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Asking for help? Here are some tips to do it right

I receive inquiries for help from outside of my law firm almost every single day. Mostly, inquiries about help finding a job, starting a firm, advice on a case, and advice on hiring and networking. I realized at some point that some of these inquiries are very easy to respond to, and I’m happy to help.

Every so often I get an inquiry or two that are off-putting. I couldn’t really put my finger on why until I read an article that explained that the way you ask for help can really impact the help that you receive.

First, be targeted. Be clear about what you are asking for.  Professor David Garvin and Professor Joshua Margolis from Harvard Business School explained that there are four different types of advice: discrete advice, where you need help exploring options for a single decision; counsel, where you need guidance on how to approach an unfamiliar situation; coaching, where you need help with personal development; and mentoring, where you need support in navigating work and building your career. 

Take the time to think about what exactly is the nature of your request. When you’re asking for help it is recommended that you think about exactly the nature of your request as simple as opposed to asking for vague help. When you are the most specific about the help you are seeking, the listener will be more receptive to providing help.

Asking out of the blue “can I pick your brain” is not as effective as a clear ask. 

Here are some other tips I have identified for improving your requests for advice:

  • Show you have tried to get the information in other ways. Don’t dump your homework on someone else, or make it appear that’s what you are doing.
  • Make the request brief and make the meeting/call/inquiry brief, too. Get to the point to respect the other person’s time.
  • Provide value to your adviser: compensation, coffee/lunch, future referrals, “credit” for their idea in writing, whatever that may be. Even a thank you note goes a long way!
  • Make it fun or meaningful.  This can be done in many ways. People WANT to help. They experience a natural high by helping and being thanked. Do you share common goals?  Will a “circle back” about the case make them feel they have made a positive impact?
  • Have you asked for help before? Make it clear you have acted on the advice and learned from it. It’s really frustrating to help the same person over and over with the same thing.

Though people often want to help, not everyone has time. Make it easier on them.