Not long ago I published a blog post under this title. It encouraged lawyers to cultivate the company’s line-of-business managers.  Predictably, I got comments from lawyers chastising me for advocating an “end run” around the GC’s office. Who said anything about an end run?  This is an “and” equation, not an “or” equation.

Virtually every discussion of lawyer marketing seems to contain two embedded assumptions: 

  1. that lawyers should pitch legal services to in-house counsel as product-nouns, e.g., “employment law,” “litigation,” “M&A,” etc.; and 
  2. that there is a law department to sell to.

The first assumption reinforces counterproductive behavior.  Nobody wants to be pitched.  

A few years ago we surveyed a number of corporate law departments, specifically asking them how they reacted to outside counsel pitches.  Without exception, they loathed it, got nothing out of it, and considered it a complete waste of their time.  If you’re interested in verbatim quotes from those interviews, watch this video from about the 2:15 mark.

The second assumption applies only to very large companies.  According to firms that supply “rent-a-GC” services, companies with less than US$150 million annual revenue have no inside GC.  From US$150-250 million, they typically rely on the part-time, virtual GCs such rental firms offer.  Only above US$250 million do they have a full-time GC.

What percentage of all businesses are above US$250m?  

It’s hard to pin down, but here’s one measure from the the US Small Business Administration:  As of 2007, they show just over six million US companies, total. Only 20,000 of those, or 0.33%, have annual receipts greater than $100 million.  I don’t know what percentage of those are above $250 million, but using the lower $100 million threshold, which is a larger subset, it’s clear that the overwhelming percentage of the estimated 900,000 private practice lawyers do not sell to corporate counsel. (And those who do are in a space crowded with competing lawyers.)

Maybe that 0.33% of buyers controls some massive percentage of the estimated $100 billion annual legal spend, but they’re not relevant to most lawyers’ sales efforts.  

If every one of the roughly 100,000 lawyers in BigLaw were actively selling to corporate law departments (a laughable idea), that means that 800,000 other private practice lawyers are selling to business owners or managers in the 99.67% of businesses that don’t have a GC.  

That model matches my experience coaching BigLaw partners for 20 years.  Other than at the very top of the most elite firms, most got their work from line-of-business people rather than law departments.

According to Susan Carter Liebel of Solo Practice University, there are roughly 900,000 private-practice lawyers; 78% of those, or 700,000, are solos.  Do you really think they, and the 200,000 lawyers in 5-to-50-lawyer firms, are all chasing the same 0.33% of buyers who are already aligned with AmLaw 100 firms?

The contrarian model we espouse is to define your practice by 

  • the business problem you solve, and
  • what industry you solve it for.

Example: An immigration lawyer might say, “I help fast-growing software companies overcome the US technical talent shortage by tapping into the global pool of engineers.”

Any executive at a tech company knows the difficulty of recruiting and retaining software engineers amid the dire US shortage, and how hard it can be to get more plentiful foreign engineering talent into the US. Would they be more likely to pay attention to a lawyer associated with this relevant issue, or one who is just one more of the thousands of immigration lawyers?

Talking about problems that matter makes you relevant to your market segment. Choose relevance and differentiation. Identify with a problem that drives demand for your expertise.

Mike O'Horo is a serial innovator in the law business.  His current venture, RainmakerVT, is the world's first just-in-time online rainmaking training for lawyers, in which lawyers learn, make mistakes and rehearse in the privacy of the virtual world, then succeed in the real world. For 20 years, Mike has been known by lawyers everywhere as The Coach.  He trained more than 7000 of them, simplifying powerful sales processes by which they generated $1.5 billion in new business.  

Mike can be reached at