317 posts categorized "Tips for Lawyers"

October 01, 2014

Tip of the month: Prioritize strategic goals, focusing first on your best clients

In today’s challenging marketplace, it is more important than ever for law firms to prioritize relentlessly and do the most valuable things first. Client satisfaction must always come first. As Tom Clay of Altman Weil has noted, “If a law firm cannot attract and retain good clients, nothing else matters.”

The first Wednesday of every month is devoted to a short and simple tip to help lawyers increase efficiency, provide greater value to their clients and/or develop new business. This month’s tip is explained in detail in Chapter 7 of my new book Client Value and Law Firm Profitability.

September 03, 2014

Tip of the month: Increase the pace of change

According to the chairs, managing partners and leaders of AmLaw 200 firms interviewed for my new book Client Value and Law Firm Profitability,the faster firms act, the more likely they are to survive and prosper in today’s increasingly demanding marketplace.  In Altman Weil’s most recent Chief Legal Officers Survey, the top three things that clients want are improved budget forecasting, greater cost reduction, and more efficient legal project management (LPM). Since LPM will help meet the first two requests, you could say the top three things clients want are LPM, LPM, and more LPM. To date, the response at too many firms has been delay, delay, and more delay.


The first Wednesday of every month is devoted to a short and simple tip to help lawyers increase efficiency, provide greater value to their clients and/or develop new business. This month’s tip is explained in detail in Chapter 7 of my new book.


August 06, 2014

Tip of the month: Keep a written record of business development hours and progress, every week

What gets measured gets done.  Keeping a weekly list of how many hours you put into business development, and how many advances you achieved will help keep your business development effors moving forward.  Tracking behavior works for people who are increasing exercise or changing their diet, and it will work for you when you develop new business.


The first Wednesday of every month is devoted to a short and simple tip to help lawyers increase efficiency, provide greater value to their clients and/or develop new business. For more information on improving results, see page 54 of my Legal Business Development Quick Reference Guide, which is now available in both paperback and Kindle editions.

July 02, 2014

Tip of the month: Set up a monthly meeting to discuss business development with a few colleagues

Plan to meet for breakfast or lunch the first Wednesday of every month, or at some other regularly scheduled time.  Invite four to six colleagues whom you enjoy working with.  Commit to specific marketing action items the first month, and every later month report to your colleagues what you did and did not accomplish, and your new plan.  Try to get someone from the firm’s marketing department to act as the meeting organizer who will send out regular reminders and summaries of accomplishments, and assure that meetings are held even when some people cannot make it. 


The first Wednesday of every month is devoted to a short and simple tip to help lawyers increase efficiency, provide greater value to their clients and/or develop new business. For more information on improving results, see page 54 of my Legal Business Development Quick Reference Guide, which is now available in both paperback and Kindle editions.


June 25, 2014

Business development best practices: Listen

This is one of a series of occasional posts summarizing the most important best practices from my book the Legal Business Development Quick Reference Guide which is now also available in a Kindle edition.

In The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey wrote, “If I were to summarize the single most important principle in the field of interpersonal relationships, listening is the key.”

In the book Primal Leadership, Daniel Goleman argues that listening skills are vital for leaders. An effective leader must be able to sense how employees feel, and then channel that energy into the most productive directions.

The skill of listening can even help people get a job. When business leaders were asked to rate the most important characteristics they look for in hiring people, 73% rated listening as an “extremely important” skill. But when the same group was asked how many high school graduates actually have good listening skills, the answer was 19%.

When Suzanne Lowe and Larry Bodine published a survey of 377 marketing professionals on Increasing Marketing Effectiveness at Professional Firms,” one of the best metrics for tracking success was whether rainmakers consistently listened to their clients.

In the book Advanced Selling Strategies, sales guru Brian Tracy explains four reasons why “Active sincere listening leads to easier sales:”

  1. Listening builds trust. In a survey of professional purchasers, the single biggest complaint was that salespeople talk too much. If you show that you are interested in understanding what people really need, they are more likely to believe that you will provide it.
  2. Listening lowers resistance. It helps to make customers feel relaxed and comfortable instead of tense and defensive.
  3. Listening builds self-esteem. Everyone wants his or her views to be heard. So when you listen to a client, it shows that you respect their opinions.
  4. Listening builds character and self-discipline. Hopefully, this fourth point won’t come up very often. But from time to time, you may sell to a client who is, shall we say, not overly dynamic. As they keep talking, it’s easy to start daydreaming about which type of salad you should order for lunch. But the more boring your client is, the more character you will build by listening. And the better you understand what the client wants, the more likely you are to get a new engagement.

