Demystifying Client Development

Without a doubt, job security for lawyers in private practice depends on a steady stream of clients. As a result, business development is just about the most important thing attorneys can do for their careers. Despite its importance, business development remains a scary and foreign proposition to many lawyers. But rest assured, client development is not rocket science. We've got some tips for demystifying the process. And it's never too early or too late in your career to build a client base.

First, despite popular belief, client development is not simply about being a good schmoozer. In fact, the first and foremost rule of client development is just to be an excellent lawyer. It sounds too simple, but if you sat down and thought about it, you'd probably realize that some of most undynamic attorneys you know actually have the biggest books of business. The reason? Attorneys get most of their new matters from existing clients. That means if you do a stellar job on one matter, chances are that client will send you another even if they've never played a round of golf with you.

Therefore, after each piece of work you handle for an existing client, solicit and respond to client feedback. You can do this even if you're a junior attorney. Ask them how you helped them and if there are any ways you can improve your service the next time around. The client will be impressed that you care enough to ask. Indeed, this is why client surveys -- whether informal or highly methodical -- are increasingly used by law firms.

Second, even when you don't have an active matter for a particular client, stay in touch. During economic down times like the one we're experiencing now, take time to visit clients at their businesses. Meet with key employees and find out how decisions are made there. (If you're a young associate, this goes for you too -- bond with people in company at your level. They'll move up the ranks as you do.) Ask the client what's working for them and what's not, where they see their business in one, two and five years, and ask about their existing legal services -- both in-house and outside counsel -- and whether they're satisfied.

In addition, keep in touch with holiday cards and even birthday cards. Just like you, clients are people and like to know that someone takes a sincere interest in them. Similarly, if you see a relevant article in the paper -- maybe about a legal or business development -- send it to your client with a brief note (something as simple as "Thought this would interest you.").

With respect to potential clients, don't network only with those individuals who you think will directly hire you. Instead, cultivate relationships with bankers, accountants, consultants and other professionals who are in a position to refer their own clients to you for legal services. Be sure to appropriately thank anyone who has sent you business. (It can be anything from a nice thank-you note to a gift certificate to referring business back to them.) A big part of client development is relationship building.

Of course, traditional client development methods work too. So carve out some non-billable time to give speeches, write articles, cater an informational breakfast in your office or take a client out to dinner. The idea is simply to find ways to highlight your legal expertise -- something clients highly value.

As we've said, client development is not rocket science. Put yourself in a client's shoes -- what could attorneys do that would make you send them work? Then go ahead and get started.



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