Lawyers – stop doing these 5 things when courting clients

Most lawyers are mystified about how to get new clients and keep the ones they have.

Law firms devote teams of people and hundreds of lawyer hours to business development each year. Yet most lawyers are mystified about how to get new clients and keep the ones they have.

This is because there are a number of things lawyers and law firms regularly get wrong. In this article we call on the dating advice of the 1950s to help firms think differently about meaningful business development*.

When it comes to courting clients, here are 5 things most lawyers need to stop doing.

1. Don’t underestimate how many clients need more help.

It might surprise everyone, but firms routinely underestimate how much help potential and existing clients need.

When I was a high profile in-house counsel at a project of national significance owned by one of the biggest companies in the world, I was astounded by how rarely I was approached by law firms. I never received any real formal or informal approaches from any genuine contenders, and I only ever had a few sloppy and unprepared pitches slung at me at industry events from partners who knew the project but knew nothing about me or my current needs. As it happened I had far more budget than my current law firm was capable of spending and I really needed a second firm. Every month I spent less than my budget. I did my best to find a second chair but in a fairly small market when I was incredibly busy, I only managed to move a small amount of my work to another firm in order to free up my primary firm and get a second pair of eyes on some issues.

  • Law firms see what appears to be a bolted-on relationship with another firm and they assume that the client is happy. Whether out of social niceties or social anxiety, most firms take no action. Business is not a marriage and while we shouldn’t make a pass at someone wearing a wedding ring, that rule doesn’t apply to the boardroom. In business long term relationships also get stale but in this case at least, the client is free to look around.
  • Even when a client is happy with their firm, they worry about losing key people. Most clients would like to develop a second bench for security (in other words, polygamy is legal in business).
  • Sometimes a client has a specific need that their partner can’t meet, and they have to go somewhere else to have that need catered to. There can be good opportunities for specialists.


Always ask the girl you like to dance. She can only say no.

2. Don’t overestimate how much BD other partners are doing.

Partners often assume that ‘someone else’ must be ‘already’ courting an obvious potential client or have offered help for a particular need. Much like the beautiful woman no one asks to dance, everyone assumes there is already someone better looking in line ahead of them.

A friend of mine was the GC of a moderately-sized company that suddenly found itself embroiled in an international scandal on the front pages of every paper. She was an alumna of 3 of the top 6 firms. How many of her former firms do you think called her? Would you believe it – none. How many of the other firms called her? Guess again. None.

Every firm assumed she already had a law firm working for her, but she didn’t. In fact (and you would never believe me if I told you which organisation this was) she never hired a law firm and she ran an insane gauntlet of outraged clients and regulators all by herself for months. Because she’s a trooper like that, she didn’t even stop to think that she should be asking for a legal resource. It seems likely to me if someone had called her and asked her if there was anything they could do to help, she might have had a reason to say yes.

This is an extreme example but I suspect it happens more than we think.


Always ask the girl you like to dance. Yep, it needs to be said twice.

3. Don’t overvalue individual relationships in organisations.

Just like undervaluing organisations as a whole, overvaluing individual relationships in large organisations is dangerous. Even when someone really likes you and wants to use you, in most large organisations procurement decisions are being centralised and are frequently politicised. Even some of the most senior people in your client organisations probably do not have control over briefing decisions. Think of it like the overbearing parents who veto who their children can date.

For example, in-house lawyers can be forced to tender for stages or phases of a large matter and to use an independent procurement guideline which makes it near impossible for the original firm to retain the work (such as where price is weighted twice that of experience). Other decisions on work allocation can be made based on global agreements with law firms which require a minimum spend in order to receive a certain discount (or the organisation will have to repay an already-banked reduced fee). This can cause an in-house lawyer to be forced to give her work to a different firm than the one she wants to brief.

Ian Whitworth talks about this in his article on procurement, and it’s a topic worthy of significant time and understanding, to which I can’t do justice here.

Do invest in the individuals you know and work with. Don’t take it personally if that investment does not ‘pay off’ in the short term. Take a long term view of the relationship instead.


Don’t spend all your time chasing the UpTown Girl if you’re a Backstreet Boy (no, not the 90s boy band kind, the Billy Joel kind).

4. Don’t ignore the need for a long-term pipeline.

Law firms are chronically bad at looking more than 12 months ahead (at best). This is understandable however business development means developing new business, not managing the business you already have. A decent portion of a partner’s business development plan must be focused on the long term and not just on how to get more work from existing clients. Yes, existing clients are a great source of new work and referrals. However they are a finite pool. Big firms spend almost no time at all on the companies and people who are going to be the future leaders in their field.

