Resources Articles Stop Worrying About How It Looks

Stop Worrying About How It Looks

Women Lawyer's Journal
(a publication of the National Association of Women Lawyers)
Volume 93, Number 1
Fall/Winter 2008

In coaching women to develop business, there's a particular obstacle that I frequently encounter: It's the concern that relationship-building eeorts will look "smarmy," sleazy and insincere.  During a recent coaching session, my client, a woman attorney, expressed concern about the potential fallout from some reorganizations going on at a company for which she serves as outside counsel.  Changes in corporate structure were beginning to result in personnel changes throughout the company, including the legal department.  She'd worked hard to develop relationships which were beginning to provide a how of work. What if her work sources chose to leave the company or were replaced?

As I listened to her, it was clear that she genuinely liked the lawyers at the company. She was troubled about losing the work - but she was also concerned about how these individuals would ride out the change.

"Something about the environment in
which she practiced seemed to have taught
her that even sincere gestures were likely to
be perceived as opportunistic and blatantly

However, she recoiled from my suggestion to act on her feelings.  She acknowledged that if the corporate attorney were a personal friend, she would not hesitate to call. She also agreed that if she were in the other attorney's place, she would appreciate the expression of interest. But this was a "business relationship," so wouldn't reaching out look smarmy and sleazy?

In my experience, her objections are anything but unique. It's as if many women attorneys have been taught that the unspoken rules of business development success are:

  • Business relationships are not "real" relationships.
  • Clients are "larger than life" and do not like being treated as human beings.
  • Never show your own sensitivity or vulnerability and NEVER suggest that a client might have such feelings. 

My client could not imagine herself making that call. It seemed to be such a brazen and obvious expression of an effort to get business - the coarseness of it was intolerable to consider.

But was it simply an expression of wanting business? I'd raised the issue with her because I'd heard what sounded like genuine concern in her voice. It seemed like checking in with her client would be a sincere expression of concern. She didn't even know if her client would be in a position to give her any more business.

In fact, like most business development activities, it would not be an attempt to "get business." Instead, it would be a step toward strengthening their relationship. It's possible that the client might infer that a lawyer who bothered to remember what he was going through in a corporate reorganization might also demonstrate significant understanding of the nuances of his business situation and provide valuable counsel in the future. Perhaps he'd stay on and continue to ask her to do work for his company. He might relocate and remember her. Maybe he'd suggest to his replacement that she'd be worth considering as outside counsel.

"Considering the implicit rules of marketing
that many women lawyers seem to have
learned, what may well distinguish you is
your humanity."

But none of these possibilities should be her reason for calling. The only reason to call was her genuine concern. Something about the environment in which she practiced seemed to have taught her that even sincere gestures were likely to be perceived as opportunistic and blatantly disingenuous.

One of my core principles in coaching women lawyers in business development is: never pretend or be insincere. The quickest route to misery is to do work you don't believe in and therefore can't genuinely offer to provide as a solution. Enthusiasm about the service you offer is crucial for business development comfort - at least for many women lawyers.

Furthermore, why would you want to work for a client you disliked?  Life is too short and you have too much to balance to waste precious moments on a "client from hell."  Instead, stop worrying about "how it looks" and let your genuine instincts guide you. Certainly, if your "antennae" tell you that this is a person who would reject any expression of caring for fear of appearing vulnerable, let this intuition guide you. 

More often than not, even powerful corporate attorneys are human beings just like you. Of course they want you to be the smartest and most expert lawyer. But you'll never be the only one of those. Considering the implicit rules of marketing that many women lawyers seem to have learned, what may well distinguish you is your humanity.  Clients want their lawyers to be knowledgeable, responsive, reliable and trustworthy. Even if they want you to be the toughest litigator, they are unlikely to want you to treat them that way. If a client doesn't seem very friendly, consider the possibility that you haven't earned her trust rather than that's simply the kind of relationship a client would prefer to have.

Harry Beckwith, a heavyweight among writers and advisors on service business development wrote:

The more we like a person, the more capable that person seems.
Think of the first person you truly loved. Remember how smart,
witty, talented and attractive that person seemed at the moment
you fell?  The truth is, that person possessed all those traits -
in your eyes.  Your warm feelings fogged up your glasses.

The successful business evokes those feelings - and the deeper
the feelings, the better the business.1

What did my client do? She accepted my challenge to make the call and was delighted to find her client not only receptive but touched and appreciative. In that simple and genuine expression of interest and offer of help, she distinguished herself from most of the other attorneys with whom he's likely to do business. I hope that in the future she'll trust herself more and care less about how acting on her intuition might look.

1. Beckwith, Harry (2003) What Clients Love: A Field Guide to Growing Your Business. New York: Warner Books, p. 196.


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