Do this & never compete on price again.

Warning: Being a fungible billing unit is bad for growing your law practice!

I’ve written previously on finding your Unique Service Proposition, which distinguishes you from other lawyers (and non-lawyers) serving your ideal clients’ legal needs.  In that article, I noted that if you are one of a pool of fungible practitioners, you’ll be forced to rely on other ways of distinguishing your practice—including, perhaps, competing on price.

In today’s cost-conscious environment, many lawyers feel that they must compete on price. (Note that this issue applies to all lawyers, regardless of the size of firm of sophistication of practice.) No savvy client will pay an undeserved premium, and clients seem to hold the advantage in hiring lawyers these days. But competing on price is not the only option.

Other lawyers struggle to find a reason why a potential client should choose them over someone else. Personal connections make a difference, and many lawyers feel most skilled in landing business after a face-to-face consultation. But getting to that point may seem daunting.

When it comes to marketing, if you feel like you’re just one of a large number of fungible billing units, you’ll have trouble standing out from your competitors in a way that will be appealing to potential clients.

The common thread? The belief, All of the lawyers in my practice area are the same.

At first blush, this may be true. You most likely have the same education and similar experience (though the depth of that experience may differ), and most lawyers would say that they are strategic, good listeners, responsive, and smart. Fair enough.

Your task is to dig deeper and find what sets you apart from others in your practice so that your potential clients and referral sources know what makes you the best lawyer for their specific needs. Without a clear point of differentiation, you are simply one of many fungible lawyers, which makes your business development job more difficult.

When searching for what makes you different, consider these examples:

  • Does (or should) your practice focus on some subset of clients or issues? For example, you might be an employment attorney who focuses on the food service industry.
  • Do you have previous experience or education that is particularly relevant to your practice? For example, if you do white collar defense and you previously prosecuted such cases with the Department of Justice, that insight will distinguish you from other defense attorneys.
  • Do you approach your cases in an unusual way? For example, you might offer a collaborative approach. In some practice areas, flat fee billing or a retainer engagement would be a distinctive form of practice.
  • What skills or resources do you have that benefit your clients? Consider fluency in a foreign language, a wide network of advisors and service providers you can refer to your clients, or a familiarity with a foreign legal system that’s relevant to your practice.

When you determine what sets you apart from others who practice in the area of law that you do, you lay the groundwork for business development activity that is both distinctive and appealing. But remember: the touchstone of these points of distinction must be usefulness to your clients. You should not market based on your skill in rock-climbing, because it will not benefit clients—unless you have a niche practice in representing individuals who suffered injury on rock climbs and now seek to sue an expedition leader.

Questions for you to consider today: What sets you apart in a way that your clients value? How can you capitalize on that attribute or experience in your marketing?

Do you think of sales as a “four letter word”?

One of the primary objections lawyers have to business development is that business development equals sales, and “sales” is a four-letter word. (Sometimes the stereotype of math-challenged lawyers does stick!) The word may conjure the stereotypical used car salesman, ready to unload a lemon just to make a quick buck. And, of course, no one wants to be a part of that kind of sale—to sell or to buy.

A sale, however, only refers to the exchange of money for a good or service. There’s nothing unprofessional or sleazy about that. The distaste we feel for sales comes from how the sale is made, not from the fact of the sale itself.

If ethically questionable business development tactics are repellant to you, you will likely take great care to avoid engaging in them. To be certain, start by reading your jurisdiction’s ethics rules, and make a note to reread them at least annually since rules and commentary may change. In most cases, you will find the rules broad enough to encompass any type of activity you might choose to do. If you have any question, you’ll need to find answers before you proceed, since this is not the place to hope or assume something is acceptable. Most of the time, within a few well-understood rules, you won’t even wonder.

The bigger concern, then, is not about ethics but rather about appearance. Does your business development activity look (or feel) pushy? Desperate? Obnoxious? Would someone view the fact or the substance of your business development activity or materials as an indication that your practice is not doing well? Is there anything unprofessional about business development or marketing? These are the real questions.

Business development done well is never pushy, desperate, obnoxious, unprofessional, or anything remotely similar.

Consider this: when you approach your business development activity from the perspective of service, you will almost certainly come across in a positive way. Service calls on you to explore the potential client’s situation and objectives, to share your skill and experience in the area, perhaps to make some initial suggestions on approach, and to determine whether a good match exists between the potential client’s needs and what you have to offer.

Business development, at its most successful, is an exploratory conversation. Both sides bring information to the table, and both seek information and a sense of comfort from the other. If there’s a match, business results. If not, you have formed a connection that may lead to a referral, or work in the future.

If you approach business development from need (as in, I’ve gotta have this business to make payroll or to make partner), the lines become blurred. An unspoken self-interest may cloud your ability to explore the potential client’s needs or to give a fair evaluation of the matter’s merits or your ability to meet the need. The same self-interest may blind you to warning signs about the client: hints of an inappropriately demanding or unrealistic outlook, signs of inability or unwillingness to pay your fee, or a fundamental philosophical mismatch.

The risk of appearing pushy, obnoxious, or desperate comes into play when self-interest controls the conversation. It’s up to you whether your business development and marketing activity will seem unprofessional.

When you come first from an attitude of service (even when you also really want the fee or the client relationship), you’ll put the relationship before the retention. In doing so, you will avoid the risk of feeling like you are being aggressive (as opposed to assertive), too eager (as opposed to deliberate), or rash.

What’s your primary motivation today: service or self-interest?

Do you have the right rainmaking mix?

