|The NBI CLE Blog
March 22, 2012
Building Your Legal Client Base from Scratch
Posted by NBI Faculty on Thu, Mar 22, 2012
Written by Antranig Garibian, Stradley Ronon Stevens and Young, LLP
Most attorneys remember the first time they were approached by a client who said “I want YOU to be my lawyer.” For me, I finally felt like I was helping someone and I was reminded of why I went to law school in the first place. However, I quickly learned that with the privilege of practicing law came a responsibility to develop and market my practice ethically and carefully. For some reason, law students and young lawyers receive little if any instruction on how to develop their book of business and attract clients. If you are practicing in the private sector, pay attention – this applies to you. A solo practitioner must bring in clients and generate revenue to keep the lights on and to put a roof over his or her head. In a large law firm, your future prospects are often tied to your ability to attract business to the firm. So how does a young lawyer with an interest in marketing do so effectively, and most importantly, ethically?
Put yourself out there: This may sound painfully obvious – but it bears repeating: People will rarely contact you if they do not know you. Involve yourself in your community and always make an effort to meet new people. Many of us lose this impulse as we get older – but it is critical to marketing your practice. At the time same, do not let your current relationships go stale. Check in with long lost high school, college and law school friends. It takes very little time to simply send someone a note to see how they are and to learn about where life has taken them. People with whom you have not connected in a long time may be looking for an attorney and be pleasantly surprised to see where you have landed. Find out about where people are and let them find out about you. After a long day of work, a cocktail reception or networking event may be the last thing you feel like doing – but it is time well spent and will always benefit you in the long run. Consistent communication is key – and it is the path to building long term quality relationships.
One frequently overlooked marketing strategy is to develop healthy relationships with opposing counsel in your cases. Even though your client’s interests are the first priority, remember that the opposing attorneys are your colleagues, not your mortal enemies. If you are effective and prove to be a worthy opponent, an attorney who was your adversary in a prior case may refer you a case that for some reason they were not able to take. It is good for your own practice as well as for your client’s to maintain healthy, civil, and pleasant relationships with opposing counsel.
Involve yourself with things that drive you and allow people to see you at your best. Dedicate a portion of your free time to help others. Connect your unemployed friends with firms that are hiring. Volunteer for a committee in your homeowner’s association. Dedicate time to your religious group, community association, and any other group that inspires you. How you conduct yourself outside of work will speak volumes to potential clients about the kind of attorney you are. Through these activities, you are “marketing” your skills and your practice without even realizing it.
Do not turn down a case simply because it is too small
In many circumstances, the value of a case is not found in the actual dollar amount but lies in the prospect for building a long term relationship with a client. As a junior attorney, new clients will often test you first with small matters before they entrust you with larger matters. Treat the small cases with the same respect and attention to detail that you would treat any other matter. A large potential corporate client may not initially retain you for the major acquisition, but may contact you to handle a small contract dispute that it does not want to spend a lot of money pursuing. Do not lose sight of the fact that they are putting their trust in you. How you handle the small matter will reflect on how you will potentially handle a larger matter down the line.
Every client has one thing in common - they have come to you for help with their problem. A client does not want to hear how about your busy schedule or about how many larger cases you are handling. You build strong, long lasting and multi-faceted relationships with clients by showing them that you can listen to their problems, that you care, and that you can be trusted – no matter how much money is at stake.
Not every case is for you…
So now that we have established that taking on smaller cases can be a worthy endeavor, also remember that not every case is for you. You may want to help everyone – especially family and friends - but you can’t. You will inevitably be approached by someone with an issue that requires a specialized practitioner. Taking a case that you are not equipped to handle is a guaranteed way to become well-acquainted with your malpractice carrier. When approached by a prospective client, I always ask myself, “By taking this case, will I be doing the best thing for this person?” If you have a products liability litigation practice, are you really qualified to handle someone’s estate plan? If you have a bankruptcy practice, are you qualified to represent a friend who approaches you to handle their divorce? The answer is clearly no and you should consider alternative arrangements. When this happens, if you are in a large firm, it is likely that your firm does have an attorney who can handle the case. In that situation, you can introduce the prospective client to the appropriate attorney and from that point forward, you serve simply as the relationship manager. If you are in a smaller firm that cannot take on the case, the prospective client will respect you more for declining the representation when they hear your reasons why. You are sending a clear message that you will always put their interests before your own.