You have a choice to wait until the next Uber, AirBnB or WeWork hits the top 100 ASX and then throw your time and money at them along with 20 other firms, or you can allocate a portion of your time and energy today to finding and building relationships with the people and companies who have decent prospects in the middle and long term. While some of the big firms are starting to scratch this space with start ups, one gets the clear impression that this is more about branding and street cred than the building of genuine and targeted relationships with company founders which can then be nurtured.

This kind of approach requires a rethink of traditional BD as it likely requires a change in pricing strategy and offering and it also requires that partners stop thinking with their back pocket and next year’s partner draw. Instead partners need to start thinking with their heart. If partners can find an industry they love and invest in it with passion, it is likely that this will pay off in the long term.


Don’t chase the girl everyone else is chasing. Chase the one that makes your heart beat faster and who will be worth the wait.

5. Don’t focus on the same 1% of the market as your competitors.

When I worked at a top 10 ASX company, everyone came knocking. It was great for my personal profile, and it was valuable for the lawyers who cultivated their relationships with me because down the track that investment has frequently paid off for them.

However in that organisation I was a small cog in a big machine with very little power. While the attention was flattering I only had small amounts of influence to bring a new law firm on board. No one wanted to upset the apple cart and no one wanted to have difficult conversations with the existing firm, so it was only after a relentless campaign from me and fairly incontrovertible incompetence from the existing partner that I was able to change firms.

Absolutely spend time focussing on the top 1% and do nurture the individuals as well as the organisation. However also focus at least some percentage of your time on some other part of the market. The clients in big organisations frequently do not have hiring and firing power – but the clients in medium sized enterprises often do. They may not be as impressive a name when you provide your client list, but I think you will find they pay the bills and they are likely to be more loyal. No one else will be looking after them the way you do, and as they grow, they will consider you family.


Girls with glasses are better cooks.

What does all this mean practically? How do you court big clients plus little clients plus ignore individuals plus build trust? Surely none of these recommendations are achievable on top of everything else lawyers have to do. Not to mention you will need to get a new little black book to put all these names into.

But it’s not as hard as it sounds. Because what most of this is about is relationships and putting people first.

What lawyers need to do:

  • Keep in regular contact with everyone in your network and not just those who are working at a target client or at a sexy corporation. This does not have to be coffee. Give them a call, mention them on LinkedIn, comment on their posts, email them a relevant link, maybe mail them something. Also think about going to events where you can spend time with people you already know as well as meet new ones. You can efficiently invest a couple of hours in keeping up with all your existing contacts in one place. Arrive early and read the name tags or attendance list. And don’t always resort to ‘let’s have coffee’, instead catch up meaningfully then and there. Then call them or email them next time you think of them and keep the contact going for the long term.
  • When you have an opportunity to have a more direct conversation, such as at a coffee or lunch, ask your contacts specifically if they are getting everything they need from their current firm (including yours) and whether there is anything you can do to help them. Don’t beat around the bush, be clear and open. Focus on how you can meet their actual needs, not just those needs that align with yours! Much of the time you can help them by giving them an introduction to someone else or even some general business advice. If you give generously now they will feel more connected with and loyal to you.
  • When someone in your network gets into hot water, is on a public transaction, or takes on a new role – give them a call. Offer them commiserations, congratulations or a chat – but also ask them if there is anything you can do to help. Have some ideas ready about how (and not only in billable ways). Offer resources, ideas, introductions, and put your listening ears on.
  • Listen to the hints your network gives you about the procurement processes in their organisations, and ask them directly if they would feel comfortable explaining it to you. It’s remarkable how often we avoid saying something because we’re unsure if we ‘should’, but often there is no reason to keep it off-limits (even though it may need to be kept confidential). Learn about how decisions are made in an organisation and invest your time accordingly.
  • Think about the kinds of people and clients you actually like the most and think about how you can consciously hang out where they hang out, physically or online and preferably both (without being too needy). Learn to be a voice in their networks and look for ways you can support those rising up in the ranks. Find ways to enjoy your business development by developing the kinds of clients you want in 2 or 5 or 10 years.

It’s simple really. Ask people if they need help. Give help where you can. Listen to what they care about and think about what they say. Spend more time with people you like and less with those you don’t.

It seems very old fashioned business advice to simply be of service.

* Please don’t be offended, we obviously don’t really ascribe to 1950s dating philosophies.

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