The Perks of Having Clients

It’s nice to have clients.

I’m lucky that I’m in a position to:

  • turn down potential work
  • not have to worry about having enough billable hours
  • choose the type of work I do and the type of work I don’t do

I have way more control. I’m a lot more fulfilled. And I get to run files my way.

But it wasn’t always that way.

Or to be more precise - until relatively recently, it most definitely wasn’t that way.

I come by pretty much 0 business development skills naturally - as anyone who knew me when I was younger can attest.

The fact that I’ve built up a sizeable book of business is pretty much a surprise to everyone, myself especially included.

I always planned on going in-house after my first few years of practice, so business development wasn’t even remotely on my radar.

I’m also incredibly good at forgetting people exist when I don’t see them, which is apparently not a best practice for sustaining relationships.

And I was also foolishly under the impression that people went to conferences to learn (though if you read my mental health article, then perhaps I wasn’t completely out to lunch - I needed to learn since being a lawyer required the substantive knowledge that I was sorely lacking).

And speaking of being out to lunch, I sort of assumed that if I went out to lunch with someone, then work would magically come - even if I never asked for the work or didn’t clearly articulate what on earth I even did for work.

Basically, I was very bad at sales.

Though ironically, I don’t think that adversely affected me, because if I’ve learned anything in the past few years, it’s that most lawyers are terrible at sales. At least it was a relatively level playing field, even if I was starting a little behind everyone else.

Things took a turn for me in 2019. I was doing a lot of work with a colleague at the time who had a growing practice, and I became a key part of growing one part of that practice.

And by key part, I mean I taught myself the substantive legal skills, ran the initial meetings with potential clients, and did all the actual legal work once we retained them. All for 0 credit, which was a pretty sweet deal for her.

On the bright side, I learned a lot of valuable skills that eventually paid off (I had to leave that firm for them to pay off monetarily, but that’s a conversation about law firm origination credit for another day).

What I learned quickly is that most lawyers - including partners with decent books of business - are also terrible at sales. In many cases, they have succeeded in spite of their lack of skill, not because of.

Others of course just had fortunate family connections or were in the right place at the right time. And some were just naturals when it came to business development.

But I had a few key realizations:

  1. I wasn’t that far behind from a skillset standpoint, because pretty much everyone was terrible at this
  2. Getting the chance to try out some different things on ‘real’ potential clients was going to be very valuable
  3. There were a lot of potential clients out there, and most of them weren’t particularly thrilled with the legal services they were receiving
  4. It was pretty obvious that there were better ways to do BD, even if I had no idea at the time what they were

I watched some colleagues do terrible jobs trying to pitch clients; the lawyers were so focused on talking about how great our firm was that they forgot that the whole point was to talk less and listen more. By the end of the pitch, the clients knew an awful lot about our firm and we knew basically nothing about them. And it was obvious from their body language that they weren’t too thrilled with that.

I did 100+ pitches for my colleague over a 2 year period, and by the end I had a gameplan figured out for each call. I had figured out what didn’t work and I had figured out some things that clearly worked well.

I had confirmed that the typical lawyer approach of overwhelming a client with information, confusing the heck out of them, and then explaining why we were the best was a good way to guarantee that you weren’t going to get the client.

But while that was all great for my colleague, that wasn’t so great for my book of business (at least not the one that the firm formally recognized).

Over the pandemic, I rebuilt my network from scratch (all while billing a very healthy number of hours). If I was going to be locked down, at least I wasn’t going to be bored. And it was definitely a luxury not to be bored in 2020.

I’d be surprised if there are more than 10 lawyers in traditional law firm jobs who did more 1-on-1 Zoom networking calls than I did over the past two and a bit years, other than perhaps some people whose main job was to bring in clients (ie existing rainmakers).

I was planting seeds with 0 expectations of anything paying off, though I realized that with enough time, some of those seeds would turn into something. I got to meet a lot of people, and that in and of itself was a good enough reward for me. I also reconnected with a lot of people that I had lost touch with, and that wasn’t so bad either.

I also tried a bunch of things early in the pandemic - I figured there was nothing to lose, especially since the opportunity cost was basically 0. My time was low value, and there were basically no monetary costs since I just needed a Zoom account.

Pretty much everything was out of my comfort zone, but with no downside, I gave it a shot.

The idea of posting on LinkedIn was terrifying. But again - there weren’t too many alternatives.

And obviously that paid off.

LinkedIn has given me a platform for efficient business development (1 to many), which is key for any time-strapped lawyer.

But it wasn’t just the posting. And it wasn’t all the networking calls.

It was building and learning systems:

  • For remembering who I had spoken to and what we had talked about (i.e. understanding CRMs)
  • For learning how to increase the odds that I could turn a potential client into an actual client (i.e. mastering that initial call)
  • For managing conversations about fees (i.e. no longer avoiding the difficult conversations)

I also had to get a lot better at getting comfortable with being rejected and reframing rejection away from something that I perceived as failure.

And for a lot of that, I turned to people who knew a lot better than me: sales professionals.

I listened to podcasts, read books, and picked Dhawal’s brain.

I’m lucky to be running this conference with Dhawal, working with him daily at our law firm (where he leads our sales and customer success teams), and also running Build Your Book with him.

If you read my mental health article about how I became a competent lawyer, then you can probably see a lot of similarities here. A lot of hard work. A lot of time. And a lot of effort.

It all paid off, but I highly don’t recommend the path I took.

That’s why Dhawal and I built Build Your Book, so that we could teach lawyers best practices for sales that are tailored to the unique quirks of this profession.

Without having to figure it all out on your own and spend hundreds and hundreds of hours that you don’t have. And without having to do anything that isn’t authentic.

The nice part is, we’ve had life-changing impacts for some of our participants - while also having a lot of fun along the way. And we’ve gotten to meet people from nearly a dozen countries who have taken our courses.

I’m so glad to have several of our alumni speaking at Summit. Each of them has put themselves out there by doing things that were incredibly uncomfortable for them - just like they were at first for me.

We did the easy work to coach and encourage them and teach them some best practices. They did the hard work by trying something new and uncomfortable.

I’m so glad that they’ve found their voices as authentic lawyers and have seen all sorts of business development benefits as a result.

On November 9, we’re talking all about business development.

You’ll hear from in-house counsel about what they wish private practice lawyers would do (and what you should probably be doing if you want more clients).

You’ll hear from people you likely know well from LinkedIn, Twitter, and TikTok - all of whom have embraced authenticity.

And you’ll hear from a number of incredibly impressive lawyers who are doing things differently, being entrepreneurial, and having a great time in the process.

We know most lawyers are struggling with how to approach business development.

Any reason we won’t see you there?

Learn more and sign up here.