Small Talk Can Lead to Big Business

Picture this. You finally get together with a classmate, having rescheduled three times. He opens the conversation with: “So, how are things, busy?” You run your fingers through your hair and tell him you can’t remember when you had a weekend off, you missed your kid’s concert, yada, yada, yada, and you end with “yeah, I’m crazy busy.”

Was his question just idle chitchat—or could he now be thinking that maybe he shouldn’t refer a plum piece of work to you?

Or picture it this way. You schedule a lunch with a classmate because you want to explore the possibility of referrals, which you haven’t talked about before. When he asks “So, how are things, busy?” you respond: “No they’re not, that’s what I wanted to talk to you about. I was hoping you could refer me some work.”

Do you think your classmate will feel like referring his clients to you?

If you recognize yourself in the above scenarios, we need to talk! First key message: small talk can be big business. When someone asks you if you’re busy, that conversation could lead nowhere, or to a plum piece of work. Even if your colleague/friend/referral source was just making small talk, it’s an opportunity for you to let your contact know that you welcome referrals—even if you’re busy.

And that’s the second key message: business development never stops. As Mark Twain is supposed to have said, “When you need a friend, it’s too late to make one.” For every one new client, you need between 10 and 15 prospects in your pipeline. So that conversation in the line waiting to go into the theatre or over coffee at a CLE event could be a key part of your business development activities, provided you have the right responses when someone asks if you’re busy.

Which brings me to the final key message: it’s all about the work you want, not the work you currently have (or don’t have). If you’re like the busy lawyer in the first scenario, you might be rushed off your feet, but how much of that work is leading you in the direction you want to go? Is it time to drop the problem clients or pass on the more routine work to a junior? Or if you’re not busy and the clients you have are giving you work that’s not very interesting or remunerative, focus on the type of client you want and what it will take to land clients like that.

Enough messaging, let’s rewind and rewrite the above scripts. In the first scenario, the conversation offers two opportunities:

  1. To get the message across that you’re thriving because you’re a good lawyer, as opposed to rushed off your feet and dropping the ball because you’re disorganized
  2. To let your classmate know you’d appreciate referrals of work that you want

So your response to “Are you busy?” could be along these lines:

  • “Always, but never too busy to take on an interesting new client,” followed by your definition of an interesting client and a question as to whether your classmate has contacts in that field
  • “Yes, but I’m interested in doing more in…. or developing a niche in….”
  • “Yes, and we’re ramping up our resources to do more [insert desired work here]”

In the second scenario, no one wants to refer their clients to someone who sounds desperate. You may be wondering where your next client is coming from, but sounding confident will inspire others to have confidence in you. Again, it’s about the work you want, not the work you don’t have. So your response might be along these lines:

  • “Busy enough, but I really enjoy [insert type of work you want here] and I’d like to do more of it. I know how well connected you are in…”
  • “Yes, but I’d like to
    • take my practice in a different direction”
    • attract a certain kind of client”
    • expand my practice in…”
  • “Yes, and thanks for that very interesting client you referred. We’re always interested in taking on new challenges, especially in….”

One final thought: research has shown that the most common reason people give for not referring work is that they weren’t asked. So start making small talk and see where it leads!

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