First, congratulations are in order for opening your very own law office!
Or if you haven’t yet taken the scary plunge, congratulations for even thinking about opening your own law office. It’s quite exhilarating to be the master of your own business destiny. But most of us, myself included, didn’t realize when we first hung out our shingle that having a successful law practice and being a good lawyer are two completely different things. Even if you have already launched your law firm, the things I would like to share with you in this article will be useful no matter where you are in your practice.
If You Don’t Ask, You Won’t Receive
The very best way to get your very first client is to ask for a referral. This advice holds true if you are developing another practice area, as I am, or creating a niche practice to supplement your existing law practice. Need clients? Ask for referrals. You may have to ask many people, and you undoubtedly will need to be persistent, but nothing will happen if you don’t ask. Asking isn’t always an easy thing to do, especially if you’re freshly minted from law school and just starting your legal career. But you will be asking for referrals your entire legal career in private practice, so you might as well learn now and start now.
What’s the best way to ask for a referral? First, you need to let everyone know that you exist and are accepting clients. No one will know to send you clients if they don’t know you exist. Getting the word out about who you are and what you do is not only your first priority, it will always be a priority.
Getting the word out can be relatively easy. For example, in my local legal community we have monthly bar meeting where people introduce themselves at the beginning of the bar meeting. At meeting, a friend of mine who had just opened her own law firm put several business cards and her announcement postcards on every table. Her announcement cards listed the types of cases she handles. She stood up at the call for introductions and proudly announced she had started her own law firm. She also put a business card advertisement in our local bar newsletter. These efforts were apparently effective because she’s now very busy.
Let’s say your legal community is so large that it would be impossible to gain the floor at a meeting or litter the tables with your literature. Or maybe your legal community doesn’t have regular meetings or a newsletter. Or maybe an advertisement is too expensive. Then you have to tell people in different ways that you exist. The more ways you get the word out about who you are and what you do, the more likely it is you will receive your very first client referral.
Get Your Ducks in a Row
The best thing you can do for your new law practice (or any practice for that matter) is to create and maintain a contacts database and keep adding to it. If you are reading this article and you are currently in law school, start your contacts database right this very minute. Forget studying for the Remedies final, you need to invest in your future legal career! Even if you have been offered a job with Big Law firm or the government, create this database as soon as possible. If you have a job in private practice, you will need a contacts database right away; if you have a job working for the government or private, you will need your database eventually.
Some thoughts on business cards: I think you still need them, even in this digital information age. When you meet people professionally, a physical reminder of who you are and what you do is very important. The business card is still the best way to do this. Plus, business cards have evolved from the stuffy white card with raised black lettering that was the standard when I first started practicing. Now it’s more common, and acceptable, for a business card to reflect your personality.
Like referrals, business cards are a two-way street. When you receive a business card, try to write down a little about that person, and the context of your meeting, as soon as you can so you don’t forget. I manage to do this only 50 percent of the time. Try to do better. Enter this additional information into your contacts database. Besides my Word document in address label format, I have a simple Excel spreadsheet.
Industry Trade Groups
Look around and you’ll observe that most solo and small practice lawyers, and many law firms, market their areas of practice, such as business, tax, environmental law, estate planning, litigation, and the like. There is a growing body of literature that suggests clients, on the other hand, look for lawyers and law firms with knowledge and experience in their industries, such as construction, entertainment, transportation, and health care.
When I first opened my practice, I joined a charitable organization that personally interested me and got myself on the board of directors. I spent many years contributing to that organization and didn’t receive one referral. So I switched my focus and joined an industry trade association; this effort paid off immediately. Because I contributed a lot of work to the organization, the executive director would mention my name when members needed an attorney.
Joining a trade association gets you in front of a room full of clients, people who can potentially hire you. Once you land a client (or two), ask what meetings they attend. Then it’s a simple matter of saying, “I’d like to join you at the meeting. Would you introduce me to your friends?” These friends, of course, are all potential clients for you.
It’s no good just going to the meeting; you have to be visible. Your goal when you join a trade association is not to be just a face in the crowd. Your goal is to get on the board of directors. The way you do that is to seek out the executive director or president and volunteer. You volunteer to help put together programs; you volunteer to help with the newsletter; you volunteer to help in any sort of activity that is going to lead to a board position. In my case, I helped revise the bylaws and personnel policies. Hours of work, for free. But I’ve received dozens of referrals from the organization.
Create a Business Group
Especially if you are a solo practitioner, you need to surround yourself with like-minded, motivated, entrepreneurial attorneys. Choose people who will support you but also challenge you to set business development goals and achieve them. The value of meeting with other people cannot be overstated. Creating, or joining, a business group allows you to collaborate on projects such as workshops or seminars or articles for trade publications. You can also guest-write for each other’s blogs. Plus, these people might be referral sources. But the initial reason in forming the group is not necessarily for referrals.
To be continued next week…. on How to Land Your Second Client (And So On)
Kene Okeke Malachy Esq