A lawyer recently sought advice from a group of peers on a list-serve about marketing his practice and mining his current and former clients for business. While there is nothing wrong with the concept of trying to build your practice through referrals from current and former clients (in fact, I encourage it), lawyers need to be careful about the way they approach these business development efforts.
There has been an increasing shift towards viewing a law practice as a business with economic realities that must be faced and one of the biggest economic realities for any law practice (and indeed, any business) is that without clients, the practice does not exist. The most important person in any law practice is the client. But, as Duncan Manley, a lawyer whom I like and respect, recently wrote in the Primerus Paradigm magazine (I've written about the Primerus organization before, here and here) for law firms especially, marketing is all about building relationships.
In order to gain the confidence of your existing clients, to develop a loyal client base who will refer business to you over time, Manley reminds us that the clients needs to "know that you are a good lawyer,...have confidence in your ability,...trust you and know that you are genuinely concerned about them and their company." But this knowledge and trust, almost by definition, must be built over time. It is never built by focusing primarily on yourself, your firm, your knowledge, expertise, legal skill, etc.
My advice to the lawyer I referenced at the beginning of this post was to focus more on building relationships with existing and former clients (and other professionals and strategic partners as well), rather than focusing on your own desire to make connections or to build your practice.
You need to be careful about making clients, former clients and strategic alliances feel that you’re completely in this for you, or that you’re browbeating them or making them feel guilty about not referring you to others. If people feel even the smallest bit turned off, if they feel that someone is attempting to control them, use them for their connections or make them feel guilty, there’s going to be a backlash – even, and maybe especially if they do refer someone else to you in the short run.
The approach, “Have you recommended me to someone in the industry? Why not?” is all about you and your business, not about the client and their business, or the client as a person, colleague or friend. Newsletters, personal letters and gifts are nice, but it’s the long term relationship and genuine caring about clients and their businesses that is going to drive referrals to your door.
You certainly want to make sure that all of your clients and former clients know what you do, what you can do (if it is different than what you did for them), and who you’d like to do it for. It also doesn’t hurt sometimes to ask them to make a specific connection for you or to suggest that you’d love to work with others like them, or ask if they know anyone who might benefit from your services. But you need to do it at the right time and in the right way.
Rather than focusing on what connections your clients and former clients can make for you, think about what connections you can make for them. Show an interest in them as people, both inside and outside of business. Keep your eyes and ears open for ways to help them grow and prosper - even if they're completely unrelated to your practice, or even to the law.
If you come at this from the perspective of giving to your clients, helping them grow and succeed and developing relationships with them, rather than just trying to use them or squeeze additional business or referrals out of them, you’re more likely to meet with success.
Take a page from Duncan Manley's playbook. He says,
I like people, clients or not, and I like lawyers. I like to talk to them. I like to find out about what they do, who they know, where they live and whether they like to fly fish, jog or ride horses....One time I had a client who told me I asked more questions than anyone he had ever known....I am guilty, but that is the only way to find out about people, and they know I wouldn't be asking those questions if I wasn't interested in them. I think we all want to be liked by others.
People respond to your genuine interest in and care and concern for them. When they like you and feel that you like them, the business will follow - even when you don't expect it.