The Romance (or Not) of Practicing Law and Getting Business

I’m on vacation this week, so I’m sharing a slightly updated version of one of my most popular newsletter articles, unearthing an article that’s almost 20 years old and still fundamental to understanding client relationships. Enjoy!

Nearly 20 years ago now, David Maister (a now-retired advisor to professional services firms and author of several excellent books) wrote an article that distinguishes the relational and transactional views of client relations.  Here’s the crux of Maister’s argument:

In The Trusted Advisor (Free Press, 2000), my coauthors and I pointed out that building trusting relationships with clients leads to many benefits: less fee resistance, more future work, more referrals to new clients, and more effective and harmonious work relationships with the clients.

However, many people have built their past success on having a transactional view of their clients, not a relationship one, and it is not clear that they really want to change. Stated bluntly, professionals say that they want the benefits of romance, yet they still act in ways that suggest that what they are really interested in is a one-night stand.

. . .

Most professional-to-client interactions involve little if any commitment to each other beyond the current deal. The prevailing principle is “buyer beware.” Mutual guardedness and suspicion exist, and the interaction is full of negotiation, bargaining, and adversarial activity. Both sides focus on the terms, conditions, and costs of temporary contact. Each side treats THEM as “different,” as “other.”

. . .

Moving from a one-night-stand (transactional) mentality to a romance (relationship) mindset is not about incremental actions, but requires a complete reversal of attitudes and behaviors. One approach is not necessarily “better” than another, but there is a real choice to be made.

In today’s legal economy, clients have more options than ever before. They can choose from a wide range of law firms (the size of firm and perceived expertise becomes only one factor to consider rather than the deciding factor in every instance), from numerous individuals, and even from outsourcing options that may rely on non-lawyers or technology. While transactions can be valuable, good client relationships can form a strong foundation for a practice. Relationships yield repeat business and referrals because they’re built on trust; transactions are won one-by-one, which usually yields only one-off work or entry to compete for each new piece of work. Building relationships certainly takes effort, but it’s effort that builds toward long-term value. Transactions also take effort, but it’s effort that usually doesn’t lead to a next step beyond the transaction at hand.

Consider this quote from the article:

The real challenge, however, is for all of us as individuals, not as firms. Transactions are common because they involve less hard work and demand fewer skills. Ultimately, however, they are not in the best long-term interests of either professional or client. (emphasis added)

Mutual trust will allow both sides to get more of what they seek than continued mutual suspicion. Relationships are not more “noble” than transactions, but where they can be created they are much more profitable.

If you’ve never asked yourself whether you want relationships or “one-night stands” with clients, go read Maister’s article and ask yourself now. The topic was ripe in 2005, but it’s absolutely critical today.



Legal Business Development: How Do I Choose The Right Differentiators?

A reader recently sent in a question following this article about finding ways to stand out from other practitioners in your field. After outlining several potential points of differentiation, this general litigator asked, “I just can’t figure out how to make myself stand out in a town with thousands of attorneys.  I write, I speak, I’m involved – but I am not really generating any traction. How do I choose the right way to differentiate myself from everybody else?”

My Answer:

Distinctions come to be in one of three ways:

  1. By virtue of the practice area, such as Hatch-Waxman Act work or doing special needs trusts.
  2. Due to some particular experience or skill developed in the past, such as a patent licensing lawyer who has a background in tax issues and can therefore address at least some tax issues without having to resort to a tax lawyer.
  3. As the result of experience gained over time in one or two specific subcategories of a practice — which is what you describe with the concentrations you mentioned and (to a lesser degree) the classes you’ve taught as an adjunct professor.

When it comes to building your own practice (as distinct from looking to introduce potential clients to other firm lawyers in other areas of practice, for example), #3 is probably the most common way to set up a point of distinction.

When you’re deciding what to pursue to set yourself apart, think about whether the areas of practice you might pursue are ones you enjoy and could envision as the scope of your practice, the likelihood that those areas will hold steady and preferably expand over time, and the accessibility of a viable category of potential clients who would need help in those areas. If one of the substantive areas you’re considering tends to be cyclical, consider whether there’s a related practice area that is counter-cyclical. There’s nothing wrong with a cyclical practice area as long as the same factors that would drive business down in one area would drive it up in another.

Given that you’re in general litigation, I think you’ll end up with two avenues of distinction: one is substantive, as you’ve outlined above, and the second may be in terms of how you serve your clients. Think about what you can do to make it easy for your clients to do business with you, how you can provide a “value add” for them, and so on. Those take time to figure out, but keep it in the back of your mind and notice what you see that works well (or not) and what clients seem to value.

Most importantly, recognize that even though a distinction may sometimes occur organically, it more often is something that you will select and them bring to fruition. That means that you can choose your area(s) of focus and work to increase your experience and build your reputation in those areas, but it also means that you need to make your decision now and get moving.

If Bruce Lee Says It…

Further to last week’s post on the value of taking small, consistent steps toward your business development objectives, here’s a quote from Bruce Lee. It’s true in physical training, and it’s true for business development.


Make it a consistent week.

Little Hinges Swing Big Doors

I was listening to a podcast recently when I heard a phrase that’s stuck with me since: little hinges swing big doors. We can use that phrase in a number of ways for business development, but let’s focus on one of the most common blocks lawyers hit: being “too busy” for business development activity.

If you find that your business development plan keeps getting pushed away by billable work or other responsibilities, ask yourself what small step you could take that would further your plan. Such steps must be purposeful (your step has to fit in the context of an overall plan) and might include:

  • Make a five-minute call or email to a key contact: maybe you’ll set up a meeting (which constitutes a bigger step), but maybe you can share some news or a resource you’ve found that they might like, in which case you’re done in just a few minutes.
  • Post an update on LinkedIn to share an interesting article or to highlight something that a contact or colleague has accomplished
  • Comment on someone else’s LinkedIn post
  • Add one idea to an outline for an article you plan to write or a presentation you plan to deliver
  • Identify people you should contact to renew and build a relationship (see this post for an easy way to do that)

Will any of these steps individually yield new business? Probably not. What they will do (if they’re selected in the context of an overarching plan) is keep you moving, keep you focused on your business development plan, and prevent getting stuck.

Perhaps most importantly, executing on small steps gets you in the habit of consistently working on your business development plan.

Don’t get me wrong: big objectives belong on your plan as well. Writing an article, creating an infographic to help clients or referral sources understand some aspect of your practice, or putting together a panel presentation that will give you a forum to speak as well as to invite other speakers and attendees—these and similar tasks can make a bigger splash as well as spin-off more small steps. Break these projects into manageable steps and carve out time on your calendar to complete them. (That’s another of little hinges that swing big doors.)

But when billable work or other responsibilities are claiming almost all your time, it’s the deliberate small steps that will allow you to keep making progress until you can return to bigger objectives. You see, consistent and calculated small steps will always move you toward your goals more quickly than short bursts of significant activity with long breaks in between them.

Take five minutes to list a handful of purposeful small steps you can take. Put them on your calendar. When you get to the appointment you’ve made for the small step, if it feels like too much, try timing yourself (our estimates of how long something will take can be wildly inaccurate especially when busy), or remind yourself that you’re taking one step, not a walk.