By Marilyn Odendahl • firstname.lastname@example.org
Attorney C. Richard Martin maintains there is no secret to rainmaking.
The intellectual property practitioner opened a small office in Evansville in January and, despite not being in a technological hub, is now looking to add personnel, possibly another attorney, to the office. The reason for the growth is simple — he is bringing in more work and can use some extra help.
A former patent examiner in the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, Martin uses his experience and easy-going personality to meet potential clients and increase his workload from existing clients. He meets with entrepreneurs and innovators, learns about their businesses, gives suggestion for how he can help them grow, and offers many of his services for a flat fee. When a small local startup gets acquired by a bigger out-of-state company, he introduces himself to the in-house lawyers.
Martin said working hard and providing value to clients are the primary ingredients for growing a law firm.
All lawyers, whether they work in an international law firm or a small or solo practice on the local courthouse square, must bring in new clients and retain their existing ones. If business does not keep coming through the door, the workload will dwindle, revenue will dry up, and top talent might be poached or the entire firm could be acquired by a competitor.
In Altman Weil’s 2017 Law Firms in Transition survey, a startling majority of firm leaders highlighted their growing frustration with the languishing business development skills among their lawyers. Eighty-eight percent said their firms have chronically underperforming attorneys, and 82 percent cited weak efforts to bring in new clients as the main culprit for underperformance.
Still, cultivating new work can be difficult. Corporate clients are keeping more work in-house for their own legal departments to do, and private clients are being courted by online legal service providers. Today’s environment is tough, said Eric Seeger, principal at Altman Weil, but the key to success is the same as it was in years past — lawyers have to build relationships with clients and potential clients.
Such is the concern with business development that some firms are hiring coaches to work individually with their lawyers and to help them learn how to attract new clients. Seeger said the coaches, who can charge up to $10,000 per attorney for six months of work, assist attorneys in developing a network of contacts, crafting a message and creating a value proposition.
“It’s still a relationship business and it’s hard to steal clients,” Seeger said. “It’s not like a little training will have attorneys going in places and taking clients.”
Social skills still needed
When he started practicing more than 40 years ago, Lafayette attorney Robert Reiling depended mostly on referrals from other attorneys. He took cases that established lawyers did not want and as a young associate, he handled more and more work from the older partner who was transitioning to retirement.
Reiling, a founding partner of Reiling Teder & Schrier LLC, considers word-of-mouth and social skills to be more important in developing business than advertising or creating a website. Lawyers have to get out in their communities and show people what they offer.
“People want to have lawyers who have leadership skills and problem-solving skills,” he said.
Sixty-five percent of the law firms in the Altman Weil survey believe the demand for legal services has not returned to pre-recession levels. To improve profitability, 71.2 percent invested more in business development and 70.9 percent cut underperforming lawyers.
The primary method for dealing with chronically underperforming lawyers was money. A total of 95.7 percent of the law firms said they reduced compensation.
“I think the market changes brought by commoditization and price pressure coupled with the need for more efficient legal services are here to stay,” Seeger said. “The trends defining today’s marketplace have been in place for several years. We’re still waiting for law firms to commit to being more efficient … .”
Serving as chair of the executive committee at Barrett McNagny LLP in Fort Wayne, Anthony Stites pointed out not every attorney has the personality suited for rainmaking. Lawyers have different strengths and weaknesses, with some being especially good at attracting clients while others produce high-quality work or excel at managing the firm or mentoring associates.
“At our firm, the lawyers don’t have to hit the ball out of the park on every factor,” Stites said.
Still, new business is the way to grow the firm, he noted. When it comes to marketing the firm and developing new business, everybody is expected to help. The firm’s reputation in its region helps lure clients, but the lawyers must join community organizations, attend luncheons and network at social events so business professionals can put faces to names.
Keeping the clients is equally important. Businesses, Stites said, want competitive pricing and quality insight from their lawyers. When clients make an inquiry, the firm wants its attorneys to provide a substantive response within 24 hours.
“Since 2009, clients are more ready to make a move if they feel like they’re not getting prompt, efficient service,” Stites said.
Solo practitioner Fatima Johnson builds her book of business by first looking at what happens inside her Indianapolis office. Every Wednesday, she closes her immigration practice to have professional development training with the staff. These sessions have included cultural sensitivity education along with improving listening and personal interaction skills.
The focus on the internal workings ensures clients feel comfortable and are not scared when they sit down with Johnson or her staff. Treating clients well leads to Reiling’s keys for business development — word-of-mouth and referrals.
Working for a small firm after she graduated from Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law, Johnson attended a workshop on using the professional social networking site LinkedIn to connect with potential clients. She learned how to hone her elevator speech, describing herself and the area of law she practices in a clear and concise manner.
That skill has proven valuable since opening her own office nearly three years ago. To bring in work, Johnson has introduced herself to the community by making presentations at public forums, visiting churches, mosques and temples, attending street fairs and participating in roundtable discussions.
Her recipe for developing new business is easy to remember — “You have to be hungry, you have to be persistent, and you have to be patient.”•
Originally published in the Indian Lawyer