The Secret Skill of Relationship Marketing

Vol. 29 No. 3

By

Edith L. Curry, J.D., is president of Palaxar, LLC, which provides financial and governance and compliance guidance to midsize and large corporations. She has won numerous awards for her work and is a published author and speaker at industry events.

You are a solo or small firm practitioner, and you—like the rest of us—want to know how best to market yourself and your firm. How do you set yourself apart from the rest? What makes you different, special, marketable? In order to leverage your marketing much more effectively, you first must understand precisely what it is that you are, in fact, marketing: relationships. One strength of any lawyer is certainly his or her technical skills, but lawyers’ relationship skills are what set lawyers apart from most professions—and, indeed, from each other. How do you market your greatest skill: your ability to develop and maintain the attorney-client relationship?

 

The Attorney-Client Relationship

Ask many lawyers about their marketing efforts, and instantly their eyes glaze over and they begin thinking of ways to change the conversation. On the other hand, ask the same lawyers about their thoughts on the attorney-client relationship, and you generate a lengthy and often spirited discussion. Marketing for solos and small firm practitioners is simply relationship marketing. As attorneys, we are arguably the best-trained in one of the most trusted relationships another person ever has.

Being a lawyer requires both “hard skills” and “soft skills.” Hard skills are something that must be formally studied, learned, and practiced to be usable, including technology. The ever-changing impact of technology and the explosion of social media on relationships have given hard-skills-only lawyers a short shelf life. Soft skills are the underlying principles that mark a lawyer for professionalism and excellence. Soft skills are generally defined as the following traits or “people skills”: confidence, trustworthiness, respectfulness, a willingness to engage, being an active listener, an influencer, a problem solver, a negotiator, a good observer, and a person able to keep confidences. The best and most effective lawyers display all these soft skills when advising and representing clients. These attributes differentiate the lawyer whom clients would recommend from lawyers whom they would not.

How do you currently define and handle client relationships? Do you provide excellent service and regularly stay in touch, keeping clients informed about the status of their matters? Do you openly accept client feedback to improve the way you practice? Do you genuinely understand and appreciate your business clients? Do you know about the client’s company, products, and concerns? Do you convey bad news quickly and in a straightforward manner to clients? Do you admit when you’ve made a mistake or were short-sighted? Highlighting these skills is the cornerstone of relationship marketing for solo and small firm lawyers.

 

Marketing Relationships, Marketing Yourself

Relationship marketing can be very difficult because it requires you, in a very real sense, to become your own advocate. It is often said that the most important characteristic of being a good lawyer is the ability to separate your personal opinions and feelings from your clients’ objectives and best interests. But to successfully market yourself, you have to be both the advocate and the one on whose behalf you are advocating.

How do you step back and objectively evaluate your own strengths? Your hard skills are likely clear to you—they are your legal skills and training—but what of your soft skills? A person’s own soft skills are the most difficult for anyone to identify. It’s best, therefore, to approach this relationship marketing exercise with assistance from a trusted friend, colleague, or family member. Together, outline that which makes you excel as a person, as an advocate, as a lawyer. Start at the very beginning, with your initial decision to enter law school, and identify those skills, traits, and characteristics that brought you to where you are now.

Steve Jobs, in his June 12, 2005, commencement address to Stanford University, said it best: “[Y]ou can’t connect the dots [of your life’s journey] looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future.”

Let’s begin, then, at the beginning: Why did you start your own business as a solo or small firm lawyer? There are only two answers to that question: because you wanted to or because you had to.

You wanted to start your own practice. Often the answer to what sets you apart from the rest lies in why you became a lawyer in the first place. Perhaps you wanted to make a difference in the lives of others; to make money; to have a job that allowed you to anticipate that your day-to-day experiences would be varied and keep changing as time passed. Perhaps you sought advancement by becoming a partner in a law firm, an educator, or a judge. Maybe it was purely the desire for legal knowledge. Although this is by no means a comprehensive list, it might trigger recollections about the primary reasons you began this journey. These core values that brought you into this profession are still within you now—and perhaps even more so as a solo or small firm practitioner.

Possibly you were attracted by the intellectual challenges, the analysis and reasoning, the problem solving, the research and fact finding. Or perhaps it was the advocating and influencing on behalf of your client. Some lawyers excel at conflict resolution and negotiation, while others get satisfaction from providing advice and counsel, working with others, developing and mentoring. There is satisfaction from community involvement and service. Whatever your reasons, make your list.

Once you became a lawyer, perhaps you opened your own law firm because above all else, you wanted to set your own hours, take the cases you were interested in, and make the other major decisions affecting your own practice. Working for yourself, you get to set your own rules, and while being a solo or small firm practitioner is certainly challenging, it is rewarding when you get to keep (net of your expenses) what you earn.

You had to start your own practice. For whatever reason, your career path did not follow your planned course and you are now a solo or small firm practitioner. The best advice I was given was “everything has balance,” which is akin to “there are two sides to every story.” Lawyers are trained to analyze both sides of a given issue: the weaknesses and the merits. I will go back to the beginning: Why did you become a lawyer? What did you believe about yourself then? These things are most certainly true about you now since you successfully finished law school and passed the bar.

Consider the viewpoint of a client in need of legal advice, and remember the high cost of legal fees typically charged by the large, established firms. There are a lot of potential clients often with relatively uncomplicated legal problems who can become great clients and wonderful sources of referrals. What can you now do as a solo or small firm practitioner that you could not do within your larger, more bureaucratic firm? You now have the ability to develop better relationships with clients—who will in turn refer additional clients.

 

Connecting the Dots

For any given client, case, matter, or issue, you are never simply “a lawyer.” You are a composite of everything that brought you to this point in your career, every decision and every experience, the aggregation of all your legal and people, “hard and soft” skills. The skills you must highlight to successfully market your practice are the identical skills that were needed when you initially decided to become a lawyer. Now, however, your experience and attorney-client relationship training have made those skills even more marketable. Marketing your own value is marketing not only what you know and “have experience in as a lawyer,” but—perhaps more importantly—what you know from your experiences as a lawyer in relationships with your clients. What makes you better than your peers at understanding and absorbing your clients’ core values so that these values form the platform you stand on to advocate their positions in the courtroom or the board room? Market those traits and those skills.

It may seem difficult to promote yourself as a better listener, a more absorbent sponge of your clients’ values and needs. There’s one extraordinary way to make it easier. Ask your clients. What are the qualities that make them come back to you? Why do they (or why do they not) recommend you to others?

In her 2005 article “Method Acting for Lawyers” in Litigation, Kathleen Havener wrote that a quality presentation of an argument depends not on “performance”—putting on a mask to play your part in the drama of a court proceeding—but on allowing the fact-finder to see that you are communicating authentic feelings about the facts and the law that are the subject of the argument. I agree. Nothing persuades like authenticity. And once your clients confirm to you that you do, in some way, become them (and think of all the meanings of the word “becoming”) while you are their advocate, it is no longer difficult to say aloud that you are indeed a better advocate than your peers. You never play a role. For the course of the representation, you are your client, but with the critical benefit of your independent perspective. You are the client’s public face, critical listener, storyteller, confessor, minister, and truest self. When you can communicate that, when people understand that these are the roles you want and expect—indeed, why you became a lawyer—your relationship marketing will shine through every time you speak.

 

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