Have no fear - declining a case is actually a wonderful marketing opportunity! Offer to the prospective client the names of attorneys you know and respect who you believe will be able to competently handle their issue. This is the perfect opportunity to reach out to a friend from law school, a colleague or even a respected adversary and to create a new relationship. Your fellow attorneys will always appreciate the referral and the would-be client will appreciate that you went out of your way to help them. You may not have been able to take on the representation, but you still played a part in helping that person solve his or her problem.
Not every client is for you
As in so many things, in the practice of law – an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
First, do your research on the prospective client. Is this the type of client you want to represent? If you are a solo practitioner, is this the kind of client you want to work with for the next few months or years? If you are in a law firm, is this the type of client you want to introduce to your firm? Do you feel comfortable "vouching" for this person to your colleagues? Ask yourself a few basic questions:
Has the prospective client ever sued a professional?
- Does the prospective client have a history of civil liability or financial malfeasance?
- Does the prospective client have a realistic understanding of the potential legal costs?
- Does the prospective client have a realistic expectation of their chances for success?
- Does the prospective client understand your ethical obligations as an attorney and as an officer of the court?
If you determine that this is a client which you are comfortable representing, move on to the next step - the conflicts check. Whether you practice in a large firm setting or a solo practice, a comprehensive conflicts check system is mandatory and can help you avoid a potentially awkward, or worse, a disastrous and costly situation. The objective of the conflicts check is to answer the following questions:
- Is the prospective new client (or one of its known affiliates) a current adverse party on a firm matter?
- Are any prospective adverse parties (or one of their known affiliates) a current or former client of the firm?
- Are any other parties involved in the matter (such as a co-defendant, lender or insurer) current or former clients or adverse parties of the firm?
It is your responsibility to collect this information prior to commencing representation. Further, after you or your firm’s records department have determined that there is no conflict, send an e-mail to all of the attorneys in your firm advising them of the potential client and asking if anyone is aware of any possible conflicts or reasons that the firm should not undertake the representation. This may seem inconvenient and cumbersome, until the day comes when you discover a conflict that you did not realize existed. This is the responsible way to practice law and should be done every time you endeavor to retain a new client. Considering all of the time and effort you put into becoming an attorney, a reasonable amount of care and diligence is certainly worth preserving and protecting your license to practice law and your reputation as a conscientious attorney.
Value your own time
As your career advances, your time will become your most valuable commodity. You will have several things competing for your time – your colleagues, your clients, and of course, your family. When speaking to prospective clients, be polite, but do not be afraid to keep it relatively short and sweet. In addition to not wanting to give away hours of your time each day, you do not want to communicate in a way that might create an attorney/client relationship. In the initial exchange with a prospective client, you should:
- Avoid hearing too much information.
- Advise the prospective client not to divulge information prior to a formal engagement letter.
- Agree in writing that information divulged by the prospective client at an initial meeting will not be treated as confidential and that the firm will not be barred, as a result of hearing such information, from representing another client adverse to the prospective client.
Although this may not sound practical and it may feel awkward at first, you must have enough respect for your own time and your own practice to maintain these ethical safeguards. In the end, the type of clients you want to represent will respect you for your professionalism and attention to detail. And they will see that you will treat their interests with the same care that you treat your own.
Developing the best system for screening clients and responsibly marketing your law practice is a life-long process – and one size certainly does not fit all. Everyone has unique circumstances and every situation is different. I have found that the best approach is to be mindful of making the best use of time and resources, while always making sure that the client’s goals are being advanced. With pure intentions and an open mind, marketing your skills and developing your book of business can be a rewarding experience and add a profoundly enjoyable dimension to your legal practice.