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Solos and small firm lawyers are becoming increasingly savvy about legal and business networking. A decade ago, essentially no lawyers undertook organized, purposeful networking efforts, whereas this now is an accepted and encouraged component of practitioners’ daily lives. Solos and small firm lawyers are primed and ready to take it to the next level of value: becoming “resource hubs” for their clients and those prospects they wish to attract as clients. Although “hub” might not be the most elegant moniker a lawyer can possess, it certainly denotes the utmost in practical utility and places the solo and small firm lawyer in effective company (think: USB hubs that connect computer peripherals; bicycle wheel hubs that connect the spokes and sustain the physical integrity of the entire wheel; the center of activity or focal point). So put another way, we are talking about connectors, in much the sense that Malcolm Gladwell uses the term in his wildly successful book “The Tipping Point” (Little, Brown and Company, 2000): People who join individuals or groups together, acting like interpersonal glue, to get them to communicate, interact and ultimately do business together. Gladwell’s “connectors” know many people, have a knack for making friends and acquaintances especially those of the right sort for the particular purpose, occupy slots in various worlds and niches and are themselves endowed with a special gift for bringing the world together. In the legal arena, we needn’t be quite so extreme to be a successful connector or hub; rather, even fairly modest efforts should bring results, as relatively few lawyers do this to a Gladwellian degree. WHY IS IT RELEVANT? Solos and small firm lawyers should concentrate on becoming “resource hubs.” So what is a resource hub? Specifically, “resource hubs” have developed broad and deep networks of other professionals and perhaps other service and product providers. These networks consist of people with whom the lawyer has built relationships, so that she has come to know them and their abilities and they have come to know her and her abilities. Being a resource hub makes lawyers more valuable to their prospective and existing clients and to their network of contacts and resources. Thus, it is a tool for marketing and rainmaking as well as for client retention and acquisition. Essentially, it serves as the proverbial “win-win-win” situation, benefitting the lawyer/hub, her clients/prospects and her contacts/resources. Lawyers who do this strongly enhance their own value to their clientele by becoming the “go-to” person for the clients regardless of whether the need of the moment is within the lawyer’s area of expertise. Because it is consistent with, and virtually identical to, one’s general business networking goals, it is easy to add to the arsenal, requiring only a modest enhancement to mindset or awareness, and how to organize one’s information. As a lawyer develops his network of resources, he accomplishes salutary tasks at both ends of the marketing spectrum: As he gets to know more practitioners in different areas to whom he can refer clients, more practitioners get to know him, so the business can flow along a two-way street. How many prospective referrals have dissipated into thin air simply because the prospective referral recipient was not well-known to or at the top of the mind of the referrer? Lawyers miss countless connections because of this hub-failure syndrome. What New York solo and small firm lawyer would doubt that bestowing upon a desperate prospect the name of a reliable and reasonable plumber, carpenter or other tradesperson would create the kind of goodwill that subsequently might steer the recipient’s legal business or referrals to the lawyer? Moreover, the hub-failure syndrome affects us from both sides, whether we are the prospective referrer or the prospective recipient of the referral. The cure is to ensure that one remains at “top of mind” status with those in the network and that one keeps the network top of mind as well. Some thoughts on how to get out and do this appear in the final section of this article. Earlier this year, a colleague sent an e-mail that said in substance: “I am pleased that I have been receiving many calls based on referrals, as well as my advertising. However, I receive an increasing number of calls for areas of practice I do not handle. In the past, I have given that explanation and bid the caller good luck. I neither intend to be a general practitioner nor to hire legal staff at present. What should I do?” The advice in this circumstance is, in large measure, to begin to develop a broad and deep network of trusted professional contacts over time to enable outgoing referrals. These outgoing referrals are repaid many times over, as they foster general goodwill, create the opportunity for reciprocal referrals from other practitioners who feel encouraged to return the favor, serve the needs of the clients seeking counsel, sometimes provide basis for “participation” fees if handled ethically and allow the referring lawyer to feel good about what she has done and how she has handled creatively and proactively what previously was a mere walkaway situation. The fully developed network allows the lawyer at the hub to provide, in essence, full service to clients notwithstanding solo or small firm status. Indeed, the absence of the fiduciary obligation that exists within a larger firm to refer business to partners frees the solo or small firm lawyer to refer the client or prospect to the niche practice lawyer best suited for the matter. DELICATE BALANCE As noted, the network need not be limited to lawyers, but also may encompass others (perhaps more directly related than tradespeople to most law practices), including CPAs, financial planners and investment advisors, title insurance companies, real estate brokers and other nonlegal professionals who serve a similar clientele. These practitioners are essential elements of any hub’s broad and deep network. Many lawyers find the two-way flow of business reciprocity preferable over endeavoring to balance uncomfortably on the sometimes hazy borders of the ethical restrictions on fee participation arrangements (and their more ominous cousins, referral fees). Believers in the concept of “What goes around, comes around,” who do not micromanage and try to equate precisely what goes into the network and what comes out tend to fare better in the long run and do so without risking the hot breath of the grievance committee on their necks — another “win-win.” To the extent that niche practice lawyers are good sources of referrals for the solo or small firm lawyer who is developing his or her network, it makes particular sense to try to develop a good base within this arena, as niche lawyers also are the ones more likely to be useful when referring clients and prospects out to other counsel. Caveat: It is important to get to know well the lawyers in one’s network in order to understand what they can and cannot do, and to have confidence in their abilities, both legal and interpersonal. An additional benefit of a comprehensive network is the opportunity to have questions answered informally, without having to retain “experts” in diverse areas of law and business. A network serves as a source of information about issues that relate to areas of expertise of its members. Reciprocally, it also functions as an opportunity for one to demonstrate knowledge in