Lawyers have a problem. We’re consistently perceived as experts on one thing: law. This not only dominates how others view us, but it also dominates how we view ourselves.
By Josh Beser
[A version of this post appeared at JDSupra. Big thanks to the team there for their continued support of my writing.]
In my Big Law days, I never knew what to do when I met an interesting professional contact. I knew that building a professional relationship starts with giving value to the other person. Simply, I knew that the key was finding ways to help people out – without simply trying to sell legal services. I saw some partners doing it, but I didn’t know how I could replicate it.
“Just be helpful” might sound simple. Often it isn’t, especially when you’re talking to people outside your comfort zone (which is, let’s face it, a lot of the time). And once you decide to help, understanding exactly what you can do takes both time and practice.
This is a story about finding ways to build relationships by giving value first, even when what you can give isn’t obvious.
How to Give Value First
I tried this approach to giving value first when I became a volunteer mentor for technology companies at Entrepreneurs Roundtable Accelerator in 2011. After catching up with Jon Axelrod and Art Mikhlin from ERA last week, I reflected on my 4 years as an ERA mentor and a few lessons learned as I found my fit with the organization. I’ll share those lessons here.
I started mentoring ERA companies shortly after I moved in-house. I had worked with an accelerator while at a law firm, but there’s a key difference for in-house lawyers: in-house lawyers rarely represent companies outside of their day jobs due to company policies and liability considerations. So unlike most industry expert mentors, I couldn’t use my one valuable skill (law practice) to help companies in the program. I had to find new ways to help.
After working with over 20 ERA companies, I’ve developed the following strategies to find ways to be helpful that are completely separate from using my legal skills.
These strategies go far beyond lawyers mentoring startups.
Anyone can use them whenever you meet a new professional contact with whom you want to build a relationship over time; use them in situations where you want to give first but you’re not sure what to do.
Three Strategies to Find Ways to Give… Aside from Doing What You Get Paid to Do
1. Ask Questions Focused on the Other Person, Not on Your Expertise
Lawyers have a problem. We’re consistently perceived as experts on one thing: law. This not only dominates how others view us, but it also dominates how we view ourselves. If we start talking about law, especially early on in a conversation, we will only be viewed as lawyers. This dramatically limits how others perceive what we can do to help.
I ask a lot of questions in my meetings with entrepreneurs. However, I consciously avoid legal topics, including who, if anyone, represents the company, for as long as possible.
Instead, I focus on the core of the business, including items such as:
- the business model;
- the underlying problem that led the founders to starting the company, i.e., what was so painful for them that they had to solve it themselves?;
- the founders’ experience with the market;
- the founders’ motivation and story;
- the team’s strengths and weaknesses; and
- what the company needs right now.
These issues usually have little to do with the law.
As lawyers, it’s easy for us to discount our understanding of commercial deal terms and structure. We could just play it safe and stick to the legal issues. Don’t do it. As Jon Axelrod reminded me, we often have more insight into business terms than we think.
Steering the conversation toward the business helps in another way. I get a big picture view on what the company is doing, what they need and where they’re going.
By extension, this helps me identify where I might be able to help. If a legal issue or a referral need comes up in this conversation, I can help, but these questions are not my focus.
2. Think Broadly About How to Help
When you ask ‘lawyer questions’, others brand you as a lawyer. Likewise, when you define your value only through your legal skills, you limit your value to what you can do as a lawyer. (Some people are ok with this; I’m not.)
Thinking more broadly about how you can help can be beneficial in many ways. By asking more non-legal questions, I found more ways to contribute. For example, three of the non-legal ways I regularly help ERA startups are:
- Give Context: Help them understand what it’s like to do deals with large corporate clients. In doing so, I draw on my law firm and in-house experience working with large pharma, technology, consumer products, and manufacturing companies. I’m providing founders with context around process, timeline and what to expect in these deals.
- Make Introductions: This doesn’t require a huge network of potential financing sources. The questions I ask help me identify who the company needs to meet, but if I have no other ideas, I can always make introductions to potential customers or users. Enterprise-focused companies often want to meet executives at friends’ companies (including law firms) and my employer. For consumer-focused companies, I can usually rally a group of friends to try new things out.
- Share Content: Sharing the company’s content on social media is not only incredibly easy but I’ve heard first-hand that it’s helpful to companies that are trying to build brand awareness.
Non-substantive legal help is often useful too. In addition to providing referrals, I’ve drawn on my in-house experience to teach companies how to work with outside counsel, including how to:
- negotiate fee structures that make sense;
- thoughtfully hire counsel (as opposed to blindly hiring one firm for everything);
- communicate clearly; and
- achieve cost certainty where possible.
I’ve also helped flag big picture legal issues that may not be immediate concerns, but may be worth thinking about in the future.
3. Accept That You Can’t Help Everyone
I wanted to help every company I met in the beginning. Some strategies, such as sharing content on social media, are easy enough to do for everyone. However, I quickly learned that I don’t have unique skills, insight, or contacts that would allow me to give significant help to every company I meet.
This made me insecure at first. I talked to other mentors and realized it’s normal. As soon as I accepted this, I was much more satisfied with what I was able to do. Understanding that I couldn’t help everyone ultimately made me a better mentor.
In short, my ERA experience demonstrates how I believe both professional and business development works best: Find smart people building interesting things, then find ways to help them.
If you start there and use these strategies, you’ll be surprised to find how many ways you can contribute aside from – or in addition to – doing the things you get paid to do every day. (If you really don’t know where to start, I collaborated with Law Leaders Lab to build a course that walks you through basic training for building professional relationships, step-by-step over 30 days. Tell me if you want to learn more).
And one final note: If you found value in this post, I’d appreciate it if you share it on LinkedIn. I’d love to hear what you think and how you handle these situations. Please email me. I’ll respond to every one.