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“What Do You Do?”: 5 Ways to Acquire New Work with Small Talk

Confidentiality is a hallmark of the legal profession. It is something that we do and should take seriously. But when it comes to telling people what it is that we do, there is no need to keep that confidential. If you’re like me, you have a number of friends who are lawyers, yet you have no idea what it is that they do. For some reason, we are shy about sharing our practice areas. We are shooting ourselves in the foot by not communicating the type of work and the types of cases we would like to handle, especially to those who know us, might use us, or have the ability to send us work.

Most people who ask us what type of work we do aren't looking at that moment to hire us or refer us to someone else. Yet, I often hear lawyers stumble and struggle to put into words what it is that they do in a way that the listener understands and can also communicate. Worse yet, we frequently have conversations where we never even bring it up. Most lawyers are in dire need of an elevator pitch[i] – and they need to plan on it being a short ride.

Here are five tips to acquire new work with small talk:

1. Identify the types of work that you’d like to do.

The first step is to identify those areas in which you would accept new work. There may be many. That is okay. Write them all down.

2. Categorize the types of work that you would like to do.

Categorize your different work areas. It is okay to have subcategories. Be ready to share them if the person with whom you are speaking asks for more information. For example, litigation or trial work is a good category. Someone making conversation or genuinely interested in what type of litigation you do will ask something like, “What type of litigation do you do?” Then you should be ready to tell them in short and succinct phrases.

3. Adjust the language depending on the listener.

Read your audience. Once you have listed your categories, it is a good idea to define them in the different ways you may need to communicate with whomever you are speaking to. For example, it is okay to tell a lawyer that you do litigation, but perhaps you’ll choose not to say that to someone not familiar with what that means. Maybe you’ll say to that person “trial work.” You might tell a lawyer that you do ERISA but may share with a less knowledgeable consumer that you handle claims based on retirement plans or pension benefits. Some people know what estate planning entails, others don’t.

4. Prepare short, succinct statements.

Write out short succinct statements you can use when asked what it is that you do or when working the topic into a conversation. (Yes, write them out!) Remember, they should be short and succinct. Leave someone wanting more information and asking for it rather than regurgitating an obnoxiously long and boring recitation of your daily toils.

5. Polish, practice, use, improve, repeat.

Practice. Keep it short. Use them. Go back and review. Update with new information or new cases that you would like to be working on. Make a point to work this into conversations. Don’t just wait for someone to ask – use at every opportunity!

You now have ready-made conversation starters. and you will find that these conversations flow easier (without your listener’s eyes glossing over) now that you have given this topic some thought and preparation. You might just get some work out of it, too.

[i] Most people think of elevator pitches are used by someone trying to sell someone an idea of for a story, script, movie, or television show, but all good salespeople have one no matter what they are selling.


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