The Elevator Pitch
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The Elevator Pitch

April 2014

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The concept of an "elevator pitch" is familiar to anyone in the business world. The basic idea is to prepare yourself to make a business pitch suitable for an elevator ride with an important decision maker. The challenge is to explain a product or service quickly, in a persuasive and memorable way that captures the decision maker's attention.

A person making an elevator pitch recognizes that listeners often have limited time and multiple demands on their attention. Thus, it is necessary to find a way to concisely make the case for one's product, company, or idea - and in a compelling manner.

Entrepreneurs constantly practice and refine their elevator pitches; for them it's like a daily exercise routine. Many small-firm lawyers, on the other hand, do not have an elevator pitch, even though they are true entrepreneurs. Such lawyers have to focus not only on the practice of law but also on the business of lawyering. And make no mistake: Like any business, your firm needs customers (clients) to survive, and a person armed with an effective elevator pitch has the best chance of landing quality clients.

Pitching the Small Firm
Small-firm lawyers typically charge lower rates and tend to have more flexibility with fee arrangements than their big-firm brethren. So that's one thing to stress. Also, small-firm lawyers with foresight realize that every person they meet is potentially a source for future referrals. This does not just refer to contacts who become clients; it also includes contacts who are in a position to refer potential clients. Indeed, it is not uncommon for lawyers to be asked out of the blue by a friend, family member, or colleague if "they know a good lawyer." So always be prepared.

A 30-second elevator pitch will help a lawyer stand out in the memory of potential referral sources and thus offers a real prospect of garnering future business. (Big-firm lawyers also can benefit from an elevator pitch, but there is a difference: The reality is that few of them are in position to refer or snag a Fortune 500 client on an elevator ride. Big firms usually obtain such clients via an exhaustive and substantive marketing presentation as opposed to an abbreviated pitch).

Make an Impression
Consider the typical networking event sponsored by a bar association. Scores of lawyers mingle by the appetizer table looking to meet other lawyers. Over cocktail shrimp, a business litigator introduces herself to a tax lawyer, and proceeds to describe her practice. A typical ineffective pitch approach would have the business litigator simply say that she does "business litigation." But to the tax lawyer unfamiliar with that area, nothing about her description will stand out against the other business litigators he'll meet later that night. An effective elevator pitch, on the other hand, will greatly increase the odds that the tax attorney remembers the business litigator for substantive reasons as opposed to random chance.

The Right Pitch
To the average person, small-firm lawyers are likely a dime a dozen. Most people without legal training (and even many with it) are unable to meaningfully distinguish between lawyers in the same general practice area. Thus, a good elevator pitch highlights the distinctions between the speaker and the hordes of other faceless lawyers out there. It gives a potential client or referral source a substantive, persuasive reason to choose the speaker for any potential immediate or future legal needs.

The specific contents of a good elevator pitch will, by necessity, vary from one person to the next, as no practice is identical and each lawyer differs in what he or she wants to accomplish. Also, good lawyers will tailor pitches to address the different audiences they face. However, what good pitches often have in common is that they communicate information that (1) is memorable, (2) clearly identifies the specific type of client the lawyer wants to acquire, and (3) clearly articulates why the lawyer is a better option than the competition. After all, elevator pitches that result in a lawyer receiving numerous inquiries are not particularly helpful if that lawyer ends up referring most of those inquiries to other attorneys and has to spend considerable time filtering unsuitable clients, without a productive return.

To demonstrate the effectiveness of a good elevator pitch, consider the following scenarios for the hypothetical bar association mixer described above.

- The business litigator introduces herself to a tax lawyer and states that she does "business litigation."

- The business litigator introduces herself to a tax lawyer and says that she is a "trial lawyer with a focus on aggressively defending companies accused of false advertising."

The second example immediately focuses the listener on the specific area that the speaker specializes in. This approach often will lead to focused follow-up questions that allow the speaker to go further into her elevator pitch: What makes her a trial lawyer? What does she mean by an "aggressive defense"? What types of companies does she represent? What constitutes "false advertising"? By the end of that conversation, the lawyer will have greatly increased her odds of getting meaningful referrals.

It is important to note that an elevator pitch is not necessarily about advertising oneself as a narrow specialist (though it certainly can be if that is what the lawyer wants to do). The elevator pitch is really about quickly capturing attention for the purpose of distinguishing oneself from the competition. For example, perhaps a business litigator's edge is that she is a former big-firm partner, with far more experience in complex litigation than the typical small-firm attorney. Or maybe her edge is that her rates are lower than other attorneys of comparable skill and background. Or it could be that she has handled more trials than other attorneys in her field.

In the end, the key to a successful elevator pitch is simple: Be yourself and accentuate what separates you from everyone else.

Randolph Gaw of The Gaw Group, based in San Francisco, has an elevator pitch: He practices "bet-the-company" business litigation.

Reader Comments

Diane Rifkin - April 1, 2014
Very good summary of this significant aspect of marketing and business development. I would add that another significant aspect of a quality self-presentation is one's non-verbal behavior, including but not limited to direct eye contact, a welcome handshake, and genuineness.

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