How to find and keep clients

  • June 16, 2016
  • James Careless

Now more than ever, lawyers are under tremendous pressure to find and keep new clients. This is as true for just-graduated lawyers launching solo and small practices as it is for established lawyers leaving big firms to hang out their own shingles. However, even large law firms are having to hustle more to keep the work coming in these days.

“In the old days of law, you could just sit at your desk and wait for the phone to ring with new work,” said Debra Forman, Certified Executive Coach and owner of Pinstripe Coaching. “That’s not the case anymore. Although the phone still rings, increasingly lawyers of all kinds have to pro-actively seek new business to keep their firms profitable. This means that they have to sell their services, and themselves.”

The first step for lawyers seeking new clients is to get past the traditional legal attitude of “not chasing trade.” This may not be easy, since “the personality type that self-selects for law is more in the nature of a technical person and less in the nature of a sales person,” said Jane Southren, Principal of Jane Southren Consulting.

Unfortunately, “most lawyers hate the word ‘sales’; they just hate it!” said Jodi Kovitz, She is Director of Client Development Litigation and Growth Initiatives at Osler, Hoskin & Harcourt LLP, who, along with Southren, recently presented a CBA Solutions Series webinar on the topic of finding clients.

“Nevertheless, lawyers today have to get a handle on sales. Fortunately, these are skills that can be taught.”

Many lawyers don’t understand that successful sales are built upon achieving a “win-win” situation for both the seller and buyer; in this case, lawyers and their clients. “Such lawyers don't have a natural or instinctive sense that the simple act of creating relationships and making connections creates benefits for both the initiator and the person they have chosen to meet and connect with,” Southren said. “No one has ever taught them that and because they haven't naturally done much reaching out or connecting, many of them don't have much, or any, personal experience to know that it is true.”

This brings us to the second step in attracting new business: building a brand that clients will trust. Brand-building includes the specific areas of law you cater to and the people who are most likely to need your services, e.g. home buyers for real estate law, and defendants for criminal law. But it also cuts through to how you present yourself in public (including the social media), how you dress, how your office is decorated – the entire package.

“Your ultimate goal is to be seen as a ‘trusted advisor’ for people who are seeking the kinds of services you provide; both for new and existing clients,” said Kovitz. “To achieve this reputation, you must do your very best at all times in everything you do for clients; including being courteously responsive to their calls and emails,” added Forman.

Step three is where a lawyer starts making connections to win new business. Although some will come from advertising, more will likely come via referrals from existing satisfied clients. Another large portion of new work can come from other lawyers; whether because you cover an area that they don’t, or because these lawyers share a common area of law where they need overflow help from time to time.

This is where building relationships with other lawyers is vital. “You cannot overstate the importance of building relationships with people who can steer business your way,” said Kovitz. “You also cannot expect to form such relationships only when you need more work. If anything, the time to get to know possible contacts is when you don’t, so that your work agenda doesn’t get in the way of forming friendships.”

Forming business friendships requires taking time to ask a potentially useful contact – someone who might benefit as much from knowing you as you might from them – out for a coffee, just to chat and get to know each other. And when you sit down with them, be sure to let them talk. “The things they tell you contain the keys to how to help them and how to build a relationship with them,” said Southren. “Moreover, your interest in other people will very often spark their interest in you.”

One meeting does not build a mutually beneficial relationship, of course – it takes many such meetings over time. Your chances of eventually reaping benefits from such relationships are improved if you actively look for ways to help your contacts first. Assuming that you are building relationships with people who may need your services, your efforts should pay off over time.

But what if you’re a new lawyer desperately in need of new clients now? One solution to ask an established lawyer that you admire – say in a medium or large law firm – “for 15-20 minutes of their time,” advised Kovitz. “Use this time to seek their advice on what you should do, making sure to solicit their opinions and, if possible, to get them interested in you. Sometimes this can result in them steering work your way, because they remember what it was like to start out.”

Finally, you can always turn for help to a business skills coach like Forman, Kovitz or Southern. They know what it takes for lawyers to attract new clients, and can help even the most nervous of newbies get the dreaded concept of sales under their belts.

When it comes to attracting new clients, “lawyers aren't any different to any other business,” said Southren. “They have to have a great product and they have to put themselves in the position where the people who need it will be directed to them.” Get this right, and the work will eventually flow your way.

James Careless is a frequent contributor to CBA PracticeLink.

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