Twenty years ago this September, I started law school not knowing anyone there. More importantly, no one there knew me.

Now, mind you, this was at Boston College Law School, where such things aren’t really emphasized. I mean, it’s not like at that school across the Charles, where people like the Winklevii both wear and file suits. At BC Law, which (at least back then) prided itself on being a kinder, gentler law school, it wasn’t really about who you knew, or who knew you. (Yes, one of those whos should really be a whom, but only someone at Harvard would actually say it that way.)

Still, it’s nice to have people know who are you are, and it’s a useful skill to develop for after school, when you need to know how to market your services as a lawyer.

So three weeks after school started, almost everyone knew my name. You see, I had a secret weapon.…

Free dance-club tickets.

Now hang on: it wasn’t like that. Let me explain.

A couple weeks after law school started, I got a phone call from a Boston dance club that I had gone to several times over the years. No, not that Boston dance club. This one was called The Roxy, and it’s not there anymore.

So this woman calls me and says that I’ve won a free dance party. Not being a character in a bad 1950s movie, I didn’t know what this meant. “What does that mean?” I asked. She said it meant that I could invite 200 of my closest friends to get into the club on a particular night without paying the $10 cover charge. I said, “Cool,” then gave her my address so she could mail me the tickets.

Well, you can imagine what happened. As the day approached, the tickets didn’t. Being prudent, I hadn’t really mentioned the “dance party” notion to anyone without having the actual tickets in hand. But with time running out, I called the nice woman at the club and asked her, basically, “WTF?” (Yes, I know: this was decades before WTF became an internet meme. There weren’t a ton of internet memes in 1991.)

She said not to worry. I didn’t really need the physical tickets. Instead, they would just put my 200 friends on a list. I said that while that sounded cool, I really didn’t have enough time left to gather a list together. She said, “No problem: Just tell your friends to say your name at the door and they’ll get in for free.” So it was kind of a reverse list. So now I had to get the word out.

Our 1L classes were all held in the same large classroom — Room 315. There were about 180 people in my section. Occasionally, right before the professor started jabbering on about torts or property or whatever, some student might get up and make a brief announcement about an upcoming event or club meeting.

So the next thing I know, I’m standing up there in front of my 180 classmates who are waiting to figure out what the hell the scales that were thrown down in Palsgraf actually were. (To this day, I still don’t know.)

“So I won these free club tickets at this place in Boston,” I began, “and they told me that I could invite 200 of my closest friends. So I guess that’s you now.” My 200-or-so new friends chuckled. (Laughing at me, laughing near me: never could tell the difference.) I explained about the tickets not coming, and about how they could get in for free: “Just say my name, and you get in for free. Of course, most of you don’t know my name — it’s Jay Shepherd.”

So the following Friday, 50 or 60 BC Law 1Ls descended on The Roxy, said my name, and got in for free. (I guess the other 120 got lost or forgot my name.) Pretty sure I didn’t have to pay for any drinks that night, and I ended up meeting my future wife (a classmate I hadn’t met yet; although we were both there with other people, and we didn’t start dating till the following summer).

But the small-law-firm marketing lesson here is this: During those first few months of law school, people knew me as the dance-tickets guy. And they actually knew my name, since it was worth ten bucks for one evening in September 1991. Later on, they got to know me for other things, but it was that first hook, however insignificant, that made the difference.

Same thing happened to me in practice. After I’d been practicing for a while, I began to be known locally as a noncompete guy. (I wouldn’t say the noncompete guy, but one of a few.) Later, I became known as the guy who got rid of hourly billing. But it was the getting known for something — almost anything — that brought in the business.

My point is this: It doesn’t really matter what people know you for initially. Just that they know you. Once you stand out a little bit — differentiate yourself from everyone else — you stand a much better chance of people wanting to get to know you better, and that’s how you build a practice.

Find a way to become the whatever guy or gal — and grow your practice from there.


Jay runs Prefix, LLC, a firm that helps lawyers learn how to value and price legal services. Jay Shepherd also spent 13 years running the Boston management-side employment-law boutique Shepherd Law Group. He writes the ABA Blawg 100 honoree The Client Revolution, which focuses on reinventing the business of law, and Gruntled Employees, a workplace blog. Follow Jay on Twitter at @jayshep, or email him at [email protected].


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