Law Firm Business Development: Ask Don't Tell

When I ask clients what their biggest challenge in business development is, they commonly say, "Asking for business." And yet, when they are trying to land a new client, they forget about the "asking" part and focus on the "pitching" part. Consider the following the next time you meet with a potential client:

1. If you want to be more successful at business development, discovering a potential client's needs should proceed any attempt to convince them to hire you.

Many lawyers assume they know what the clients' needs are, so they don't take the time to uncover those needs with the client. When I asked one of my one-on-one clients, an employment litigator, how she knew a potential client she was meeting with needed her services, she said, "They're a large company. Of course they need employment litigation counsel." But maybe they didn't.

Maybe they already had what they considered to be excellent counsel. Maybe they had insurance coverage that required them to use a panel of insurance company-selected counsel. Maybe the CEO's brother was an employment lawyer. Maybe they have a very enlightened human resources approach that rarely resulted in lawsuits.

2. Clients buy for their reasons, not yours. Let them tell you what their needs are.

To do this effectively, you may need to adopt a different mindset. Taking a mindset that you don't already have all the answers about a client's needs, and that it's OK you don't yet know, will mean your initial meeting with clients will be mostly about listening, not talking.

This, of course, can be a challenge for successful lawyers. Most of us are natural "talkers" (and for those who aren't, this may actually be a business development strength). As advisors and advocates, we are used to being the person with the answer, not the person with the questions.

3. Research shows that the most successful sales people talk about 20-30% of the time, and listen during the remainder.

I don't know of any research about the percentage of time the typical lawyer talks during a sales presentation, but I would guess that if such research existed, it would show a very different ratio of talking to listening.

4. Assuming a questioning attitude instead of a knowing attitude can have several advantages.

Most importantly, you will save yourself the embarrassment and inefficiency of selling something the client isn't buying. You may assume, as one of my clients did, that because it is widely reported in the press that the potential client is on a buying spree for California real estate, they are in need of California real estate counsel. However, as in that case, they may already have what they consider to be excellent counsel and aren't interested in considering you.

Further, by not probing what the client's needs are, you may miss the chance to uncover what might be an opportunity for you.

For example, my client might have discovered that while the potential client didn't need help with real estate matters, they had other issues her firm could assist with. In fact, one of the properties the client purchased had significant environmental contamination and they were looking for some advice about their insurance options. Telling them about her firm's specialized insurance coverage practice and skipping the real estate pitch entirely would have been quite practical.

Exploring a client's needs, instead of pitching your services, demonstrates that you are more interested in them and helping them solve their problems than you are in making a sale for yourself. When you focus less on making a sale, the client will be flattered, and it creates the foundation for a solid relationship.

5. Asking questions is far more likely to build a relationship than simply presenting the answer. Building rapport by focusing on the client is no small step towards getting a new client.

Effective selling of legal services is about discovering the potential client's needs, and explaining how you can meet those needs. It's not about crafting the most persuasive sales pitch. So the next time you are heading off to meet with a prospective client, write at the top of your note pad: "Telling is not selling."

Take a question-based approach at your next presentation and see what new opportunities you can uncover.