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Law Practice Today

February 2023

Advising The Business Client

Mark A Robertson


  • Important considerations that lawyers should focus on in their practices that are helpful for any business-oriented practice but are critical if you want to represent businesses and advise their owners.
Advising The Business Client

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As a small firm practitioner, I have enjoyed representing big and small businesses and individuals for their corporate legal needs and personal planning for over 45 years. But I have not always practiced in a small firm environment.

I have found that above everything else in all my years of practice, clients hire the lawyer, not the firm, and when the lawyer leaves – either to go to another firm or out on his or her own – the client will go with the lawyer if he or she is capable of continuing to do the work they were hired to do.

Let’s go over some important considerations that all lawyers should focus on in their practices that are helpful for any business-oriented practice, but in my mind are critical if you want to represent businesses and advise their owners.

Core Competency

It should go without saying (but I’ll say it anyway) that a lawyer trying to represent business should have some core competencies in areas that businesses require representation. If you are going to represent a business in litigation matters, then you need to be able to demonstrate your abilities in that area. The first firm I worked for specialized in litigation – “nuclear event” type litigation. By that I mean that it was bet-the-company type litigation that involved multimillion-dollar exposure or company survival issues. The partners were adept at this type of work through significant and successful trial experience, and they were good at telling people about it. Their satisfied clients were also good at telling people about it.

If you are going to be a transactional lawyer, then you need to develop the skills necessary to negotiate and close transactions, form a business, take a company public, negotiate a complex document, understand the tax consequences of a transaction or event, etc. The second firm I was with had lawyers with significant skills in these areas. The more you worked on transactions, the greater the skill level required. Special training or degrees may be needed depending upon the area of practice, i.e. an L.L.M. in taxation or intensive CLE in securities or merger and acquisition work. The more transactions you work on, the more your clients (and potential clients on the other side of a transaction) are impressed with the quality of the representation. This develops more work from more and sometimes larger clients.

What expertise do you offer to a business? While being a good utility infielder may be a valuable skill, most of that is done in-house by the businesses big enough to have in-house counsel. You should consider developing a core competency in a specialty that the prospective client will not likely have in-house - niche marketing or developing skills at being an outside general counsel for the business.

Core competency is the most important ingredient, and the one that I cannot give you any tips on to help you on your way. With few exceptions (divorce being one) a business will use a lawyer for many of the same things for which an individual will use a lawyer. You need to know the law you practice and know it well in order to represent businesses.

Active Bar Involvement

The second most important thing you need to represent businesses is the connections to the individuals who hand out the work. For big companies, that usually means the inside general counsel. Where are you going to meet the general counsel or in-house counsel? By being active in the same bar association activities or sections they are. While later I will discuss some other marketing activities to increase your exposure to in-house lawyers, active bar involvement is the most important for two reasons: (1) it can improve core competencies; and (2) you will meet a lot of lawyers from around the country, and lawyers will refer work to other lawyers that they know or have met before they will pull out Martindale-Hubbell or some other directory to find a lawyer in your area when they need one.

The American Bar Association has several substantive law sections that will meet the test. The Business Law Section is the home to most business law issues and lawyers. It has committees on virtually every business transaction that most businesses and their lawyers would deal with on a day-to-day basis. The committees include in-house and outside corporate lawyers as well as legal scholars. It’s great territory to learn and schmooze at the same time. There are niche sections and forums that are also heavily business-oriented, covering such areas as antitrust, franchising and the construction industry. Your state and local bar associations may have sections and committees that have a heavier business emphasis (although the number of participants and the geographic diversity is far more limiting than the ABA).


Before a client development program for business can effectively be implemented, a lawyer or small firm should conduct some strategic analysis – identifying firm and individual strengths, weaknesses, assets, systems, and perceptions in the community.

The first step in planning for a lawyer or firm is an internal survey of the lawyer himself, the firm's lawyers and its staff – focusing on self-image, perceived strengths, weaknesses, core competencies, billing practices, and current and targeted practice areas. This can be done with some simple lists of personal strengths, weaknesses, aspirations, etc. This information will help the lawyer and the firm define what resources are available, how the lawyer sees him or herself as a lawyer or the firm as a law firm, what the lawyer’s strengths are and what the lawyer or firm has to offer clients.

The second step is for the lawyer to know his or her own clients – who they are, where they are from, what businesses they are in and what legal services are provided to them by the lawyer and by other law firms. Most of this information can be pulled from records that the lawyer already has in-house. The rest of it can be obtained through a simple client questionnaire or a survey of your clients. This step should be replicated for target clients – those businesses that you want to represent.

