How Clients Choose Lawyers

Thanks to AttorneyAtWork for publishing this article I wrote. Let me know what you think of these ideas.

1. Clients Want Experts, Not Generalists

You don’t want to be known as a generalist because, frankly, clients don’t want generalists. I illustrate this with a story about the time I was riding my bicycle out in the deserts of Arizona. I hit a rock, went over the handle bars and broke my collarbone. Even though I was in screaming pain, I knew at that very moment that when I got to the hospital I did not want a generalist who was good at setting bones. No, I wanted a sports medicine doctor to put me back together so that I could get back on my bicycle again. And that is how clients shop for lawyers.

The idea here is to become an industry expert. Start by looking over your list of clients and sorting them into lines of businessnot by practice group, by lines of business. There’s no need to be precise about this. It can be as broad as “food and beverage” or “transportation industry” or “manufacturing industry.” Now, whatever industry most of your clients are in, that’s the industry you need to become an expert in.

  • Join that trade association.
  • Be seen and visible at that trade association.
  • Go to that association’s meetings and events so people know they can expect to find you there.
  • Demonstrate your expertise—get on the board of directors, become the newsletter editor or become the program director of the business organization.
2. Clients Give Work to People They Know and Like

Rainmakers become rainmakers because they have more business relationships than other attorneys—and they know how to maintain them. You want to learn from and behave like a rainmaker. Rainmakers visit clients. They schedule quarterly meetings where the topic of discussion is “how’s business?” Rainmakers want to find out what obstacles the business is encountering, or what plans it has to grow. At these meetings, they’re not talking about current matters they are working on, they are looking ahead for the next matter.

The thing to remember is that clients are just like everyone else. They’re not going to give any work to that West Virginia lawyer who had never met any of his clients. They’re not going to give work to someone whose only contact with them is a FedEx shipment. And they’re not going to give work to somone with whom they have an e-mail relationship. They are going to give it to people they know. So, you need to get better at building good business relationships.

3. Clients Give Work to Trusted Personal Counselors

It’s lonely at the top. CEOs can’t go to the board of directors to complain how hard their job is. They can’t go to their direct reports and talk about how difficult their job is, either. They need somebody to talk to. Who better than a lawyer to offer a shoulder to cry on? You want clients to turn to you as a lawyer as someone who listens, someone who can offer business advice, and someone who they can talk with about their problems. And of course, in the process of them talking about their problems, you will be offering legal solutions.

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Wade Coye - July 15, 2011 2:15 PM

Excellent tips. Communication with client is definitely key. Whether that's through the articles you write, the advice you give, etc. the client wants to feel like they can come to you for a number of reasons.

Ian Brodie - July 15, 2011 2:15 PM

Very, very true Larry.

I'd add that many lawyers like to think they could be personal counselors to clients - advising on a broad range of matters. And that leads them to think they should be generalists.

But Ford Harding's study of rainmakers showed very clearly that the people we think of as generalists who have very senior client relationships actually started out as specialists, made a name for themselves in one area, gained the ear of their senior clients in that area, then expanded their reach over time.


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