Why is listening so hard for many lawyers? Well, first of all, you have to talk less.

Experts say that when you are building business relationships, you should spend 50% to 80% of your time listening. But when lawyers meet potential clients, many think that they need to talk quickly so they can list all the wonderful things their firm can do. This is a mistake.

The client is a lot more interested in her own problems than in your capabilities. If she did not think you were good, you wouldn’t be meeting. So you need to devote most of your time to focusing on what she wants, needs, and feels. As the old saying goes, that’s why you have two ears, and one mouth.

Great listeners also don’t argue. That’s another reason many lawyers find it difficult. To listen effectively, you must give up the need to be right.

If you want to become a better listener, there are dozens of books to read, and even a professional academic organization you can join (the International Listening Association, www.listen.org). Meanwhile, these five steps can get you started:

  1. Establish genuine interest by asking questions that you care about
  2. Take notes. Writing down what people say shows that what they say is important, and that you are paying attention. Just put the pen down if the talk turns confidential.
  3. Respond to the speaker’s nonverbal cues, and monitor your own, including eye contact, smiling, and frowning
  4. Keep people talking. Paraphrase, summarize, and restate what you hear. When you agree with people, they will think that you are smart. Especially if you don’t interrupt them or argue.
  5. Come prepared with good questions

Lawyers must start by “mastering the art of the easily answered question,” as explained in Kevin Daley’s Socratic Selling. The book describes several types of non-directive probes that will help a client think through a situation without trying to push her to a particular conclusion, and without distracting her.

For example, “draw probes” keep drawing out information until the client and the lawyer are satisfied that all the important points have been covered, such as:

  • Tell me more about ____
  • Give me an example of ____
  • What else should I know about ____?

“Access” probes allow you to obtain access to other topics without forcefully changing the subject. These non-threatening questions introduce a new topic, but still leave the client free to take the conversation wherever she wants. For example:

  • How does ____ fit the picture?
  • Talk to me about your experience with _____
  • How do you handle _____?

It sounds simple, but asking this type of question does not come naturally to me, nor to many lawyers I know, because we like to be in control. Well, clients do too. Professional salespeople have an old saying that “Whoever talks the most, will enjoy the meeting the most.” If you want to build a relationship, you want the client to be the one who enjoys the meeting.

June 18, 2014

Business development best practices: Start with current clients

This is one of a series of occasional posts summarizing the most important best practices from my book the Legal Business Development Quick Reference Guide.

When lawyers first think about selling, many immediately start planning how to find new clients.  But selling begins at home, and they will have much greater success if they focus first on the clients they already have.

According to research conducted by Harry Mills:

  • The chances of selling to an existing client are better than one in two
  • The chances of selling to a lost client are one in three
  • The chances of successfully selling to a fresh prospect are one in eight

The exact numbers will be different for your firm, but experts agree that in every business, it’s much easier to sell to people who know you than to sell to strangers.

You might think that as large law firms hire larger business development staffs and increase budgets, they would quickly get to the point where their current clients were taken care of, and not a good source for additional revenue. Perhaps this will happen someday, but it certainly hasn’t happened yet.

One way to get started with your current clients is to offer a free meeting to learn more about their business needs. At a minimum, this will help build your relationship and protect you from competitors. With a little luck, it will also lead to new engagements.

For example, when one of my first legal clients prioritized marketing action items, he decided to call a current client and offer a free meeting to discuss a new program. The client loved the idea that the meeting was free, and provided the name of a new contact he wanted to include. When my client called to schedule the free meeting, the new person mentioned a litigation that was about to be assigned to a competitor. The lawyer immediately arranged a separate meeting about that work, and got that significant engagement. The new business came in before he even conducted the free meeting.

In today’s competitive environment, other law firms would like to take your best clients, so you will need to put in more and more effort to protect what you have.

For specific suggestions, see the section on “Defensive marketing and client satisfaction” in my Legal Business Development Quick Reference Guide.  After you’ve done all those things, that’s when you should start spending time on new clients. 

