When You Realize Clients Don’t Grow On Trees

cash1Some lawyers are lucky enough to breeze through a successful, maybe even lucrative, career without ever thinking once about finding new clients. This post is intended for the rest of us.

If you are in private practice, in business for yourself or a member, at whatever level, of a law firm, chances are pretty good that you will not excel in your career without becoming at least passably adept at identifying and developing new clients. I know there are some firms and some clients in which one can succeed simply by expanding the amount of work the firm does for an existing client, or you may be lucky enough to inherit a retiring or expiring lawyer’s book of business. Good for you. Even so, except in the rarest cases, only a fool would presume any single client will remain loyal forever.

If I haven’t convinced you, I don’t know what more to say, except to suggest you heed the often-quoted advice from financial planners that you keep an emergency savings account with several months–even a year’s worth of expenses set aside. Your job will never be secure. (Of course, that’s really true for all of us.)

For most of us, though, it’s not a matter of whether you need to cultivate clients, but when. When I conceived of this post–which could easily be (and sometimes is) the sole subject of an entire book, I had in mind addressing two issues that I’ve personally had to confront in my quest to develop my own stable of clients. These are: (1) the inevitable time squeeze and (2) the concept of freely giving.

1. The Time Squeeze.

As writer Mohsin Hamid points out, “Time is our most precious currency.” If you’re like me, you are going to feel a “squeeze” or shortage of this precious currency when you really commit to building business. To illustrate what I mean, let’s imagine that you work at a firm that expects–expressly or otherwise–that you will work and bill 1,900 hours in a given year. (When I say “bill” in this context, I’m referring only to hours that are chargeable to a paying client, i.e., excluding any hours spent doing pro bono, management activities, continuing education, networking and bar association events.)

Next imagine that, before you started on your quest to develop a book of business, you routinely spent 100 hours a year doing any of the other non-chargeable things listed above, including pro bono. For this illustration then, you are expected to devote 2,000 hours every year to both the practice and business of being a lawyer. If we give you a 2 week vacation, then you will be working and recording time–both chargeable and otherwise–40 hours per week. For most people earning a full-time salary, this sounds pretty fair. I don’t disagree.

The “squeeze” I was referring to comes when you start adding in time committed exclusively to finding new clients. I didn’t plan to write a compendium of all of the possible ways you could spend this time, but a quick and dirty list could include: attending events at professional networking, local state and national bar and practice area associations/groups, follow-up breakfast/lunch/coffee meetings with members of these groups to develop a rapport and cultivate a referral relationship, writing articles, lecturing, providing training and useful information to prospective clients, and developing a (hopefully) growing stable of contacts to be mined for potentially lucrative relationships (with the attendant breakfast/lunch/coffee meetings to develop a rapport and cultivate a referral relationship).†

How much time would you expect to spend doing these activities–if you really want or need to grow a book of business? 1 hour a day? 2? 3? If you averaged just one hour a day devoted to these activities, you’ll be adding about 250 hours to your 2,000 hour year, meaning you’d be working a total of 2,250 hours, or 45 hours a week, assuming you took a 2 week vacation (but no other holidays, so plan on working on Thanksgiving!). Again, many would view this as a fair investment, given the prospect of increased earning potential and job security.

But . . . if you can do it with a commitment of only 1 hour a day, I’d be both impressed and amazed. I say this because, each networking event I attend (roughly weekly) consumes at least 3 hours, including travel. The professional organization to which I belong creates an opportunity to have a “troika” follow-up breakfast or lunch with two other professionals from the group after each meeting. Assume, with travel, each of these meals consumes at least 2 hours, then I’ve already used up 5 hours for the entire week. Which would be fine if this activity alone was enough to gain all the new business I need. Unfortunately, doing this activity alone won’t be enough. Not nearly enough.

I think you’re starting to see what I mean by time squeeze. At this juncture, I probably spend between 10-15 hours of each week devoted to marketing efforts, though some of these are candidly spent on nonchargeable work at the front end of every new client or case (in other words, when I get a new engagement, I invariably spend hours looking at the matter, communicating with the (potential) client, researching a judge, budgeting, etc., none of which do I typically treat as chargeable). If you combine that with the responsibility to work chargeable hours, additional hours required to handle law practice management tasks, CLE, etc., it’s starting to look like a 2,500 hour year, which may be fine if you’re single and do nothing but work, but if you have a family . . .

Everyone faced with this time squeeze must decide their own best way to deal with it, because it presents a challenge. Do you spend less time with your family, forego personal time or regular exercise, reduce billable productivity? There’s no way to please everyone, but you’re only going to short-sell yourself career-wise if you’re in private practice and don’t make client development a serious goal at some point.

2. Freely Giving.

I’ve previously written about giving value-in-advance. This is really just an extension of that advice. In his excellent book, The Marble and the Sculptor, Associate’s Mind blogger Keith Lee included a chapter entitled “Attracting Clients and Business Development.” He discussed this notion of freely giving this way:

“So the big question, one that almost all new lawyers struggle with, is: How do you attract clients?

At the most basic level, it means being willing to give without expecting anything in return. This is often difficult for many people. People, not just lawyers, expect quid pro quo for the things they do. But it is often especially true for lawyers, as their trade is knowledge. Lawyers have received specialized, narrow training in a field and they tend to want to closely guard this knowledge as it enables them to charge clients hundreds of dollars an hour in return for access and use of that knowledge. It can be anathema to attorneys to share information freely as it might somehow devalue their knowledge assets.” (The Marble and the Sculptor (ABA 2013), at 68.)

This reluctance to freely share knowledge must be resisted and, ultimately, overcome. Why? Because sharing information without expectation of compensation creates a store of goodwill and provides prospective clients with an easy way to appreciate your expertise. Because in the real world many prospective clients will be unwilling to hire a lawyer for the first time without some kind of assurance that the lawyer is up to the task. Because it is one way to stand apart.

†A long time ago (relatively speaking) I wrote a post encouraging new law school graduates to make an effort to stay in touch with every person they got to know during school. If you followed this advice beginning at graduation, by the time you were in serious client development mode, at least some of those classmates would be in a position to refer business your way, whether they are in-house, general counsel or just fellow professionals. One really successful rainmaker I know used this method to jump start his book of business, which now hovers in the $3 million range.

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3 Comments

  1. Enjoyed reading this post. I think your reflection on the time squeeze raises some good points. Thanks.

  2. Great timing! I read this yesterday evening while putting the finishing touches on my 2014 marketing plan and estimating the amount of marketing hours I was planning to invest this year.

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