General Practice, Solo & Small Firm DivisionMagazine

 
VOLUME 19, NUMBER 2 MARCH 2002

PRACTICE MANAGEMENT

Make it Rain: Client Development

By Merrilyn Astin Tarlton

In today's law practice, it's not enough to merely add new marketing tasks to the traditional list of practice management activities. That's a little like trying to press your Lincoln Navigator past the speed limit with a buggy whip. It won't work. Instead, you must integrate client development into all aspects of your practice. Think holistically. Take a hard look at the fundamentals of your practice management style. If you focus, you will see ways to integrate client development into the sum of your firm-you will transform your practice.
The questions in the following sections are a good place to start.
Compensate to motivate rainmaking. To determine who takes home how much money, many firms use a formula based on various aspects of partner contribution to the firm. If client development is important to your practice's future, consider ways in which your compensation system does-or does not -motivate marketing activities.
o Are lawyers rewarded for bringing in new business?
o Are lawyers rewarded for keeping business?
o Do associates or other non-partner counsel reap any monetary benefits for bringing in business?
o Does your staff evaluation and compensation program recognize individual efforts to support client development and firm marketing goals?
o Does your partner compensation system set up a competitive internal environment, or does it encourage collaborative business development? The former is toxic, regardless of short-term profits. The latter is gold.
Hire people with people skills. The hard marketing jobs get easier if the lawyers in your firm are engaging and people oriented. A heap of missteps will be forgiven by a client who is handled with grace and respect. The firm has a good face when its frontline staff is helpful and courteous. Keep these and the following factors in mind when you're in hiring mode.
o Does the prospective associate or lateral hire exhibit people skills and poise in group settings?
o Has the prospective associate, while mindful of the need to learn broadly in the first years of practice, honed in on a desired practice focus that will bring in clients?
o Is the receptionist candidate gracious, intelligent, and understanding of the need to court and please all visitors to the firm?
o Do secretarial candidates understand that they are a lawyer's most important link to the client? Does the candidate seem able to build working relationships with client representatives?
Train toward the market. Good lawyers delegate to save money for their clients, focus their personal time effectively, and help younger lawyers build experience. Business development provides an additional reason to delegate: so individual lawyers can develop focused expertise. In addition to this kind of on-the-job training, consider formal programs to help your lawyers understand how client development works.
o Do you assign specialized tasks to younger lawyers with the goal of creating an in-house expert over time?
o When you make assignments to lawyers who don't have the necessary experience, do you provide them with supervision and guidance throughout the process?
o Does the firm support and encourage CLE to build new practice capabilities in response to the market? Is CLE adequately funded in the annual budget?
o Does your HR management strategy include training on business development and client service?
o Does the firm's marketing plan address the training necessary to create the client services you wish to provide? Does the budget cover business development expenses-client and prospect lunches and community activities-for each rainmaker?
Use technology to keep clients close. Technology can push clients away or draw them closer, depending on how you approach and use the tools. Examine your technical systems on the basis of their client-friendliness. Your goal is to keep lawyers readily available to their clients and information on the firm easily accessible to prospects.
o Can clients dial your office directly, or must they run a gauntlet of secretaries when they need to speak with you? Do you provide the option of leaving a lengthy message or of speaking to your assistant when you're unavailable?
o Do you listen to your own messages to receive the full power of the caller's language, tone, and inflections? Or does your secretary short-circuit the process by typing an abbreviated version for you?
o Can clients reliably contact you by e-mail? Is it easy to send documents and attachments back and forth for reviews and edits?
o Does the firm have a website? Can prospects quickly find information about the firm, its lawyers, and their specialties? Can people send e-mail messages to individual lawyers and/or the firm directly from the site?
o Can prospects find your website through online legal directories and by typing the firm's name into search engines?
Bill with a client focus. Many clients find lawyers' bills both frightening and unintelligible. Look at ways to make your bills and fees more client focused. Explore innovative ways to set your fees and discuss alternative methods with each client.
o Are you still billing for your services on the basis of how much time it took to do the work? Do you think in terms of value rather than what the market can bear?
o Are your bills easy to read? Have you asked if the billing format meets client accounting needs?
o Are you available to-and interested in-discussing any and all bills and statements with your clients?
o Do you know whether your clients would prefer to receive their bills at a specific time of the month, for example, on the 1st or 15th?
o Do you take advantage of the bill's mailing by enclosing additional firm information for your clients-such as news about added services, new associates or partners, and the like?
A more profitable perspective. Once you answer these questions, you will inevitably find yourself confronted with additional ones about the nature, quality, timing, and pricing of your services. Tackle them. Take the opportunity to transform your practice by approaching client development holistically. It's not a new thing. It's the whole thing when it comes to staying profitably and happily in practice.

Merrilyn Astin Tarlton is principal of Astin Tarlton, www.astintarlton.com.


This article is an abridged and edited version of one that originally appeared on page 48 of Law Practice Management, July/August 2001 (27:5).

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