First, get some clarity about why you’re different.
Lawyers often have remarkably little insight about why clients choose to work with them – and not another lawyer down the street or across town. Pressed for an answer to the question “What makes you different?” lawyers often point to such factors as their work ethic, their after-hours accessibility or the reputation of their firm as reasons why clients hire them.
But are these answers sufficient? After all, law firms are professional service businesses, and all professional services businesses claim work ethic, accessibility and reputation as their professional brand characteristics. So if work ethic, accessibility and reputation are qualities all law firms claim as their own, how can these be unique characteristics for any individual lawyer?
One could also question why this avenue of inquiry is even important. After all, if clients already trust you with their important matters, does it really matter why they do so?
I would argue that this is critically important information for a budding rainmaker to know. Here’s why.
The most important habit a budding rainmaker can develop does not involve making new potential client contacts, but in filtering those contacts to be able to discern which are real client development opportunities, and which are probably an inefficient use of your time and client development funds. Let’s assume you have a list of 25 people on a list of potential clients. Do you put a full-court press on all 25, or is there a better way to filter through that list without spending precious time and money pursuing each and all of those contacts?
The key to filtering client opportunities, in my view, is understanding the difference between a commodity and a value proposition. A commodity is a product or service distinguishable in the customer’s eyes only by its price. In the law firm context, think about what aspects of your legal services are likely viewed by clients as a commodity. Here are some examples I came up with: generating error free work product; competent and complete legal research; reasonable responsiveness and accessibility; reasonable fee bills in relation to the work performed; law offices equipped with a basic level of technology, including voice mail-enabled telephones; computers and printers; access to legal research; and essential office staff.
The foregoing list identifies what can be considered the table stakes for any lawyer seeking to land a client. If you can’t include all of these services as part of your legal services to clients, then you’re not even operating at the basic service level of your competitors. That’s why these aspects of your legal practice are a commodity.
Commodity offerings don’t attract clients. And so, if you are spending most of your time focused on delivering or advertising commoditized services or results to clients, you are missing the opportunity to convey to clients the non-commodity aspects of a professional services relationship: your value proposition.
What are value propositions for a lawyer? In my law practice, I think about value in three categories or “buckets”: (1) leadership; (2) relationship: and (3) creativity. I think of “leadership” in terms of regularly writing and speaking on topics related to my area of legal practice. Clients can see that I’m knowledgeable about my subject area, and I can more effectively represent them if other lawyers with whom I’m negotiating recognize that I am knowledgeable about my practice area.
“Relationship” is a really interesting category. It’s a no-brainer to form relationships with the individuals who can direct legal work your way; however, if you can build relationships with the business colleagues of these individual clients, as well as their strategic external allies and relationships, and also build relationships with your adversaries and others who impact the outcome of the matters you handle, you have the ability to build trust and confidence across a broad range of parties who can impact the outcome of the matters you are handling. Those relationships – which can take significant time and effort to build and maintain – can make a significant difference in bringing parties with disparate interests into a consensus approach to solving a legal problem.
Finally, “creativity” is the real payoff category. With the benefit of recognized leadership, coupled with solid and broad relationships, you then have the opportunity to develop creative legal strategies and solutions that others will support and embrace, for your client’s benefit.
You might have similar – or different – unique abilities you bring to the table in your dealings with clients. But whatever those abilities are, those are the qualities clients really want to hear about, and that clients will consider in deciding whether to send you their legal work.
And as for the client prospects who aren’t interested in learning about your unique abilities? Drop them – and quick. Those clients want only a commodity relationship with their lawyer, and in that relationship, over time you will find yourself working longer and harder for less compensation and no thanks.
That would be a miserable way to spend one’s legal career.
John McCarrick has been practicing law for more than 25 years and represents professional liability insurers, domestic and international, in connection with insurance coverage and liability issues arising from complex antitrust, customer, shareholder and bankruptcy-related litigation.
John is frequently asked to speak, and regularly writes, on issues related to directors and officers liability and insurance law. He is a partner at White and Williams LLP.