Boutique Law Firms, Practice Pointers, Small Law Firms

From Biglaw to Boutique: Networking Contradictions

Tom Wallerstein

I try to approach new relationships without an express agenda. In my experience, business has always come from relationships indirectly, and unexpectedly. Looking back at my firm’s engagements with 20/20 hindsight, it is undeniable that positive relationships led to the work. But that was impossible to predict looking forward.

For example, lunch with a casual acquaintance became a friendship and led to a very lucrative engagement when he later developed a conflict. I could not have predicted at the time how the lunch would later lead to important business.

In fact, had I approached the lunch with a strict agenda, I never would have formed the friendship or subsequent business. Instead of meeting with the goal of developing business, I met with the goal of having a nice lunch. It is a well-known irony that sometimes it is easier to get something when you stop trying so hard…

For the same reason, it can be a mistake to refuse to meet someone only because you cannot immediately understand how the relationship might lead to business. I once talked to a cab driver whose sister owned a popular restaurant. Several months later, I was handling an employment wage and hour class action for her. Once in a while you can get shown the light in the strangest of places if you look at it right.

Meeting without a rigid, inflexible agenda also makes the meeting more likely to be fruitful on some level. No one enjoys receiving a hard sales pitch. Lighten up and stay open minded to the surprising opportunities that can arise instead of trying to force a certain agenda.

On the other hand, it’s easy to make the opposite mistake, too. When I first started my firm, I found it difficult to expressly ask someone for work. I didn’t want to sound desperate, and I had a vague idea that appearing successful was somehow important. Asking for work also struck me as crass or tacky or gauche. I remember an early lunch I had with a general counsel of a large semiconductor company where I never quite got around to an explicit discussion of what needs did the company have that I might be able to help meet. I realize now how naïve I was only a few years ago.

But how do you deal with the uncomfortable prospect of requesting work from someone you don’t know well? Last week I spoke to someone running an exciting legal services startup who confessed that he and his partner simply weren’t comfortable asking for business.

That’s a problem, but it’s also very common. One solution, as I’ve said, is to just accept that you don’t have to like it. Force yourself. It’s important, and nothing bad has ever happened because of requesting work. The best case scenario is that you will get a positive response. The worst case scenario is that you will get a negative or non-committal response to the request. But you won’t ever hurt your relationship just because you made it clear that you are open to business prospects.

Asking for work is only hard when you feel like you are imposing on someone, or asking them to do you a favor. But it’s not nearly so hard to ask for work when you believe in what you’re selling. If you really think you have something of value to offer, then you’re not so much asking for a favor as you are offering to do a favor.

Even though you should be open minded without a rigid agenda, there comes a time when you need to be able to ask for what you want. When talking to a potential client, let them know you want their business, and find out their legal needs and how you might help meet them. When talking to a potential referral source, they, too, need to know that you are “looking,” what kind of business you want and how ever else they might be able to help you.

On the other, other hand, the most important thing you can say when meeting with someone is not, “Here’s how you can help me”; rather, the most important thing to ask is “How can I help you?”

I thought I came up with this idea on my own, but when I Googled it I saw it attributed to Dave Kerpen. Fair enough, but I’m happy to steal it because I think it’s dead on right. Dave says there are two possible results from asking:

1) The person will tell you, thereby giving you an opportunity to help, after which the person you helped will feel compelled to return the favor, and help you.

2) The person won’t tell you, instead politely declining, but then she will still feel like you care, and will be emotionally invested in helping you.

That particular way of putting it is a little too mechanistic for my taste. I prefer to think that trying to help others taps into something more universal in which good things become more likely. I guess that’s a faith of sorts, based on my own experience. However you look at it, the conclusion is the same; namely, trying to help others is the most effective way to help yourself.

All these concepts are in some ways in conflict with one another. You shouldn’t have an agenda, but you should ask for work. You want to communicate your own wants, but your bigger objective is to find ways to give, not take. Looking for ways to help while communicating your own goals is itself an agenda of sorts….

With all the contradictions, it’s so easy to slip and overdo it. Going too far to any one extreme leads to bad results. Some people seek work too aggressively, some people don’t do so aggressively enough, others remain closed to unforeseen possibilities. It seems to me that reconciling and balancing these contradictions is an important key to building and maintaining successful networks. If you’re doing it right, you will naturally fill your space with a variety of people who not only have the knowledge and capacity to help you, but who will want to help you because you helped them.

Tom Wallerstein lives in San Francisco and is a partner with Colt Wallerstein LLP, a Silicon Valley litigation boutique. The firm’s practice focuses on high tech trade secret, employment, and general complex-commercial litigation. He can be reached at

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