By Mark Powers & Shawn McNalis

This article originally appeared in Lawyers Weekly.

Two years ago, Boston personal injury lawyer Russell Rosenthal adopted the practice of asking clients for referrals. It was a simple but powerful marketing tool that caused his client referrals jump dramatically.

“I guess you could say I was born an attorney,” the lawyer standing in front of us said. Then he quipped, “Of course, it’s better to actually have a license.” Everyone around him laughed.
We were conducting a workshop on incorporating storytelling into a word-of-mouth marketing approach, and in an effort to help everyone identify their own personal narratives, we had asked what motivated them to practice law.

“Well, when I look back on my childhood,” he continued, “I was the one everyone came to to settle arguments on the playground. In college, I was the spokesperson for my fraternity when there were issues and we had to go to the dean. Even in law school, people turned to me for advice and I liked doing whatever I could to help them.”
He concluded that his professional career had been the logical extension of his natural talents: he felt he was born to practice law. He had told bits of his history before, but recognized that this narrative was something he could polish and use when building relationships with potential clients and others who might become referral sources. This story offered great insight into his character and suggested he was someone who could be trusted.

As it turns out, the fact that stories are an unusually effective means of communication is no accident. “Stories are one of the oldest and most persistent forms of communication,” explains Richard Stone of the StoryWorks Institute located in Winter Park, Florida. “In fact, they are so much a part of us that the human brain is hardwired to learn best when stories carry the message.” Every culture possesses an oral storytelling tradition that pre-dates the written word. Early cave drawings are often narratives, informing their viewers about great battles, fertile hunting grounds or dangers to avoid.”

When you harness the power of storytelling in your own word-of-mouth marketing program you capitalize on the receptivity built into the human brain. When you use stories in conversations with potential clients to demonstrate your expertise, with referral sources to illustrate how you can help their clients, and in social settings to educate people about your firm, you are tapping into a deep vein of receptivity.

In an attempt to educate us about what motivated him to open his own firm, a criminal defense attorney from Florida, the son of a prominent minister, told this story.

“I approach my practice like it is my mission. I defend people who have nowhere else to turn. I used to be a public defender, but got fed up with the system. I opened my own practice because the public defenders don’t have time to construct the proper defense for their clients. They are overwhelmed with more people than they can handle. Consequently, clients are moved through like cattle and no one takes any time with them. I believe in taking time with my clients, constructing a good defense and truly advocating for them.”

While working with a sense of a mission was important to this attorney, another criminal defense attorney had an entirely different response.

“When I was young, I got in trouble with the law. Before I went too far, an attorney who was a family friend intervened and set me straight. My practice is dedicated to that man — I want to do for other people what he did for me.”

A female family law attorney had this to say about how her past influenced how and why she practices as she does.

“My parents divorced when I was a teenager. I was raised in a broken family and know what it’s like to lose a father I adored. I’ve also had the joy of being part of a new family. In my practice I focus on helping people who are in transition, whether they are breaking up or building new families. Because I’ve been there, I can relate.”

Within the ranks of our clients, Theda Page of Frisco, Texas, founder of a family law and bankruptcy firm, has developed her own personal narrative in working with Atticus® coach, Gary Holstein.

“I consider myself a reconstructionist. I work with people in difficult and challenging circumstances to help them rebuild and take control of their lives by representing them in bankruptcy filings or the dissolution of family relationships. I have a lot of compassion for my clients and their problems and often serve them not just as an attorney, but sometimes even in the role of a coach.”

We consider stories like these the “stealth bomber” of strategic marketing conversations. On the surface they may enlighten or entertain the listener, but they also educate them, connect them to your background, highlight your values and reveal your motivations.

In short order, the information these brief narratives provide can portray you as an empathetic human being and, because they require a certain amount of self-disclosure, deepen your intimacy with clients and referral sources.

Whether you employ long, rambling stories or, as more often happens, divulge small pieces of your own personal history, having an assortment of stories and brief narratives you can use at different times and in various situations is a valuable addition to your verbal arsenal. They can be helpful in conversations with potential clients trying to gauge your breadth of knowledge or depth of compassion; with referral sources trying to ascertain what you’ve done with other clients to gauge how you can help their clients; and in social settings to educate people about your firm and attract their business. You don’t have to be the hero in every story, stories that are self-deprecating can be engaging, humbling and among the most memorable.

How can you harvest the wealth of experiences you’ve had in order to craft your own stories? Keep an open mind, read the following prompts and notice what comes up:

  • “I became a lawyer because…”
  • “I’m passionate about my area of practice because…”
  • “The type of people I like to help are…”
  • “The reason I like to help people is…”
  • “I make a difference for people by…”
  • “The most interesting problem or challenging crisis I’ve had is…”

While not yet full-blown stories, whatever came to mind as you read the prompts offers promise and may warrant further development. Even though your story idea is based on truth, rarely will you tell it in its raw, unrefined state. It’s best if you create a brief version, a long, detailed version, and versions that emphasize different aspects of your motivation, values or background, depending on what you are attempting to illustrate.

Once you’ve pinpointed your basic idea, it’s critical to polish and practice telling your story in order to become comfortable with it. Write down your pertinent points, then try versions of the story out on different people, starting with your spouse or close friends – someone you have a relatively safe relationship with — to gauge their initial reactions. Then begin using it in a wider range of settings where it might be applicable, such as with clients in an initial consultation, or at lunch with a new referral source.

Stories are powerful teaching tools and can teach people about who you are as a lawyer and demonstrate what you value, who you help and how you help. “Look for the drama in your everyday actions to formulate your stories,” says Stone. “Just as a good author can find a story where others see only the commonplace deeds of ordinary people, it’s possible for each of us to frame our work in heroic terms. Stories are your narrative assets.”

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