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June 10, 2020 Feature

How Do You Really Build Your Client Base?

Douglas H. McPherson

©2020. Published in Landslide, Vol. 12, No. 5, May/June 2020, by the American Bar Association. Reproduced with permission. All rights reserved. This information or any portion thereof may not be copied or disseminated in any form or by any means or stored in an electronic database or retrieval system without the express written consent of the American Bar Association or the copyright holder.

Traditionally, business development hasn’t played a huge part in intellectual property (IP). Clients found their attorneys through recommendation, reputation, or geography, and, as long as they were looked after, the client would stay with that firm and the relationship would be passed down to the next generation when a partner retired.

Today, things are very different. Clients are more cost-sensitive than ever (a trend that means many IP firms are now having to tender just to keep their clients) and increasingly aware they can demand more and more value from their attorneys. In addition, as the legal profession has now well and truly woken up to business development, your competitors are almost certainly actively targeting and courting your clients.

And the pressure is just as great internally. Most firms have set themselves ambitious growth targets, and the increased billing expectations being passed on to attorneys to meet those objectives means it’s now vital you put more structure around your marketing and business development. Moreover, if that structure is going to yield the highest return, every attorney needs to be comfortable with what they’ll have to do to make the required contribution.

Admittedly this is where we tend to lose people. The vast majority of the attorneys we’ve worked with over the last 15 years don’t want to market themselves; they didn’t enter the profession to be salespeople, and even if they had, client demands eat up the time they’d need to do it. However, experience has taught us that much of this resistance comes down to attorneys’ perception—or rather misperception—of what business development actually is. It is those misperceptions I’d like to address here.

The first—and, I’d argue, most important—myth to bust is the view that business development is all about winning new clients. It isn’t. It’s about winning new work. We are constantly being told by both our clients and our contacts that around 85 percent of the new work they (or in the case of our contacts, their clients) are winning comes from people they already know. With that in mind, there are two questions I’d suggest attorneys looking to put together a more effective personal business development plan ask themselves.

Who Are My Most Important Clients?

With regard to your clients, “most important” should be looked at in three ways:

  1. Those you bill the highest (i.e., if they were to walk or even share their work with other firms, they’d leave a tough hole to fill)
  2. Those who you believe have high growth potential (i.e., they will generate more work as they grow, acquire, or diversify)
  3. Those who are strategically important to the future of your practice (i.e., those who will allow you to build marketable credentials in specific areas or make introductions to new market entrants and/or influential figures in your key sectors)

Once you have your shortlist of the clients you want to really invest in (and there will probably only be three or four), put together a very simple one-page plan identifying how and why you plan to see them each quarter.

Again, this can be a suggestion we often get pushback on. Your clients are too busy to see you, you’re already talking to them on a daily basis when you are working on a case, etc., but are these quality conversations? How much time do you get to talk about their plans and what else they need from you? Do you have an opportunity to find out who else they could put you in touch with?

Your clients are by far the most likely source of new work so, if you are serious about growing your book of business, they must be your priority. If you’re nervous about asking for time with them, please don’t be. We are continually interviewing our clients’ clients, and the one thing almost everyone tells us is how much value they derive from just having time to chew the fat at their offices or over lunch a few times a year and how they wish their attorney would find more time for those conversations.

When you are putting your plans together, we’ve found there are two things that make plans easier to write, easier to implement, and therefore more successful.


There is very little point investing huge amounts of time completing comprehensive due diligence or SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats) analyses of the clients in question; after all, the purpose of the meeting is to find out what they’re up to and what they’ve planned for the future, so just ask when you get there! Instead, just split a piece of paper into four and use each quarter to represent one quarter of the coming year. You can then jot down how you plan to contact them during that quarter.


If you dissect the rationale for appointing any professional adviser, it tends to split into two: you have the required technical skills, and you can get on with them—after all, you’ll have to have difficult and challenging conversations down the line, so you need to be comfortable in their company. This means your interactions with your key clients need to reinforce both the technical and the personal side during the year, so our model is to alternate the “formal” with the “social.”

Your formal interactions could be inviting clients into your offices at the end of their financial year to review their portfolio to make sure it still meets the demands of their business plan, or it could involve you visiting their plant or offices to see what they’re doing firsthand. It could be that you invite them to a seminar you are running or as your guest to a conference on their particular scientific area.

Your social interactions could be invitations to play or watch the sport they like (two European patent attorneys we work with organized a mountain bike trail with some of the overseas attorneys they work with regularly, and it generated significant amounts of new work), or it could be an invitation to join you at a new Indian restaurant, microbrewery, breakfast joint, or independent coffee roaster, depending on their personal interests.

While it may seem a small detail, playing to your clients’ or overseas agency contacts’ personal preferences will hugely improve the return you get from the social side of your development plan. Not only will they be flattered that you remembered, they’ll also be more comfortable doing what they like doing, which means they’ll open up and tell you things and ask you questions they may well not say or ask in a situation in which they are not so comfortable. The trick is making sure you have that insight, and this is where the formal elements of the plan can play a part.

If you can get in the habit of using the few minutes before your meeting starts to ask about what they’ve been doing recently, or the time it takes to walk them to the elevator to ask what they’re doing next weekend, you’ll get all the information you need. Moreover, if you know they are a huge Lakers fan or a serious wine buff, when you see any articles in the press or online, you can forward them under the heading “saw this and thought of you” to keep you front of mind between meetings or cases.

Who Are My Best-Connected Professional/Industry Contacts?

When it comes to contacts, there are two groups to consider. The first is the more obvious. Are there any law firms, investment houses, or accountants you come across regularly when you’re working with certain clients or on specific technologies? Or have you been introduced to any of your clients’ other advisers and thought they were someone you could collaborate with in the future? If so, take the initiative and arrange a coffee to find out more about them, tell them more about you, and identify how you could possibly help each other.

