If you have attended one of my business development workshops, you know that I have two rules about business development. The first is: It’s all about the client. The second is: It’s a face to face activity. This second rule often meets resistance from my lawyer coaching clients. When your life revolves around the billable hour and your work often requires that you spend long periods of time at your desk, it can be challenging to recognize the value of time-consuming face to face meetings.
I’ve learned a small amount about neuroscience, and I’ll share that with you here. Until recently, I didn’t realize that human brains are literally wired to connect with other human brains. When we talk to another person face to face, that interaction creates neural pathways in our brains. The more often we meet, and the more we discover about our common interests, the more pathways we create. Over time, these pathways make us feel connected, and our brains literally light up when we get together. No amount of texting, emailing or online chatting can create the powerful connections that occur when we share ideas in person.
You might assume that the technology companies who have given us productivity tools would prefer digital communication among their own employees, but it turns out that they have recognized the value of face to face interactions—what I like to think of as true social networking.
In a recent article in The New York Times, author Greg Lindsay wrote about “Engineering Serendipity.” Companies like Yahoo and Google have always realized the importance of creative individuals, but they now know that great ideas are more likely to come from the random discussions that happen in hallways, at coffee machines and at company cafes.
You might recall the uproar last year when Yahoo announced that their employees needed to work on-site, instead of working at home. Besides the fact that the majority of off-site employees weren’t even signing on to Yahoo’s intranet to produce work each day, there is another important reason why Yahoo demanded this change. Even a strong performer may not develop an idea to its fullest extent while working at home because he or she is missing the spontaneous conversations that could lead to connections with the work being done in other areas of the company.
Google is aware that if it hadn’t been for lunchtime conversations among engineers in different areas of the company, Gmail, Google News and Street View might not exist today. Google has even designed its new campus to capitalize on these accidental meetings between employees, or what they call “casual collisions of the work force.”
According to the article, “Almost 40 years ago, Thomas J. Allen, a professor of management and engineering at M.I.T., found that colleagues who are out of sight are frequently out of mind—we are four times as likely to communicate regularly with someone sitting six feet away from us as we are with someone 60 feet away, and almost never with colleagues in separate buildings or floors.” Perhaps you have experienced this lack of communication with your colleagues who have offices on different floors or in different cities. By their very design, law firms encourage solo efforts rather than facilitate the face to face meetings that foster collaboration, teamwork and better client service.
If your firm is trying to encourage cross-marketing, it is essential that you find ways to increase the number of face to face meetings between your attorneys. The more you know about each other’s practices, the easier it will be to identify additional services that your firm can provide to your current clients. Spending more time together will help you develop deeper relationships and bring new perspectives and skills to your clients’ work.
For you as an individual lawyer, having face to face meetings with your colleagues will increase the possibility of receiving internal referrals and may generate introductions to other clients of your firm. As an added benefit, the more comfortable you become meeting with internal colleagues, the more likely you are to schedule your external business development meetings. Your success at business development depends on establishing and maintaining both internal and external networks.
As you consider your business development goals, your social networking meetings should include your current clients. I recommend that my coaching clients spend two-thirds of their business development time on client retention, and one-third on acquiring new clients. Schedule an occasional non-billable lunch or meeting with your current clients. Discuss business issues that are not related to the work you’re currently doing for them. Ask them how their companies are generating the conversations that lead to new products and services.
Your clients are likely to have ideas about creativity and innovation that might inspire you to change the way you work with colleagues in your own practice group and in other practice groups. I encourage you to deliberately plan to cross paths with as many of your colleagues as possible. Those true social networking conversations can generate ideas and connections that aren’t possible any other way.
 “Engineering Serendipity,” by Greg Lindsay, The New York Times, published April 5, 2013.
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