Business Development Not-to-Do #6: Limit Yourself By Geography

by JD Supra Perspectives
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Too many lawyers unnecessarily impose artificial geographic limits on their practices. Why not let potential clients decide how important your location is?

Whenever I begin coaching a lawyer, one of the first things we do is define what their optimal client looks like. One simple, reliable way to do that is to ask about their best engagement in the past couple of years.

You know what I mean: The work was challenging and interesting, and really showcased you at your best. The client paid the bill in full, on time, without a bunch of nickel-and-diming. They gave you the love, i.e., they recognized and expressed appreciation for your skill, creativity, dedication, and commitment, and treated you with the respect due a trusted partner.

Yeah, that client. Who wouldn't want more just like that?

Lawyer: "One of the best engagements I ever had was creating a master set of supplier agreements for a huge online shoe retailer. I set things up in a way that should eliminate about 90% of the previous causes of litigation between their suppliers and them; it will save them a ton of money. Fees were about $100,000, and they were happy to pay it. We really enjoyed working together, and they've been one of my best references since."

Me: "OK, great. Why don't you use that success to get more clients just like them?"

Lawyer: "This isn't New York or L.A. There are no other big online retailers based in this area."

Me: "Is location important to them?"

Lawyer: "I guess I don't really know; I never thought about it that way before."

Not-To-Do: Limit Yourself by Geography

This is fairly representative of these conversations. Lawyers assume that location matters. Perhaps because it would matter to them. Or maybe it's a vestige of when all business was more local, when it was important to form a personal relationship before having a business relationship. However, assuming that location is either an advantage ("We have an office in your town") or a disadvantage ("We don't...) is usually unfounded. For some companies, in some circumstances it's one or the other. It's not universally true either way. Often, it doesn't matter at all.

Business is increasingly borderless...

Business is increasingly borderless, whether it's the literal globalization of big business, or the virtual globalization of all business conducted online. That means that business communication and interaction is primarily electronic now, which means that location is becoming meaningless. (Set aside for now the need for local counsel in litigation.)

Think about your best client. Let's say that, on average, you bill them 500 hours per year. How many of those 500 hours are spent face-to-face, even if the client is local? Look at your entire practice the same way. What percentage of your 1800 billable hours are spent face-to-face with the client? I'm betting it's a small percentage.

To-Do: Let the Market Decide if Location is Important

I've read hundreds of key-client interviews and client-satisfaction reports. I can't recall anyone citing location as an important reason for choosing that firm or lawyer. (I'm not saying it's not important to anyone, merely that if it came up at all, it wasn't frequent enough to lodge in my memory, or wasn't emphasized.)

Let's return to the online retailer example above. Let's say this lawyer lives in Las Vegas and the client for whom she did a great job was Vegas-based Zappos. Is the game over because Zappos is the only online retailer based in Vegas? Not at all. Who would care less about location than a company doing business solely via the Internet? Is Zappos the only online retailer that has disputes with suppliers? Are those disputes unique to shoe suppliers? No and no.

Here's what that lawyer could do to exploit her success if she ignores geography:

  1. Speak to Zappos to learn whether this problem is a one-off, i.e., unique to Zappos for some reason, or that other online retailers face similar challenges with supplier agreements.
  2. Ask Zappos to introduce you to contacts at other retailers -- not to pitch them for business -- but to get a better understanding of how this issue affects online sellers per se.
  3. Speak with those referrals to develop a tightly-focused description of the problem, one that reliably opens doors to discussion with similarly-situated companies. (While you're at it, ask them to introduce you to others from whom you could get informed opinion.)
  4. Position herself as the Supply Chain Lawyer, and never again let the words "corporate lawyer" or "contracts lawyer" pass her lips or emerge from her keyboard.
  5. Using her knowledge of supply-chain challenges, write for online retail industry media, speak at online retail conferences, and comment to the media that covers that industry.
  6. At industry conferences, network differently. Filter the crowd, qualifying people by testing their willingness to acknowledge that they face your demand-triggering supplier problem.
  7. Make a home in that industry. Become one of them, a well-informed peer who contributes to the industry conversation.

The key is to abandon the notion that you must have a personal relationship as predicate to doing business together. Instead, enable companies to form a relationship with your ideas. A percentage of those exposed to your views will strongly disagree with them. That's OK. In fact, it's desirable, because knowing that you disagree, you'll not waste each other's time. A majority won't care one way or the other about your stance because they don't care about the supplier problem. Either they don't have that problem now, or they've already solved it, or they're in denial about it. They're not forming a relationship with anyone's ideas.

At the other end of the spectrum, though, is your tribe. These are the people who, reading or hearing you, nudge someone and say, "See? I told you so." They think you're a genius. Why? Because you sound like them. They've found their idea-mate. They'll choose to pay attention to you. They'll subscribe to your blog, choose your session at conferences, etc. As you reinforce your idea-relationship over time, it won't be possible for them to talk about supplier relationships without your name coming to mind, so firmly will you be indexed to it. You'll own it.

What percentage of those people will care where you're located? Nobody knows, but they'll sort it out for you. The world really is your oyster. So, put geography aside and open yourself to the borderless exchange of ideas, and make it easy for your tribe to find you.

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[Mike O'Horo is the co-founder of RainmakerVT and has trained 7000 lawyers in firms of all sizes and types, in virtually every practice type. They attribute $1.5 billion in additional business to their collaboration. His latest innovation, Dezurve, reduces firms’ business development training investment risks by identifying which lawyers are serious about learning BD.]

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