How to attract and retain the clients you really want

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It wasn’t all that long ago that lawyers’ concept of turnover was limited to showing empathy when their corporate clients bemoaned its disruptive effect and insidious cost.  A client moving down the street was rare. Like other symbols of the cherished days of expanding demand, what American Lawyer magazine called the Golden Age of law firms, client turnover is now a daily threat.

These days, the name of the game is "attract and retain." Here are the obstacles.

Don't understand the client's business

This is the biggie. In survey after survey, and GC panel after GC panel, clients consistently bemoan their primary outside law firms’ lack of knowledge about their business. This frustrates clients because they expect these firms to bring fresh thinking and creative ideas to the table; that’s hard to do when you don’t understand the game the client is trying to win. That also translates into direct overhead as clients must pay those lawyers by the hour to learn how to be relevant.

No differentiation

Most firms’ messages are variations on the “Quality Legal Services/We’re Great Lawyers” theme, and too many firms assiduously avoid attracting attention, preferring to look just like the other “quality” firms. Research indicates that corporate buyers think all established firms are of relatively equal quality, and can’t appreciate the minor distinctions that lawyers cite in intramural discussions.

Too few lawyers selling

A small group of rainmakers brings in most of the business. Most everyone else services those clients and assumes that enough business will continue to show up somehow – after all, it always has.  This “rainmaker,” “rain-catcher,” “mist-maker” culture is costly, especially now that rainmakers are demonstrating their willingness to move to greener pastures where their book will yield them a bigger piece of the profit pie.

Chasing fool's gold

All sales opportunities are not created equal. In fact, research reveals that, in 30 percent of selling situations, nothing is purchased, no decision is made. No law firm has a 30 percent market share, so we lose to competitors far less frequently than we lose to “No Decision.” Few lawyers know how to qualify and avoid investing precious time on a stillborn sales initiative. Fewer still have much of an appreciation for the concept of cost-of-sales.


Pitching is telling a prospect all about your firm, your services and yourself, and hoping that the innate attractiveness of your firm and its services will motivate the prospect to go through the cost and dislocation of replacing an incumbent, or at least reallocating the existing pie.

Selling means using the questioning and listening skills that made you a great lawyer, in a disciplined way, to learn which of this prospect’s many problems and challenges are not being solved satisfactorily.  Learn which problem this prospect already wants to say “Yes” to having help with.

Tunnel vision

This means looking for business only in your own practice area, e.g., tax lawyers looking only for tax work, employment lawyers seeking only employment work, etc.  

One corporate lawyer, seeking to groom biotech startups, had begun a relationship with a university’s business incubator. During a coaching session, he complained of a recent meeting at which the department heads kept steering the discussion back to a technology transfer problem. Exasperated, this lawyer told me: “But I wanted to talk about getting into the incubator’s startup stream.” Accepting technology transfer as the easy entry point and bringing in his IP colleagues didn’t occur to him.

Failure to cross-sell

Studies show that, on average, firms’ top 100 clients buy only a handful of the two dozen services typically offered. Tunnel vision is a major cause of this failure, but so is the product-orientation that prevents lawyers from seeing that demand for their services is based on the importance of the underlying business problem that the client must overcome or control, not on how skilled they are as lawyers.

New-partner shock

Even today, despite a decade of evidence of the criticality of business acquisition, some newly-minted partners still awaken belatedly to the harsh reality that partnership includes developing business, whether the firm and they have prepared for it or not.

Product-cycle blinders

Law firms are premium-priced manufacturers of custom products tailored to client needs. But needs change. Nothing is in demand or commands a premium price forever. Lawyers must learn how to recognize emerging needs that yield great value and command premium prices.

Winning is a great learning tool

Despite three decades of marketing evolution, some law firms still fear that bold, assertive sales and marketing will alienate their clients. But, those same corporate clients invest billions in sales and marketing. They know it’s critical, and they know it works.

Law firms have always sought the best people. Now, the definition of “best” has changed. Besides top legal skills, the best need marketing and sales skills that once were a luxury, found only in what were (falsely) perceived as “natural” rainmakers.  What was once the ceiling is now the floor. Lawyers know the importance of these skills, and they know they must acquire them—either at their current firm or at another one.

Education, training, coaching

Progressive law firms are overcoming obstacles to attracting and retaining clients through proper business development education, training and guidance.

Education provides the knowledge and a common language with which to propagate it.

Skill-building requires coaching and continuous guidance while the skill is practiced. Ideally, lawyers apply sales and marketing lessons in real situations, guided by the unseen hand of their coach.