To achieve long-term success, every firm needs a steady stream of new clients. Even among professionals who devote their lives to selling, failure rates in finding new clients are high. In Gallup’s data on 250,000 professionals, the bottom 25% in every sales force sells very little, and actually reduces the team’s productivity by distracting valuable management time.  That’s one reason why turnover is so high in sales positions.

When lawyers try to find new clients, some will succeed and some will fail. Can anyone predict which are which? I have seen claims that some tests can, but I’ve never seen convincing data. The lawyers who are most successful sometimes surprise me, and even surprise themselves. They are the ones who find the fit between their personal strengths and the firm’s business development needs.

So when a lawyer first works on increasing sales, much of the initial effort should be aimed at existing clients. What should you do when you have one hundred percent of a client’s legal business? Work even harder to ensure that they are raving fans who cannot be tempted to switch to a competitor.  


June 04, 2014

Tip of the month: Keep a prioritized list of business development action items

Every business development plan should include lists of action items that are SMART:  Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Timed.  Given their very limited marketing time, lawyers must focus first on the items that are most likely to pay off, and limit themselves to those that can realistically be achieved in the time they have for marketing.


The first Wednesday of every month is devoted to a short and simple tip to help lawyers increase efficiency, provide greater value to their clients and/or develop new business. For more information on improving results, see page 54 of my Legal Business Development Quick Reference Guide, which is now available in both paperback and Kindle editions.


May 28, 2014

Business development best practices: Prioritize relentlessly

Since business development is more important than ever for lawyers, over the next few months I will be posting occasional summaries of best practices from my book the Legal Business Development Quick Reference Guide.  This is the first and most important.

When lawyers ask us for the single most important piece of advice in legal business development, the answer is simple: Ignore good ideas. You must prioritize relentlessly.

Before we started working with lawyers, my company coached professional salespeople. Those clients spent 60 to 80 hours per week living, breathing, and acting on sales. The lawyers we work with these days often struggle to find two or three hours per week that they can devote to business development on a consistent and predictable basis.

Lawyers are much too busy to spend time on ideas that are only good. To maximize the chances of success, each individual must focus on the very best ideas for their practice, their personality, and their schedule. This requires relentless prioritization, and constantly returning to the question, “What should I do today to increase new business?”

For example, it’s good marketing advice to volunteer for a bar association committee. It’s an easy and enjoyable way to develop new relationships that could lead to business in the future. But it is usually better advice to skip the bar association and volunteer instead in an industry organization whose members are potential clients. That way, the relationships you develop will lead to more new business, more quickly.

Even that is probably not the best advice. For most lawyers, the best place to start is with current clients. If you would have averaged an hour per week on that committee, spend it instead on your top clients. Take them to lunch. Listen. Find out what they want. Give them more. Do things for free.

But don’t make those client lunch reservations just yet, because there are no generic answers to the question of what’s best. Maybe in your unique situation the bar association would be best. Or maybe none of these three are right for you and you need to go in a different direction.

You must prioritize relentlessly and keep returning to the question, “What should I do today to increase new business?” Place the highest priority on tasks that are most likely to yield the type of clients you want to work with, and the types of matters you prefer to focus on.

For example, I often talk to lawyers who are writing articles or books in their marketing time. As a man who spends a lot of time writing, I obviously think that writing can be a good way to increase visibility. But there are several important caveats. First of all, writing is way too much fun for some of us, and it’s easy to write things that do not serve the central marketing purpose. Second, by itself publication is unlikely to bring in new business. To be an effective marketing tactic, writing must be used to build relationships, one person at a time. (One example: send copies of your article to key contacts, each with a short written note.)  Third and most important: you must consider what else you could be doing with that time. If an article takes 10 hours to write, what else could you do with those 10 marketing hours? Would you get more results with current clients, or by strengthening relationships with people you already know?

Another example: Before a lawyer decides whether to attend a networking meeting, she should realistically assess how many hours it will require, including preparing, following up, and even driving to and from the meeting. Suppose a particular networking meeting requires an investment of five hours. She must then ask whether the meeting is the best possible way to spend that time. Would five hours be likely to produce greater results if she instead offered a free meeting to a current client to understand what they value most about current services, and what could be improved? What about sending personalized emails to 20 people she already knows, just to stay top of mind? Or re-establishing contact with a few friends from law school who now work for large corporations?

