minorities. That’s an important topic in its own right, so I won’t try to cover it here.

Lawyers, Want More Clients? A Business Development Coach Says Sell Less, Listen More

Lawyers, Want More Clients? A Business Development Coach Says Sell Less, Listen More

This week I’m doing something a little different: featuring a guest blogger. Karen Kaplowitz is a lawyer and business development coach with The New Ellis Group. I met Karen at a law firm retreat years ago. Since then I have enjoyed reading the insightful and practical advice she publishes in her weekly newsletter, Monday Monday. Karen graciously shared this post with some helpful–and somewhat counter-intuitive–advice for lawyers on business development:

Business Development Tips from Karen Kaplowitz

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Karen Kaplowitz, The New Ellis Group

Stop Pitching and Start Discovering.  Many lawyers are busy lining up as many opportunities to “pitch” as possible, inside and outside their firms, and casting about for people who can give them business. If you are finding that clients and prospective clients are not rushing to set meetings for you to pitch them, consider these strategies instead, which focus on positioning yourself to discover what your clients need:

  • Don’t make giving presentations on your firm’s capabilities a top priority; do find reasons your clients have an impetus to invite you in.
  • Don’t go to meetings or lunch prepared to pitch, waiting for the opening to talk about your services.  Do go ready to ask probing questions about the company’s problems that might lead to work for your firm.
  • Don’t ask new colleagues in your firm which of their clients you can meet.  Pick one of your clients and discuss where the fit might be for your new colleague.
  • Don’t plan meetings to ask clients for more work; do plan meetings to get feedback so you don’t fall short of their expectations going forward.
  • Don’t rush to offer your opinions and solutions in conversations; listen carefully and encourage clients to elaborate on their struggles first.

Example:   Your client’s law department has changed significantly in the last year; senior lawyers you knew have retired; there were layoffs and consolidation; and most disturbingly, lawyers from a competitor law firm have infiltrated the law department.  A few times, you have offered the general counsel to bring in a team to make a presentation to insure the new people know your firm.  She always says “great” but never sets it up.

You try a different tack.  First, you ask for a new org chart of the law department, and bios if available. Then you ask when your people could meet the new in-house lawyers to hear from them what they are up against.  The general counsel warms to the idea of your investing in learning about her new team’s challenges and invites you to an all hands meeting.  You propose a meeting agenda for the client’s department heads to make short presentations on their priorities, with questions from your lawyers.  You help your team prepare to probe the new priorities.   At the end, the general counsel invites you to introduce your people and to stay for coffee.  You have planned your lawyers’ introductions of themselves to be very brief but targeted to the client’s most pressing needs. There is lively discussion when everyone mingles over coffee.

Are you willing to consider substituting “reverse presentations” from your clients instead of pressing to give presentations about your firm to clients?  Is the urgency to make this year more successful causing you to push too hard when active listening, probing, and connecting the dots are the better course of action?

This piece was originally published by Karen Kaplowitz of The New Ellis Group, a business development strategist and coach who works with lawyers all over the United States.  It is available in the archives of the Monday Monday newsletters.

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So, the next time you start to “pitch” your services to a potential client, remember Karen’s advice and think about “discovering” instead.

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Zach Wolfe (zwolfe@fleckman.com) is a Texas trial lawyer who handles non-compete and trade secret litigation at his firm Fleckman & McGlynn, PLLC.