How to Land Your First Client

Vol. 31 No. 1


Jennifer R. Willner ( is a partner with Halvorson & Willner PLLC, which has offices in Bellevue and Bellingham, Washington, and more than 50 combined years of experience representing public and private employers in labor and employment law matters.

First, congratulations are in order for opening your very own law office! Instead of sending flowers, send clients, right? 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. Every law firm, from a solo practice to Big Law, works constantly at client development. Although this article is focused on getting your very first client, the tools I discuss will help you get clients throughout your entire legal career.

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 lunches where people introduce themselves at the beginning of the bar meeting. At one luncheon 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 or the government, or if you’re set to join a branch of the U.S. armed forces as a JAG officer (we’re envious of these lucky colleagues), 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 armed forces, you will need your database eventually.

Into this database goes the contact information of every single person you know. In go the names of lawyers, judges, law school classmates, law school professors, law school staff (who know who you are), your ABA Solo, Small Firm and General Practice Division colleagues, your ABA Young Lawyers Division colleagues, members of clubs you belong to, your friends and your parents’ friends, neighbors (who know you), and people you know in other professions, such as investment brokers, accountants, and bankers. These are all people who can send you business so long as you tell them, “Yes, please, send me clients, not flowers,” and also tell them what kind of work to send you.

Early incarnations of my contacts database were just a list of names and addresses organized by group (e.g., lawyer, law school, friends, and family). I put these names and addresses into a Word document format that allowed me to print out a sheet of address labels. This worked for a while because I knew everyone and how we were connected. I still need this address label format, but now that I’ve been in practice a while (and I’m over 50), I also need to jot down how I know each person. For example, I write down where I met that person and any personal information that I learned when we met. I now need to keep track of e-mail addresses, something we didn’t use with regularity when I first started practicing law. Ideally, your database should be updated after every event, such as a bar association meeting, CLE session, industry event, class reunion, or social event.

Ways to Get the Word Out

With your database in order, it’s time to start getting out the word about who you are and what you do. Below are some suggestions:

  • Send letters to all the lawyers in your community introducing yourself and describing what you do. Include a couple of your business cards. If your community doesn’t have a lawyer directory, use your state’s lawyer directory or the phone book’s yellow pages to find the local practitioners. It’s very possible you will receive a client referral within a short time after sending these letters. Consider the investment in yourself by using very nice stationery and heavy card stock for your business cards. This makes a good first impression.
  • Tailor these introductory letters to the recipient. That way, it doesn’t look like a mass mailing, and it’s more flattering. Targeted letters could be sent to attorneys who are more likely to send a case your way—those who do not practice in your area, for example. I practice labor and employment law. Business/corporate attorneys are usually the source of my client referrals. Each letter is addressed to that particular individual. If I know them, I will add a personal note.
  • Send postcards to every single person you know—family, friends, law school classmates, everyone in your network. Almost guaranteed, you will receive at least one client from this mailing. I like using postcards because you can print four postcards on one sheet of 81/2 x 11 cardstock. And the postage is less for a postcard than for an envelope.
  • If mailing print literature is too pricey, send a short greeting via e-mail describing the types of cases you are accepting, and attach an announcement of your new practice to this e-mail. But be careful with this approach; nobody likes to be spammed. Keep it short and sweet and thank the recipients for opening your e-mail. I do not object to getting personal e-mails, tailored to who I am, from new attorneys in my community. I’ve been there. I e-mail back.
  • Show up where other lawyers are gathered, introduce yourself, and say what you do. Prepare that elevator speech. Hand out business cards. Be an enthusiastic promoter of yourself. Don’t feel enthusiastic? Fake it till you feel it. (There’s psychological literature supporting this approach!)
  • Write an article about a topic or recent case in your practice area and send it to your legal community’s newsletter. My local bar’s newsletter is always looking for content. If your legal community doesn’t have a newsletter, send it to your local newspaper. Offer to write a continuing legal column. Offer to field questions from the newspaper’s reporters in your particular practice area. You want people to associate your name with a particular area of the law. You want people to see your name as much as possible.
  • Start a blog. Post regularly. Make it easy for Google to find you in cyberspace. Put some video up on your blog. Some marketing gurus suggest that 30 percent of the population has grown up with the Internet, and these people look for, and expect, video content. Video allows potential clients to see how sharp you look in a suit and how fabulously smart you are when talking about the law.
  • Offer to speak on a topic to an industry or business group. The goal is to get in front of a group of potential clients. Offer to give a workshop at your local community college or vocational/technical school. Team up with other lawyers to create a workshop or seminar and invite as many potential clients as possible. This approach may work better when you have some years of experience, but I’ve seen very successful (i.e., well-attended) workshops conducted by freshly minted attorneys.

