Your Lawyer Should Be Your Business’s StorytellerMetropreneurial Legal Insights — By Bill Nolan on June 21, 2012 at 8:00 am
I’m sure you have your “elevator speech” about your business.
An elevator speech is your short summary of what your business is about, designed to tell –and sell– your story to people who do not have the time to learn that story in all the detail it deserves. In a matter of seconds, you want to plant the seeds of what is special about your business. Then, of course, you want that story to stand up to scrutiny if your fellow traveler on the elevator (or elsewhere) wants to learn more.
Think of your lawyer as somebody who rides other elevators on your behalf. Working with lawyers can seem a little mysterious. They may encourage you to take actions you had not thought of before. As a business person, you know there are laws that you might not entirely understand, but sometimes you still feel they are taking you outside your comfort zone.
Your lawyer should be helping you tell your story, just the way you might on the elevator, but in different contexts. The subject matter for the lawyer’s story is somewhat different, and narrower, than your overview of your business. For example, the lawyer may be telling the story of why you acted properly in dismissing a problem employee, or why a particular regulation does or does not apply to your business.
Of course the audience is also different− perhaps less friendly! On the elevator, your audience is the universe of potential clients or referral sources or opinion leaders. The lawyer’s audience on your behalf is much narrower– a government agency, a lawyer for an adversary, a judge, or even a jury. However, the similarities are great.
First, just as you are doing on the elevator, lawyers should be selling something on your behalf. Many lawyers do not like to think of themselves as being in “sales,” but in fact they are advocating for a particular position for the client, trying to convince a stranger that you are right.
This is true not only in a courtroom where client advocacy may be most obvious. If your lawyer is trying to obtain a desired permit from a government agency for you, or negotiating a corporate deal, your lawyer is advocating. Indeed, selling.
Second, your lawyer is addressing an audience that does not have time to hear your whole story. The government employee or the judge or the jury does not have time to hear everything there is to hear about you, why your business is worthy, how valuable your business is to the community, or why you acted appropriately in a particularly situation. Just as on the elevator, your story needs to be condensed so it is no longer than the available attention span of the audience.
Finally, the story your lawyer needs to tell should stand up to scrutiny. The decisionmaker may ask, “Okay, I now understand your client’s explanation of the action that it took. Now can you show me some documentation of that.”
When that occurs, your story will be much more compelling if your lawyer can in fact show the decisionmaker your story, not just tell them. If in your elevator speech you say your company is the biggest supplier of widgets to the automotive industry in Ohio, you better be prepared to give some examples when asked.
To give a specific example, in the field of employment law where I often work, the client is often called upon to explain an employee termination to one of a number of government agencies– the Ohio Civil Rights Commission and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission being two of many examples. Sure, there are a lot of legal rules about what is and is not a lawful termination under various laws. And, yes, the burden of proof is on the plaintiff /claimant /charging party to prove its case.
However, the reality is the decisionmaker is weighing the two stories and, to a large degree, deciding which one is more compelling. There is no law saying that employees have to be treated fairly as a general matter, but that is often the question that decisionmakers are really asking.
And the decisionmaker’s time frame for hearing those stories is limited. You will not have time to explain all the efforts you made to work with a problem employee over a number of years, or to bring in every other employee or business associate who could explain the various difficulties the employee caused. You will need a digestible story that withstands scrutiny– supported by documentation.
It may help you and your lawyer work together if you think of the documents your lawyer is asking you to create as part of your story in case it becomes necessary to tell it later. Of course, this is a two-way street.
Your lawyer should convey his or her interest in knowing your whole story, and be aware of and interested in what is going on in your business, even when there is not an immediate need– not because there is time to bill you for, but as part of your partnership. The more your lawyer understands your story, the better their “speeches” will be on the various elevators you need your lawyer to ride for you.
Bill Nolan has practiced law in Columbus since 1989. In 2009, he opened the Columbus office of Barnes & Thornburg LLP, a large full-service law firm that seeks to take a more entrepreneurial and cost-effective approach both to client service and its own business. Barnes & Thornburg lawyers will be providing this column on a monthly basis in 2013.
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