While visiting Wyoming last summer, I had an epiphany that made owning a home there possible: I could buy a duplex. Renting out one side would not only give me the cash flow to pay for the property, but it would also alleviate the problems of wintertime absentee ownership. (Love Wyoming though I do, this Atlantan is not cut out for months of snow!). I browed through a few listings but didn’t see anything suitable.
One day, I asked my contractor an offhand question: is it difficult to divide a single-family home into a duplex? He explained that it depends on the home, asked why I wanted to know, and offered to look at listings with me and tell me what he could about the ease of making a house into a duplex. As we looked at listings and talked and he explained what the considerations are (and also how to tell the difference between an easy-to-fix deal and a moneypit that looks promising), I could see my dream coming to fruition.
I could also see that I didn’t have all the necessary knowledge to make it happen, and that he did. I have contacts in Wyoming and could easily have found a good local contractor to help me choose and renovate a property, but because Oldrich (my contractor) has been so helpful and so clear, he became the only logical option for me. We hopped on a plane in late October, selected the right properties and put in offers. Thanks to Oldrich, I got the house I wanted, in the areas I wanted, for less than half the going rate. We’re planning the renovations this week, and the next week he and a crew will head back to Cheyenne to get it done.
Bottom line: because Oldrich listened to my question and offered to help beyond a simple answer to that question, I’m getting the result I want and he’s getting additional business that he would not have had otherwise. We both leave happy.
What does this story have to do with legal business development? Simple: there’s always another opportunity to assist a client (or former client), but you have to be prepared to identify and seize the opportunity. Sometimes you’ll get more billable work, sometimes you’ll be able to make a referral to another lawyer, and sometimes you’ll be of assistance in some other way. One thing is for sure: when you watch for opportunities and lend help, you’ll build relationships with your clients.
What can you do to identify an opportunity to help a client?
- Initiate conversations with your clients (and former clients) so that you are in a position to know what’s going on in their businesses and lives. If you rely exclusively on the representation and cease communication when it’s completed, you won’t be privy to other circumstances in which you could help. Note that, of course, not every client will want to engage in conversation. Some clients will want a transaction rather than a relationship. Even so, stand ready in case an opening appears.
- Listen and clarify. Often, a client will ask a question (as I did of my contractor) that suggests the need for some additional assistance. If you’re busy, it’s easy to answer the question without exploring the underlying context that could reveal the need. The better approach is, of course, to ask any questions necessary to be sure you understand the situation.
- Determine how you can best help. Sometimes that’s offering additional legal assistance. Be clear that doing so in the appropriate situation is a service to your client, and don’t fall into the trap of feeling awkward. Otherwise, offer referrals or contacts, and be prepared to follow up.
While these steps are simple, many lawyers are so focused on the matter on their desk that they fail to notice hints of other needs. Others feel such discomfort with selling that they hold back on picking up on a potential need and offering help. And yet others fail to make it a practice to keep in close enough touch with clients and former clients, eliminating the opportunity to offer help before it even starts.
Ask yourself these questions… How open are you to hints (intentional or otherwise) that clients drop and questions they ask? Do you have a process that allows you to stay in touch with former clients and periodically check to see what’s going on with them? How comfortable are you with offering help, and is your network strong enough that you know or can identify someone who can help your client if their need is outside the scope of your practice?