You will (eventually) receive a client referral from an attorney. It might be a case this attorney didn’t want, or a client that needs a lot of attention, but that’s okay. Accept these low bono (even pro bono) cases because they will give you good experience. Above all, respect the relationship with the attorney who gave you the referral. Send a handwritten thank-you note, not an e-mail. If you can return the referral favor, do so. Nothing says “thank-you” like a client referral. Respect, and protect, the relationship the client has with this attorney. Nothing says “I don’t give a ----” like stealing a client.

Business Cards

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.

You could also take a picture of a business card with your smartphone and use an app such as Evernote ( to organize all your business card “pictures.” And consider printing a scannable QR code on your business card. Your contact information would be embedded in the QR code, which can be read by a smartphone. QR codes can be generated for free at (Maybe I’ll do this someday, too.)

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. Big Law has followed the lead of banks and CPA firms by creating industry practice groups. This suggests that you should get involved in an industry trade association.

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.

I never took this advice myself until recently, when I suggested to some friends that we start a Mastermind Group. If you have ever read the 1937 book Think and Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill, you will remember the advice to create or join a Mastermind Group. Hill defines a Mastermind Group as “The coordination of knowledge and effort of two or more people, who work toward a definite purpose, in the spirit of harmony.” The benefits of belonging to such a group are tremendous: mutual support, differing perspectives, resources, and, above all, accountability. My group has been a source of motivation, professional accomplishment, and personal satisfaction. We are all women attorneys, entrepreneurs who are principals in our own law firms and have similar drive to be successful. I highly recommend you join or create such a group, too.

How to Land Your Second Client (And So On)

Okay, you’ve landed your first client. Maybe you’re advising the next-door neighbor you’ve known since you were a kid, who now needs some help understanding “this new health care law.” Maybe you’re helping this long-time family friend for free. Maybe your very first client is one you’ve agreed to take pro bono from your local legal services organization. Either way, a client is a client, so congratulate yourself!

Now what?

Let’s assume you’ve done the key things referenced above in this article. Well, now the real work at business development begins. Your practice won’t grow itself, and your referral network won’t expand without some effort. A lot of effort. Business activities will consume your focus for the rest of the time you are in private practice, so the trick is to find what works, what you like (or don’t hate), and do it.

Experts suggest that you spend at least four hours a week on business development activities. This includes asking other lawyers to meet you for coffee (takes less time and is cheaper than lunch), sending a client or potential referral source a note with an interesting article, updating your contacts database, and mulling over business card designs. All these are business development activities, and they count. But after you’ve done a few key steps when you open your law firm, where do you focus your energies? I have the answer. Or at least a place to start: Build your referral network.

A lot of lawyers get most of their business from referrals, and that’s a wonderful thing, but the point is that it doesn’t happen all by itself. The people who get these referrals are lawyers who cultivated them. Trust me when I tell you that this effort is worth it but it takes a long time. Here are some tips:

  • Start with your existing clients (or maybe you have just one). These are people you’re doing work for, but unless you tell them that they’re supposed to send you new work and that you would welcome this new work, they won’t know that they’re supposed to do so. You actually have to tell them. This can be accomplished in a non-obnoxious way by thanking them for their business (even if you didn’t charge) and saying that you’d appreciate their referrals.
  • Step two is to tell your clients what kind of work you’re seeking. If you’re doing a lot of commercial real estate transactions and your clients are sending you family law cases, you haven’t explained the kind of work that you’re looking for. This happens to me all the time, and I’ve been practicing the same kind of law for more than ten years.
  • There are lots of other referral sources besides clients. There are people you know in other professions, such as investment brokers, accountants, and bankers. These are all people who can send you business so long as they know you would like them to do so (and know what kind of work to send). Building a referral network goes beyond your announcement postcard. It’s all about building relationships. In my town, if you refer business, you expect these referrals to refer back. Don’t expect attorneys to refer you work if you don’t also refer work to them.
  • Develop your referral network with your law school classmates. These are people who know you. If you’re a litigator, obviously you don’t want to approach the litigators because they’re in competition with you. Approach all the people who have a transaction practice. Chances are they’re going to have some sort of a transaction that went south, and they’re going to need your help.

Do It Every Day

My last advice is to work on some business development activity every single day you are in practice. Do something to cultivate your referral sources, tell people who you are and what you do, and get the word out. Every day. Be vigilant, persistent, and tenacious. All the qualities of a good lawyer are also the qualities of a successful rainmaker. And remember, the more you refer out, the more you get back.


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