Before engaging in any rainmaking activity, you must determine the investment to payoff ratio.  Simply put, what results will your investment of time and energy buy you? Is there another activity that likely has a better yield? Your goal is to determine whether a given activity is likely to move you closer to your rainmaking goals in proportion to its expense in time, energy, and money, recognizing that your estimate is only an estimate.

Although each business development plan is unique, the most successful plans tend to have a distribution of high, medium, and low investment/result ratios. High-yield activities tend to indicate low-hanging fruit, meaning opportunities that will likely result in new business reasonably certainly and reasonably quickly. Medium-yield activities are more uncertain and take longer to show good results, and low-yield activities tend to be experimental or subject to removal from your list.

Some general guidelines are useful here:

  • Activities with clients are the most valuable activities you can do. The more you can do to develop a client relationship, the more likely you are to retain that client’s business and to receive more business and referrals from that client.
  • Activities with “warm contacts” (those with whom you already have some relationship) have a higher yield than activities with strangers. Developing relationships with others and enhancing the “know, like, and trust” factors is almost always more valuable than one-time meetings with complete strangers.
  • Writing and speaking tend to be time-intensive activities with low immediate payoff. If you are looking to generate business quickly, writing and speaking rank as a low-yield activity.  If, however, your goal is to enhance your credentials, writing and speaking can be high-yield activities.
  • One-to-one activity generally has a higher value yield than one-to-many. . .
  • But group participation is more valuable if you hold a leadership position. If you hold a leadership role in an organization, you will become known to more people more quickly than you will if you meet other one-on-one.
  • Sometimes an activity’s value cannot be measured in purely financial terms. For example, a client may request that you speak at a conference, and doing so would be a favor to that client. While you are unlikely to see any financial value directly traced to delivering the favor and the presentation, the client’s gratitude may be equally valuable.

Look at your business development plan and begin making an estimate of the investment/result value of each activity that you have planned to incorporate.  If you’re not certain how to estimate that value, no worries.  The Reluctant Rainmaker includes a chapter that will teach you how to track your activities so you can make an estimate of the dollar-value of each hour you spend.

How can you revive a neglected professional relationship?

Despite the best of intentions, it’s easy to let a relationship slide. You get busy, you lose track of your contact schedule, you run out of ideas for keeping in touch… And next thing you know, your relationship has atrophied.

But, like muscle, an atrophied relationship can be rebuilt. By focusing time and attention on your relationship and maintaining consistent effort, you’ll often be able to revive a good relationship more easily than you built it in the first place.

But you might feel awkward trying to reenergize a stagnant relationship, especially if you aren’t sure that the relationship can be reinvigorated. If you find yourself about to write off a relationship, you need to be sure that the relationship can’t be resurrected. It’s easy to allow discomfort to lead you into turning a neglected but viable relationship into a dead one, and lawyers far too often write off relationships before they’re truly finished. But how do you know? Or, as someone often inquires when I’m presenting a business development workshop, Is it ever too late to rebuild professional relationships that have languished?

The short answer is that it depends on the relationship. The deeper the relationship, the more likely it can be resurrected.  If, however, you meet once and fail to follow up, or if you follow up only once or twice, the relationship will lack the firm footing necessary to allow it to flourish following a period of silence.  That said, it never hurts to try to rebuild a relationship, particularly if your sole reason for reconnecting is to re-establish communication and not to seek a favor.

So, what can you do to rebuild a connection that has faded? The simplest, and often the most effective, approach is to do precisely what you would do with a friend you haven’t seen in a long time: pick up the phone and say, “I realized it’s been a while since we’ve spoken, and you’ve been on my mind.  Is this a good time to talk for a few minutes? How are things with you?  What’s new?”  If several months have passed since you were in touch with this contact, you may even begin the conversation by re-introducing yourself.  (This is where my recommendation to maintain a database of contacts proves especially helpful: you don’t have to try to remember when and where you met.)  You may experience a few awkward moments as your contact gets back into the connection, but most people will pick up relatively quickly.

If, like many lawyers, you’d rather do nine hours of painstaking document review without a coffee break than pick up with phone, you do have other options. For example, you might consider the following:

  • Send an email to reconnect. You might suggest talking by telephone and either arrange a time or let your contact know you’ll be calling.  While you’ll still have to pick up the phone, you’ve created an expectation that you will call, and chances are good that you’ll avoid an awkward beginning.  If you suggest that you’ll call, though, you absolutely must do so – or run the risk of looking like a flake.
  • Send an article or other resource that will interest your contact. The resource may address a legal or non-legal issue, but it must be tied in some way to a conversation you’ve had with the contact.  Attach a note that says, “I remember talking with you about [topic of resource] at [wherever you had the conversation] and thought of you when I saw this [resource].  Hope it’s useful!”  By doing so, you not only reconnect by offering assistance, but you do so in a way that will bring your conversation back to your contact’s mind and refresh the relationship.
  • Issue an invitation. You might invite your contact to an open house or to attend a CLE or other seminar of interest with you.  If you deliver an invitation by mail or email, be sure to attach a note saying that you look forward to reconnecting. This personal touch will indicate to your contact that your interest is genuine.
  • Seek out news about your contact. This may be a more challenging approach if you’re seeking to reconnect than to maintain a relationship, but it’s worth a quick search to see whether your contact has been in the news recently.  You may find news of a professional event (an honor awarded, a trial won, a leadership position attained) or a personal event (a new marriage, a new baby, a recreational or community activity).  Such news offers an ideal reason to get in touch again.

Take a few minutes this week to review your list of contacts. With whom should you reconnect?  Choose three to five people and reach out to them.  Building and maintaining your network is always a valuable activity, and keeping relationships alive will often pay off (often in unexpected ways) over time.