You do what?

Reading another interesting discussion on the Interweb last week, which was urging lawyers to ask their clients the simple question “so what do you do?”. The basis of the article was that this would give a client or a prospect the opportunity to talk about their business, and thus provide a deeper level of insight that would allow the lawyer to provide a better service.

"tell me what you do?" asked the driver innocently. A question he would soon regret....

It was a good starting point and could lead into an examination of question-based sales techniques such as “S.P.I.N. Selling” by Neil Rackham (still one of my favourite sales books). However, I took the opportunity to flip the question, and asked how many lawyers could give a concise and compelling answer to the same question.

So, what do YOU do?

A refreshingly simple question, but a difficult one to answer well IMHO. Not least because in our society, your occupation is an important part of your identity. For me, after 10 years as a lawyer, answering that question suddenly became much more challenging. However, even when I was practising law, beyond the simple, one-word answer (be it lawyer, attorney, solicitor, barrister etc), the question is really what DO you do? How are you different from all the other lawyers? How do you help your clients, whether you are inhouse or in private practice.

I’ve tried to answer this question at various times in my career, and it’s not easy. At the heart of the problem is the need to differentiate yourself, either at an individual level, at a practice level, or at an organisation level. Do you feel more comfortable talking about yourself and your skills (creatively solving problems, aggressively defending my clients), your practice and work type (I draft contracts for….) or your firm (I work for a company that…..)?

Whatever the level you answer the question, once you have the descriptive answer, you can then challenge yourself to ask how many other people could have given the same answer. If the answer is “a lot”, then ask yourself what it is that you do that’s different.

It’s not an easy task; before you know it, you’ve run into your second paragraph, and the person you are talking too has glazed eyes and is desperately wishing they hadn’t asked the question.

Ultimately, I think to answer it well, you need an understanding of your personal value proposition: how do you create quantifiable value for your clients? What results do you create? An exploration of value propositions (a great subject for lawyers) is probably best saved for another time, but thinking about how you create value can give you another angle on how to answer the question about what you do.

Finally, if you think you’ve answered the question “so what do you do?”, it’s time for the ultimate test. Grab a taxi to somewhere more than 15 minutes away, chat to the driver and wait for the inevitable question. If you can answer it before the driver loses interest, starts a rant about how much he hates lawyers or talks in detail about their recent divorce/house move/tax investigation, you’ve done well!

6 thoughts on “You do what?

  1. Lee Taylor

    This is an excellent point well made. Having worked within law firms and alongside lawyers for over 10 years, I’ve heard the “so what do you do?” question answered in a whole host of ways.

    I’ve always worked on the basis of not only creating an “elevator pitch” for the company, but for the individual lawyers themselves. I’ve heard dispute resolution lawyers, calling themselves “problem solvers” or “fire fighters”, divorce lawyers calling themselves “family guys”. Quirky to start with, but as long as the benefits to how they help their clients are there it helps to overcome those eye-glazing moments.


    1. intelligentchallenge Post author

      Thanks Lee: I think you are spot-on with your approach and am sure having worked through the question the lawyers are much better prepared to have those conversations with prospects, clients and taxi drivers!

  2. Chloë

    Interesting idea of making the answer a descriptive one rather than a one-word occupation. I think most people have very strong preconceived notions about the types of people that work in different jobs, and regardless of if that person actually fits the stereotype they have in their heads they’ll slot you in to that mold.

    I do a lot of office work at various charitable organizations. The people I work with there who do not know me outside of this environment have no idea who I really am. They’re often really surprised to hear what I actually do (as opposed to what i do to supplement my income) or to hear that I have as much post-secondary education as I do. Says a lot about how they’ve typecast me based on what I do 9-5.

    Do you think there is a job out there that you could answer the “what do you do” question that no one would make assumptions about?

    1. Intelligent Challenge Post author

      Wow, great comment Chloe. I thought about this quite a bit when I stopped being a lawyer: I think in our society people do (at least partially) define others by their jobs.

      One way of thinking that helped me break some of these constraints was to explain to my kids what I did. If you’re speaking to a five year old, you don’t have those pre-conceived ideas to deal with!


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