The second group is often missed but can be more productive. Within your area, are there any proactive trade bodies? Are there any speakers you repeatedly see on the panels at conferences? Are there any industry commentators who tend to crop up regularly in reports or roundups?

These (and apologies for using a horrible marketing-ism) are your sector’s “key influencers,” and it is always worth making contact with them. As they’ll be well networked in the markets you want to pursue, establishing a dialog should lead to introductions to prospective clients; and because you’ve been recommended by a perceived expert, these opportunities will be easier to convert, which in turn will make your business development easier.

From a more practical point of view, one of the other myths we come across all too often is that business development is all about networking, and networking must be all about formal events or conferences. I am certainly not going to say that networking doesn’t work or that it doesn’t play a vital role in any firm’s business development plan. What I would say though is it only works if you are comfortable with walking up to complete strangers and initiating small talk to establish that all-important personal connection. More importantly, you then need to be comfortable enough to follow up and keep the conversation going, because work is never won from one short conversation in a crowded room.

The good news is that if that isn’t your thing (and let me be honest, it’s not mine), there are other equally productive methods you can use to build your book of business.

Informal Networking

While industry events and conferences might not suit everyone, many attorneys are completely at home hosting small dinners, a golf outing, or an event based around a shared interest. As long as you choose the right people—those you want to see, those who will enjoy what you’re proposing, and those you know could be useful contacts for the other guests—these more intimate gatherings are often much more productive than larger, more expensive, and more time-consuming alternatives.

Conference Speaking

If you are comfortable speaking to an audience at a recognized industry event, you have the perfect opportunity to showcase your knowledge and abilities and position yourself as the right attorney for those listening. Better still, as you will be on stage, you will immediately be credible (the organizers aren’t going to ask anyone to speak who doesn’t know their subject inside out, are they?) and immediately be visible to the entire audience.

Imagine if you were to go to a reception at the same industry event. You might speak to four or five people, and of those maybe only one or two would be worth following up with. If you present, you are speaking to everyone at once and, better still, the majority of the audience will come up afterward to compliment you and ask for your slides, which pretty much takes care of your first follow-up step for you!

Running Your Own Events

If you’re not comfortable speaking at an industry event or feel your efforts could be better employed adding value to your existing client and professional relationships, you could look at running your own events. Traditionally, this has meant hosting seminars, which is fine (especially if you partner with other advisers, an investment house, or a hub/incubator so you get in front of some new faces as well as the usual suspects), but there are other formats that in our experience are growing in popularity.

The main one is the roundtable. You choose a topic, prepare three questions based on the burning issues in that sector, and then invite a mix of around 10 clients, prospective clients, and industry/professional contacts to come and discuss those questions. For you the benefit of a roundtable is that you have much less preparation to do. There are no slides to prepare, no script to rehearse, and you don’t have to deliver an extended talk to a whole room. However, the benefits for the audience are more pointed. It lets them actively participate rather than just having to sit and listen. They can put their point of view across and pick up on the views of their peers, which means it’s the perfect way to absorb best practices and new ideas they can use to their business’s benefit. The coffees before and after also provide them with a chance to do their own networking and make valuable new contacts within their industry.

And if distance, geography, and time differences preclude you from running a “physical” event, why not present your material as a webinar? Open source apps like GoToWebinar make this incredibly easy. They’ll schedule your session and even send out the invites and reminders for you, and they’ll record the webinar so that you can send the link to those who couldn’t join you on the day but want to catch up on your material when it’s more convenient.


Content marketing is now pivotal to any marketing strategy. Identifying the right trade press vehicles (i.e., those your clients read rather than those your peers read) allows you to work your way through the issues you know that sector faces and, again, position yourself as the right attorney for that readership.

Establishing a relationship with the editors of trade publications is in itself a smart step. If you meet the editor’s word count and deadline the first time you work with them, chances are they’ll come back to you time and time again, which means you’ll get even more exposure with no extra work. Also, as publishing houses usually work in tandem with event businesses, you will probably also receive invitations to speak at related conferences (invitations you can always pass on to colleagues if speaking isn’t your thing).

The important thing to remember about winning trade press opportunities is to make the finished article work for you as hard as possible post-publication. You can promote the link via LinkedIn and Twitter and even append the PDF to your LinkedIn profile. You can also (with the editor’s permission) add the first couple of paragraphs to your website with a link to the full article, as both the external link and keywords will help boost your SEO rankings. You can send it out to relevant clients, contacts, and overseas attorneys either as an e-shot or as an attachment to a more personal email. If you’re feeling a bit cuter, you can even send it to the editors of similar publications to start a conversation about maybe writing for them.

Alternatively, having a blog spot on your firm’s website or publishing an article on LinkedIn allows you to self-publish even more niche content that will help boost your profile within the search engines and, by extension, generate new inquiries from people you’d otherwise never reach.


These are just some of the initiatives we’ve helped attorneys implement over the last few years. They also illustrate how we have flipped our approach to coaching attorneys on its head over that time. Instead of following the standard demands to “get them out of their comfort zone” or try to create clones of the attorneys the firm regards as their principal rainmakers, we have stuck to our guns.

The truth is that if you are going to achieve critical mass with your marketing and business development, the smarter choice is to find out what people like doing, help them get better at doing it, and then encourage them to do more of it. If you are prepared to match activity to personality—whether that means spending more time with clients and contacts, speaking at events, or writing for the right publications—people will be more likely not only to do what’s required but also to do it well, and that in itself will always generate better results.

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Douglas H. McPherson is one of the directors of Size 10½ Boots, a specialist business development agency that works with law, IP, and accountancy firms all over the world, helping them refresh the way they take their practices to market and achieve their growth objectives.