Today, marketing, sales and client service training is a strategic tool that, used consistently, delivers dramatic results. And, winning is a great learning tool.  Learn now. The first-est get the most-est.

Mike O'Horo

Hey, Coach, how am I doin’?

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More advice to brand new associates on becoming a rainmaker: Earning partner preference

In the years it takes before your lawyering skills develop to where you can produce work product that clients will pay for, it doesn’t mean that you can’t deliver a different form of value and earn the attention of the partners who will decide which assignments go to which associates, and which ones they’ll devote time and attention to mentoring.

The most important people you may not be thinking about

If it feels like no one is finding and reacting to your content, maybe that's because your content is not reaching your intended audience. But you can turn this situation around quickly, by identifying those who can open the right doors for you, and creating incentives for them to do just that.

My clients say they only want me doing their work

This is a common lament and challenge. If your client will only accept you doing their work, how do you introduce colleagues or juniors? If you don’t figure that out, you’ll remain hostage and will never achieve the level of business you aspire to.

Things we say that make it hard to get business

Lawyers are hard-wired to be precise in written and spoken expression, and while practicing law they honor that precision rigorously. However, when it comes to interacting with their market, their language discipline fades. Here are some common examples I encounter in my coaching conversations, with suggested alternatives.

More about the “I want” disease

Apparently, the "I want" disease is persistent. In my previous post, I shared my experience with a fellow named Steve, who contacted me April 22 and 24 via LinkedIn. Well, Steve clearly isn’t a ResultsMailVT subscriber, because since then he sent me three more LinkedIn communications, each one a poster child for the “I want” disease.

Use a sales investigation meeting to make a referral pay off

Your friend introduced you to a colleague whom she believed to have a legal issue you could help with. You discussed whether she thought he would welcome your contact and how he might benefit from meeting with you. The introductory phone call went well, narrowing the focus on his current problem, and you agreed to meet to discuss it in depth. Here's what to do next.

What to do when you’re offered a referral

Successful lawyers have many contacts willing to introduce them to prospects or others who can help them. Too many introductions are squandered because the lawyer being offered the introduction doesn’t manage the proffer properly. The result is a pleasant but vacuous meeting with no logical basis for continuity, where nothing gets accomplished, all at the cost of creating two new debts. Here's a better way.

How to stimulate referrals from every matter

What could be better than having someone refer you and encourage a potential client to contact you? Yet when it comes to how to stimulate referrals — or even how to make one yourself — there must be a fair amount of confusion. Here's a better way.

The anatomy of a sales email

When lawyers email a contact they consider a candidate to give them business, most extol their firm’s or their expertise and experience, or some solution they believe will persuasively cause the recipient to want that. Ironically, this approach causes the lack of progress that lawyers call me to coach them to overcome. Here's a better approach.

Relationships 3.0: The "Idea Relationship" era

Despite the legal service business undergoing the greatest change in its history, the industry still clings to an outdated definition of relationships that doesn’t map to today’s reality. This includes our worldview of relationships. It’s time for us to invest in “idea relationships” and rethink our personal and professional ones.

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Advice to new associates on becoming a rainmaker

As Lao Tzu, the Daoist philosopher, said, “The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.” The problem with becoming a rainmaker is that we don’t know if the journey is 1000 miles, 100 miles, or more, or less. It turns out that nobody knows how long it takes law firm associates to develop business development skills. That means you should begin now. Here's how to take your first steps.

Does your practice give you autonomy or dependence

A lawyer who gains mastery over the practice of law isn’t necessarily guaranteed great success as a lawyer. Indeed, it depends what “success” means in this context. For many, success is measured by compensation, autonomy, professional freedom. As skilled as you may be as a lawyer, if you don’t generate significant amounts of business for yourself and other lawyers in your firm, then your earning potential is capped. You have a choice to make.

How to attract market attention and open the right doors

Your Door-Opener is the business issue you’re associating with to demonstrate your relevance, attract market attention, and earn access to buyers. It opens doors to conversations about that problem. Make sure it has these three elements

When planning a sale, think of your colleagues as products

You have a call scheduled with a prospect, and you think it looks like a pretty good opportunity for a sale. You’re trying to decide how many, and which, of their colleagues to take with them. I’d like to say, “It depends,” but most of the time, it doesn’t. The default answer is “none.” Here's why, and what to do instead.

Are you deluding yourself about your BD skills?

Despite the constant drumbeat in the legal press and within law firms, emphasizing the criticality of business development now -- no longer merely as the path to success, but now for mere survival -- too high a percentage of lawyers don’t take advantage of training and coaching offered by their firms. One theory that’s making sense to me is “delusions of adequacy.”