Still another example: many lawyers put considerable effort into responding to RFPs, without any realistic idea of the likelihood of success, or even what they should do to win. According to consultant Ann Lee Gibson, typical RFP win rates across the legal industry are “very small, probably no larger than 5%.”  In other words, unless you know how to win the RFP game, 19 times out of 20 you will lose. Does that sound like the best use of your time?

The same type of prioritization should be applied to a firm’s marketing tactics. Consider your firm’s last marketing event. What was its impact on new business? Could the firm have achieved greater results if all that time and money had been used differently? Suppose that you outlined a step-by-step sales program to build relationships with a short list of decision makers and/or industry gurus. Or suppose you had redirected those resources to support individual meetings with people the lawyers already knew, focused on broadening contacts in a particular industry segment. Would the results have been greater?

Of course, business developers in every profession ask questions like these every day. What’s different about working with lawyers is that we must ask them more frequently and more rigorously, because lawyers have so little time.

You must start with enough planning to make sure you are don’t waste your time taking people to lunch who are unlikely to ever hire your firm or introduce you to others who will.

But once a basic plan is in place it is time to come up with a list of activities and get started trying them out. Review things that have worked in the past for you, for your partners, and for other firms. Do this quickly. Because every minute you spend planning is a minute you are not following up with clients.

Many lawyers would rather read about marketing than pick up the phone and call a client. If you are one of them, you must fight that tendency, and spend as little time as you can on studying.

Just jump right in and try something. And when you do, keep a written record of what you tried, and what worked. If you track short-term activity and results, you will be more likely to follow up consistently.

Developing new business is like going on a diet: There is no sense starting unless you plan to stay with it.


May 07, 2014

Tip of the month: Commit to a definite number of marketing hours every week

The best business development plan in the world will lead to nothing unless you put in the time to follow up, week after week after week.  We recommend an absolute minimum of one hour per week to increase the satisfaction of current clients, plus another two to five hours if you are looking for new clients.


The first Wednesday of every month is devoted to a short and simple tip to help lawyers increase efficiency, provide greater value to their clients and/or develop new business. For 

April 23, 2014

The most critical issues in legal project management (Part 1 of 3)

This three-part series previews results from my book Client Value and Law Firm Profitability, which will be published this summer.  All quotes are from managing partners, chairs, and other senior decision makers at AmLaw 200 firms.  Each participated in 30-minute in-depth interviews and spoke freely based on the understanding that they could review their quotes before publication, and they would not be quoted by name.

In 2009, when many firms first started talking about how to apply traditional project management techniques to legal matters, we proposed that lawyers think about the field in terms of these eight key issues:

  1. Set objectives and define scope
  2. Identify and schedule activities
  3. Assign tasks and manage the team
  4. Plan and manage the budget
  5. Assess risks
  6. Manage quality
  7. Manage client communication
  8. Negotiate changes of scope

When we coach lawyers on LPM, we always start by asking which issue is most important to a particular client or matter, so that we can focus on the low hanging fruit. Not surprisingly, the answer depends on the situation, and each of the eight has sometimes been rated as most important. However, in this research we wanted to get a sense of which issues seemed most important to the profession as a whole, and so one of the questions we asked was, “Which of these eight LPM issues do you consider most critical for client value and/or profitability in the short-term and why?” Of the 37 people who answered that question, 8% said that they were all basically equal:

It’s very difficult to rank order them. They are all important. There may be subtle variations, but these all work together, and I really can’t differentiate in terms of which is most important and which is least important and what’s in the middle. They all have to come together.

However, 92% were willing to single out one or more issues as particularly critical, as in the following quotes, the first from a managing partner, the second from a C-Level executive:

There are two that I would rank the most critical: the setting of objectives and scope, and managing client communication and expectations. Those, to me, are linked at the hip. You really have to understand what the client’s expectation is, and you also have to have a good relationship to be able to tell them whether or not their expectation is real and achievable. A lot of things can happen in litigation that can change the scope of an engagement. You can run into difficult parties and unforeseen problems, and that’s where an understanding between you and the client has to be solid enough that you can have those kinds of conversations and work your way through it.

There are three things I don’t think we do very well. The first thing is negotiating changes of scope up front. The second is clearly setting and understanding the objectives and the scope from the beginning. Lawyers think they do it, but I don’t think they get the right level of detail. The third is assessing risks to budget and schedule. They don’t wear the project management hat and think through what might go wrong.

