What Do Blogging and Vegas Have in Common?? ….Building a Niche Law Practice in the Digital Age

When I was building my media and communications practice, the internet was just a glimmer in the Pentagon’s eye and a flash mob would have prompted an investigation.  No one blogged or tweeted; no one closed a transaction or handled a major negotiation other than in person. We, by necessity, had the luxury of frequent, thorough personal contact.  In the boomer glory days transactional documents were rarely finalized and signed until most of the players (clients, lawyers and advisers) had convened in a conference room for one or two days, often developing the camaraderie born of close quarters and a lack of fresh air, sunlight, sleep or healthy food.

The "Mixer" (Closing a Cable TV Financing)

This gave even a young pup ample time to display the smarts, savvy, poise and other qualities predictive of success as both lawyer and counselor.  Grace under pressure, a sense of fairness, a feel for business, a good sense of humor….

But how can a young lawyer today display these essential strengths without even having a voice on a conference call?   How can you inspire confidence with a barely visible presence on the deal team?

It’s not easy. For some associates, it is close to impossible.   My colleagues and I were lucky.  We got out a lot.  We traveled more, did more, engaged more.  We did not spend every minute hell-bent on billing hours.  We were busy building business.  We got to know our clients and their advisers; we spent quality time with the people with whom our clients did business and their team of professionals.  Many became our close friends; most came to respect, trust and like us; and plenty sent us new, and repeat, business.

By contrast, today’s young (and not so young) lawyers must fight just to meet the partners in their firms, much less clients and prospects.  Too often they yield to the temptation to hunker down and just bill hours, conducting business (and personal) relationships online and avoiding the in-person interactions essential to professional growth and business generation.

Our group’s marketing mantra is just as apt now as it was in our glory days:  Spend as much quality time as possible with the client (if you can, make that happen on the client’s turf) and always enjoy yourself. This should still be the goal. It’s better business, and it’s a better life.

No need to change the basic plan–but young lawyers need to come up with new ways to execute it, ones that work in a down economy, a digital age and a period of seismic change….which, conveniently, is where the Vegas analogy comes in.  Stay with me.

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Every year, when I was a young lawyer, the cable television and radio and TV broadcast industries convened in Las Vegas or Dallas for their national trade shows.  Among those who attended were the banks, insurance companies and private equity investors who financed these industries, as well as some of the service professionals, like lawyers and accountants, who — though near the end of the food chain –understood its purpose.

We spent two or three days at each show attending sponsored cocktail parties (most of which we crashed), organizing late night outings to restaurants and clubs and, basically, doing a lot of old fashioned milling around in hotel lobbies and on convention floors being very much in evidence–very much in the thick of things.  If you were at those conventions, you saw us. I promise.  We were the ones with the rental van outside the Anatole waiting to ferry the Northeastern contingent to Gilly’s.

On the town in Dallas: National Cable Television Association Convention

(When one of my colleagues couldn’t make it to the Vegas NCTA one year he just had himself paged at the MGM Grand and Caesar’s Palace.  If you asked after him, everyone would swear he was there anyway, no less in the very thick of things than the rest of us…)

In Vegas and Dallas, in New Orleans, Anaheim and Atlanta, we deepened existing friendships, built new ones and learned everything we could about the cable and broadcast businesses.

For years, amazingly, we were often the only non-regulatory lawyers in the room, distinguishing ourselves as having drive and business savvy and busy assembling the professional network on which we would build a nationally recognized law practice.

Back at our firms, at first, partners and associates alike regarded us and our “boondoggles” with a mix of suspicion and amused tolerance, even as the business poured in.  Silly us…

But those were the glory days–when the media and communications industries were still neighborhoods, of a sort, the massive consolidations of the nineties had yet to occur and the legal profession looked and felt altogether different.   Lawyers still convene for national and regional bar association meetings, and most industries still offer opportunities to rub shoulders (and mix drinks) with potential clients. But large-scale marketing events are far more expensive today and much more difficult for young lawyers to access.  Of equal importance, the crucial, early-round “mixers” — in person closings and deal negotiations– are virtually non-existent.

How do law firm associates build business now?  Well, here is the wrong answer: “Simply by doing the very best legal work they can.  If you are a fine lawyer, the clients will come.”

Hurricanes at Houlihan's: National Association of Radio Broadcasters Convention in New OrleansIt’s not as easy as it was for us–but much remains the same: Industry and skills specialization is still the fastest and smartest route to practice growth.  Client contact, on the client’s turf, is still critical. Developing a reputation within your target industry or practice area (cleantech? healthcare? privacy? China? fashion IP?) still requires vastly more than a thorough understanding of the laws and regulations that affect it.

You’ll have to know who the players are, and why.  You’ll need to understand their business, speak their language and know what keeps them up at night (or, better, what ought to keep them up for two or three).  Most importantly, you’ll have to be sure they know that your opinion and guidance will give them a leg up.

 That last one is hard to do from inside your office, and impossible so long as the only thing that gets you up in the morning is the dream of meeting your hours goals for the year.

So, what does Vegas have in common with blogging?

Blogging, tweeting and strategic participation in LinkedIn, JDSupra and other social media platforms help the industry-specializing lawyer build a robust expert reputation among his or her clients and their competitors. In a world in which personal interaction is at a premium, authentic, interactive tweeting and blogging can offer the only available substitute for the rich social mix of an industry convention.  Both the practice group blog and the tweets and status updates through which it is distributed provide an informal, inexpensive, collegial and highly efficient way to engage with clients, prospects and influencers within their business communities or, in other words, on their own turf.

By participating intelligently, and in true voice, a lawyer who tweets or blogs on a narrow band topic can be recognized for her business savvy, perhaps even as a “thought leader”.  Just as importantly, an attorney who self-promotes online can convey his distinctive style, personality and –notably– sense of humor.  No website, wide angle newsletter or published article ever really communicates the human beings behind the firm’s letterhead.  But a narrow topic blog, and a properly managed twitter handle, will do this, and do it well.

Online networking offers ample opportunitities to take the next, and essential, step–to connect ever more directly, and on multiple platforms–progressing from social media exchanges and follows to online collaboration and cross-promotion; from messaging and emails to old-fashioned telephone calls and business or social visits.

So in the absence of a convenient watering hole, look for your community online.  It’s there.

(I can say with pride and certainty that, had my partners and I been digital beings, we would have been early tweeters and the very first lawyers in our market to blog.  For now, we’ll always have Vegas.)

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