The art of the ask: how to ask for business (and when not to ask)

How do you ask for business?  We all know intuitively (or through training) that those who don’t ask typically don’t get business.  However, many lawyers are reluctant to ask explicitly for business, and rightly so.  A flat request can disrupt a relationship if the answer is “no,” and, under some circumstances, asking can even be an ethical violation.  Even when those concerns are not in play, some lawyers may feel pushy if they ask for business.  And yet, the inner voice cautions (or should caution!), if you don’t ask, you don’t get.

Know whether and how to ask for business requires you to check several considerations. A few examples are:

  • Listen to your gut… If you’re sensing that an explicit request for the business may be too pointed, you could be correct.  Try a gentler approach (something like “I’d be happy to suggest an approach for that”) may blunt the approach and yet get the message across.
  • …But notice how often your gut tells you not to ask. If your gut almost always tells you that asking would be too pushy, it’s time to do some work on your comfort level.  What conditions would have to exist for you to feel comfortable in asking for business?
  • Look for the win / win. Lawyers often use rather violent language for business development:  “eat what you kill” compensation systems, “killer instinct” in pursuing new work, and “bagging a client,” for instance.  This language casts the lawyer as the hunter and the potential client as the victim or the target.  Although few lawyers actually regard their potential clients in that way, the fear of being perceived as a ruthless hunter may prompt a lawyer to hold back. It may even prompt lawyers to ask for business so tentatively that the request implies that the potential client would be doing the lawyer a great favor by hiring him. When you issue a good request for business, you know the benefit and value you’re bringing, and you can weave it into your request.
  • Listen to the potential client’s concerns and offer some feedback, leading naturally into an offer of further help. If you take this approach, be sure that you don’t stray into giving legal advice without sufficient knowledge of the facts.  You can suggest potential avenues or approaches for consideration, though, and offer to help if your contact would like to explore them.
  • Invite a potential client to your office for a consultation, and specifically mention that you’ll discuss your engagement letter and answer any questions they may have. If you know enough about the client and the matter to be sure that you would be willing to accept it, this can be a natural way to move the conversation forward.

Asking for business requires both the right mindset and the right words or technique.  You might get hired without asking for the business, but until you master this skill, you can’t count on growing your book.

Think about your current “low hanging fruit,” or the potential clients most likely to retain you right now.  What approach would be most helpful for them? What approach will open the possibility of working with you most effectively? When have you held back from a request, and how might you recover and adjust your habits going forward?




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