response to questions from participants in the network, which in turn makes them more likely to feel comfortable making the desired referral in the future. Although the networks should be broad (substantively, in terms of areas or scope of practice, as well as geographically) and deep (preferably, with two or three alternatives in each category to allow better customized referrals), the lawyer also must be aware of the risk of spreading himself too thin among too many contacts, which tends to make each relationship more superficial and thus less valuable. Seek to achieve the delicate balance appropriate to the situation: Lawyers targeting a mass consumer audience (e.g., plaintiffs personal injury lawyers, midlevel residential real estate counsel, trusts and estate practices aimed at smaller estates) generally need greater numbers whereas lawyers targeting a more select clientele (e.g., commercial litigators, tax counsel, high-end matrimonial attorneys) generally benefit from better-developed personal relationships. If uncertain, solos and small firm lawyers can start out near the midrange of this spectrum, and tweak the focus of the network more to one side or the other, depending on assessment of interim results. One note on risks: Just as with any other referral situation, the risk of possible liability for negligent referral may exist, and even apart from legal responsibility for negligence, there exists the concern to keep the client or prospect happy by making suitable referrals. The need for quality control is as essential in forming a network as it is in designing and manufacturing an automobile. HOW TO ACCOMPLISH IT? First and foremost, do what comes naturally. Adapt existing personal preferences and behaviors and tweak them to achieve the goal of becoming a resource hub, rather than try futilely to effect a sea-change in behavior all at once. Seeking to fit a round peg into a square hole rarely results in anything other than frustration and failure. In contrast, a lawyer has a good chance of success if she makes a rational plan gradually to reorient activities she already does or would like to do and focuses on integrating these activities into the goal of developing the sort of network of individuals and companies that would make her a useful resource hub for others. The basic concept is to be visible, accessible, involved and amenable, and the network will develop over time. Accomplish this by legal and business networking activities geared toward building relationships, including — but also well beyond — membership and participation in the various bar associations. Solos and small firm lawyers intent on becoming resource hubs want to remain top of mind for others and also to keep one’s network top of mind. Some concrete, practical and helpful hints as to how lawyers can do all this: � Join legal and business networking groups or form one of your own. There are numerous sorts, from large national organizations to informal local gatherings of a few individuals; from highly structured meetings replete with inflexible agendas to loose, improvised sessions; from expensive “value-added” propositions promoting enhanced benefits to members’ business to free-of-charge groups that exist on voluntary donations of living rooms or conference rooms and pretzels or soft drinks; from organizations with strict participation requirements to those with no such orientation; and everything in between. A quick Internet search on Google, Yahoo or other search engines will reveal a broad menu of options. One important caveat about the “must-give-a-lead” variety: Check the ethics restrictions. For example, the New York State Bar Association Committee on Professional Ethics has issued an opinion prohibiting certain referral and solicitation activities as conducted by certain networking groups. Specifically, NYSBA Ethics Opinion No. 741, dated May 25, 2001, citing New York Code of Professional Responsibility DR 1-102(A)(2); 2-103(A), (B); 5-101(A); 6-101(A), determined that a lawyer may not participate in a business network that requires reciprocal referrals. Although there may be some room for factual or legal debate here, the caution is telling, and few solos and small firm lawyers would seek to serve as the experimental subject or “test” case. � Serve actively on not-for-profit boards, or other community organizations, where others can witness and experience the nature and quality of your work, either as a board member or pro bono general counsel. � Be a “connector,” actively introducing people to each other, in whatever manner is most suitable: in person at meetings or events; making “cyberintros” (e-mails sent to two people giving contact information and a little background about both of them, and suggesting they speak and perhaps meet); arranging three-person lunches or breakfasts at which the “hub” introduces the two other participants; or by suggesting to one person that he or she should contact another. � Maintain carefully all contact information by use of Outlook, ACT, Goldmine or a wealth of other “contact management” software options, or (for relative Luddites) a well-indexed Rolodex or similar set of contact records. � Serve actively in your national, state or local bar association, taking leadership positions (mere membership on a committee, although often worthwhile in several respects, does not place the solo and small firm lawyer in the posture of connector or allow one to demonstrate abilities). � Make public speaking presentations and write articles for publications online and in print. � Attend trade shows and other business events, and focus on communication skills while there. Identify ideal clients and referral sources, and go to the business events they are most likely to attend. Meet and greet. And follow up afterwards by e-mail or phone with those who appeared to be worthwhile prospects. Start and build relationships; these will beget new relationships, which in turn will beget others. � When making referrals, consider whether to provide two or even three alternatives in appropriate circumstances. This affords the client greater choice and allows the solo or small firm lawyer to refer actively to more members of the network, thereby increasing the likelihood of reciprocal referrals in return. � Recognize that existing clients also are part of the network; treat them accordingly in all respects. Include them in networking activities to the extent appropriate. � Always remain professional and ethical; a solo and small firm lawyer’s reputation ultimately is all he or she has, and the possibility of landing some new piece of business is not worth compromising what fundamentally is most important (note that good reputations take a long time to build, but can be harmed or destroyed in an instant, as the news media reflects regularly). � Finally, read other articles and books on the subject to obtain additional information and suggestions beyond the scope of this article. Not all of these activities or techniques will suit each individual, but if the solo and small firm lawyer finds several that fit well with her personality and business life, she will be well along her way toward becoming a resource hub, adding value for her clients and prospects, as well as for the resources and contacts in her network. David Abeshouse is a solo business litigator and neutral commercial arbitrator and mediator in Uniondale, Long Island. His Web site is at www.BizLawNY.com.

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