When we analyzed the answers from people who saw some issues as more critical than others, they were ranked in the following order:

Most critical short-term issues in LPM
Set objectives and define scope 50%
Manage client communications and expectations 38%
Plan and manage the budget 28%
Assign tasks and manage the team 22%
Negotiate changes of scope 20%
Identify and schedule activities 12%
Assess risks to the budget and schedule 10%
Manage quality 10%

The top two – defining scope and communicating with the client – are especially interesting because they have nothing to do with software or Gantt charts or anything a relationship partner should delegate to an outside project manager. Instead, they come down to understanding what clients want, and giving it to them.

In this three part series of posts, we will briefly discuss each issue, arranged in this order of importance.

Set objectives and define scope

The short-term issue that was mentioned most often as critical starts on the very first day of each new matter, or before:

Setting objectives and defining the scope are crucial. You can budget. You can do anything you want. But if you don’t know what those objectives are, and what the client is willing to do or wants to do, you’re just putting stuff on paper. – Senior partner

Defining scope is the most critical in my mind. That’s where we struggle the most on the front end. – COO

The critical issue is sitting down with the client at the beginning and deciding what their goals are with the matter. Is it getting it done quickly? Is it getting it done so that nobody ever brings a matter like this again? Is it getting it done in advance of the big merger on the books a year from now? There are all different considerations as to what will lead a client to think this was a successful representation. And I find that the more you push your client to think through what they care most about, the better off both of you are. – Managing partner

Obviously clients have got to know what they’re paying for. How many times in a litigation matter do the clients say, let’s beat the guy, and then after you spent the money, they have buyers’ remorse? – CFO

I think the lawyer really has to understand what the client’s objective is, and manage to that objective, which is a hard thing for a lot of litigators to learn, in particular those who are from the win-at-all-costs school. – Chair

However, defining scope properly can be quite difficult. As I noted in our Legal Project Management Quick Reference Guide (3rd ed., p. 20), lawyers who are trained to prepare for every possibility can get in trouble if they try to be too specific:

If a list of carve-outs gets too long or too specific, it can annoy the client and lead to lost business. Unfortunately, there is no simple general way to create assumptions that balance client needs and firm needs. The details must be worked out case by case. This can be especially difficult in a highly competitive environment.

One way to deal with this challenge can be seen in the following comments from a C-level executive:

I counsel people against a three-page list of assumptions, because it just drives clients crazy. I tell them to pick the big ones, and I say, “If you’re assuming very limited document review under 300,000 documents, and then it comes in that you’re going to have to review two million, you’ve got to be able to identify that that’s a huge variable and cost driver, and you’d better make sure that you’ve been very clear in your assumptions, so that if that happens, you can quickly pick up the phone and say, ‘We’ve got a major change in scope. Let’s talk about how to deal with it.’”

Another major complicating factor in defining scope is that with large clients, different stakeholders may have different objectives:

There is sometimes less than optimal communication within some of our client organizations, between the legal department and the corporate higher ups, as to objectives, priorities, timing, and budgets. We often receive our work directly from the legal department. The legal department at times may not quite understand what top management wants done, at what cost and in what timeframe, and that leads to inefficiency.

There’s no question that this is an art that needs to be developed further. We find sometimes with clients that the people we work out the sale with aren’t the same people that we work out the delivery with, so whether the scope has been properly defined or not becomes a really big deal, and changes in scope needing to be negotiated depends upon how well you defined the scope in the first place. This is something law firms have not historically done well, compared to, say, contractors and others who are used to a fixed fee type environment. So there’s a lot of room for improvement on that.

Finally, it is worth noting that the emphasis on scope does not apply to all clients and all law firms. In the statement below, one AmLaw 200 chairperson argues that it applies to only a small percentage of his firm’s clients:

In a world where your client is cooperative and just as accountable as you are, then I would say that setting objectives and defining scope would be the most important. We just haven’t found clients to buy into that, for the most part. For our firm, about two-thirds of clients use the word value just as a polite way of asking for a discount. Right off the bat, those two-thirds are not interested in setting objectives and defining scope. They’re just interested in price. Another sixth of my practice has no need for this at all, because they’re completely price insensitive. They just want really good work. They trust us. So it’s only that last sixth that actually cares about scope.

In Parts 2 and 3 of this series, we will discuss the remaining seven issues.