A few years ago, I wrote a post centered around the idea of needing a strong audience in order to make the content that you’re writing valuable. While content development is a piece of the overall puzzle, this idea is easily expanded, especially in today’s market. Something that I’ve heard a LOT from lawyers is that to be successful, you simply need to be a good lawyer. So that’s the question that we’re looking at today – if you build a good practice, will clients just show up?

The short answer is no. And in your hearts, you know that.

It’s simply not enough to be a good lawyer these days. You could be the BEST lawyer there is – the most technically gifted, the best educated, even the most experienced. But if no one knows who you are, does it even matter? 

Your legal talent only matters if clients are coming to see you and hire you.

You can’t just build a practice. You also need to build a client base.

What is the essential difference then between a simple practice, and a thriving successful one in today’s marketplace? The difference is that today’s marketplace requires engaged conversation. This may sound like a load of mumbo jumbo, so let’s break it down into two types of audiences – clients/potential clients and the rest of the legal ecosphere.

Before we dive into that, we have to bear in mind one critical fact – we are starting from the idea that you are coming into this as a talented lawyer. We’ve discussed this here to no end – in order to make it to a certain level, being a “good” lawyer is just table stakes. Clients expect it, and it’s not a differentiator. Processes, speed of delivery, staffing, billing, niche expertise – all of that may be differentiating, but the quality bar is, for the most part, fairly level by client standards. So when we discuss the following, we’re talking about the universe of qualified, talented lawyers looking to build their practice.

Clients/Potential Clients

The most important group is obviously clients and potential clients – no practice exists without them. So how are you building a successful client base?

Most lawyers will tell you that “word of mouth” is how they get most of their business – the good news is that that’s still paramount. But there are some key things to keep in mind here:

  • Do you know what people are saying about you when they talk about your work? If you don’t know, ask them. Both new clients and existing clients.
  • Word of mouth isn’t just in person or on the phone, it’s also online. If you don’t want to participate in these conversations, that’s fine, but realize that they’re happening with or without you. Wouldn’t it be better if they happened WITH you?
  • Do you know what the message is that you would like people to be communicating about you? Does it flow through all of your work? Is that then what you heard back from new and existing clients? If you’re not clear on your message, someone else will define it for you.

I mentioned earlier as well that the essential thing here is engaged conversation, and that is the key. I attended the CLOC London Institute last week (more on that to come in future posts), and we are STILL hearing the same complaints from clients – lawyers don’t understand their business, they don’t send them bills in a timely manner, they aren’t proactive enough, etc. Engaged conversation is about:

  • Understanding your client’s business: this isn’t just knowing what widgets they sell and what the risks are; this is a deep understanding of how they operate AS a business, and how your role as their counsel fits into that. For example, when you forget to bill them for a few months, and finish out the year saying that legal spend was down, but then surprise them with that bill in the early part of the following year, and their legal spend is now 40% more than expected, do you have an understanding of what that means both for the company AND for the person that you’re working with at the company?
  • Running your own firm as a business: when clients see that their firms don’t run as a business, it makes them wonder if the firm and its lawyers can ever really understand how they also operate. This includes being able to anticipate risk, estimate costs effectively and efficiently, employ efficient processes, etc.
  • Seeing around the corner: it’s not only about reacting to what may be happening with a client, but helping them to see how something coming up may impact them – let’s say a piece of legislation is passed, and it’s impact may be huge for a client. Calling them or sending them an email with the specific impact, along with the suggestions for mitigation, is much more effective than including them in your latest client alert for an update on the legislation.
  • Seconding staff: Everyone hates the phrase “doing more with less,” but it’s a mandate for all of us, and particularly in-house teams. Create stronger relationships with your clients by seconding younger lawyers to work with them in-house. Not only does it send the right message to the client, but it also helps to give you an insider perspective on what’s going on that may help with future work.

There’s so many other ways that firms can “partner” with their clients to show that they’re willing to work together with them. Treating each of your clients and potential clients as individuals is essential to showing them that you’re invested in their future, as well as your future with them. That is the type of thing that keeps them coming back to you year after year, and also encourages them to reach out to other companies that they know to recommend you.

The Legal Ecosphere

In social media, we’d call this group “influencers” and “amplifiers.” These would be your referral sources outside of clients and potential clients, with whom you also need to be building a strong relationship.

This is another group of people with whom you need to have engaged conversations. For example:

  • Do you know what they say when they recommend your work? Do they have a deep understanding of what you do, and how you do it? Or are they confused about the type of lawyer you are?
  • Do you regularly follow up with them when they refer you work, to thank them for the referral and to let them know how it went? This is helpful both to keep the lines of communication open, and because it presents an opportunity for you to let them know if it was the right type of work to refer to you, and if you may have similar projects to refer back to them. Keep in mind as well that it may open up additional doors for you to collaborate on larger work together.
  • Again, these types of referrals aren’t just happening in person or on the phone – they’re also happening online. Are the messages that you’re promoting about yourself the right ones? Are the conversations that others are having about you reflective of the type of lawyer and practice that you have? Or is there some confusion? You can’t control everything that is said about you online, but you can help to direct the messages.

Work on having engaged conversations with your referral sources on a regular basis:

  • Connect regularly online with people in your network to ensure that you’re visible and engaged. Take those relationships offline when possible, so that you have a stronger connection.
  • Meet with your referral sources to discuss any updated to your practice or theirs. What’s new on the horizon? What best practices can you share? Can you collaborate on a project or article that would promote both of you?
  • Follow up with any recent referrals that you received to thank the sender and let them know how it went, and whether it was the right type of work for you.

Building your practice is about more than being a smart, talented lawyer who does good legal work, and then sits back and hope more legal work walks in the door. This isn’t Field of Dreams. You need to be actively engaged with your clients, potential clients, and the legal ecosphere to deliver your message, find out what it is that they need and want, and have a vibrant, ongoing conversation to build a successful practice.