What information the lawyer wants to compile on client and prospective client profiles is up to the lawyer. A typical profile should include not only basic information such as names, addresses, telephone numbers, industry classifications (SIC numbers or your own coding system), billing and payment history by area of practice and responsible lawyers for current clients, but also what banks the business uses, accounting firms, other law firms and in what practice areas, the number of employees and financial information regarding the business. Developing a simple client profile is not a difficult task and much of the information can be compiled by your staff. A simple database can be set up on a personal computer or word processor – or if you have not made such an investment yet, it can be done manually on a form and use a simple filing and cross reference system.

One of the best, least expensive (and least used) resources for external research on prospective clients is the public library. The reference desk and the various business directories found in most public libraries are a wealth of information on companies and industries. In addition to the business directories found in most public libraries, there are commercial sources of information published for other groups that might be useful. Ask your accountant and banker if your area is covered by any directories used to target prospects.

The local or state chamber of commerce can also be a resource for information on the community or area and the industries and companies that are members. Area or state economic development agencies or departments often have industry information and public filings on companies using economic development assistance, and information on companies whose securities are publicly traded is readily available from the SEC or the state securities department. There are also numerous major computer databases which can be used to research and accumulate information on individuals, companies, and industries.

Once you have gathered the necessary information, the planning process to identify prospective clients is not difficult. From all of the information gathered from existing clients and an analysis of your practice areas and financial information, you can answer such questions as which practice areas are profitable and which are not, who are the key clients and referral sources, etc.

Putting together information on the firm and on existing or prospective clients is no different than thoroughly researching a legal issue in a brief or before a hearing or trial. Knowing enough about a client's business and industry to be conversant with a client or prospective client is important in establishing and maintaining credibility and a comfortable relationship with an individual who is deciding whether to select or retain you as his or her lawyer.

Planning Your Practice Development

The business marketing plan for the individual lawyer or law firm includes the same basic components for any other strategic plan – a position or aspirational statement, goals, objectives, policies, strategies and a tactical plan to achieve those goals and objectives. The plan is a useful tool to focus and organize the individual's practice, attract new clients and needed changes, and to permit good client relations.

A strategic marketing plan might be as simple a goal as to represent the cement plant in town in all of its corporate legal needs. The steps that you need to take along the way are the different objectives to meet that goal with specific strategies and tools being used to accomplish the objectives.


Technology is the great equalizer - small firms can be nimble in their technology use and acquisition of hardware and software. The cost for Big Law to change computers and software is staggering compared to what it costs a solo or small firm. I have found that many large law firms are one to two years behind the technology-savvy small firms, and as technology and applications continue to accelerate, the gap is widening.

Using technology is also a competitive advantage for small firms in many instances in competing against large firms in the courtroom and in attracting clients. With a scanner, a solo practitioner can turn out the same volume of discovery as a large firm in a case by simply scanning the 200 pages of interrogatories, running your OCR software, doing a global search and change of names, add your own questions and ship the document back to the other side in an hour or so! An extreme example, but I think you get my point.

A small firm or solo must be prepared to have the technology available (and in use) that the clients want. It may mean having a web site with secure access for document sharing (sounds complicated and expensive but it is not); having e-mail; and having the same word processing system they have – which usually means some derivation of Microsoft Word (or at least the ability to pull up client documents, change them and send them back in their system).

Grow Your Own

All businesses started out first as just a dream in someone’s head, then as a small business before it ever got big. Once you have the systems and organization in place, the easiest way to represent a business is to start with a new or small business and help it grow. Some of the largest clients that I have were clients that I helped when they were much smaller or just starting out. Many businesses stick with their lawyers they started with, even if the legal work is outside their expertise.

When we are first engaged by a business to do some legal work for a new client, our initial interview and the follow-up fee agreement lay the foundation for representing the business for all of its legal needs. We tell them that they should look to our firm as their outside general counsel and to bring all their personal and business legal issues to us – even if we don’t do that kind of law! Why? Because we tell them that we know lawyers who are competent to handle their affairs far better than they do since that is a part of our job. This is what we tell them:

“Our firm would like to serve as your legal counsel. With this position comes the responsibility to advise and counsel you on matters we are competent to handle, and if requested, to assist you in obtaining suitable representation from outside lawyers in areas we cannot handle for you. We look at ourselves as an asset to our clients by providing timely, accurate legal services that are affordable to both the client and the firm. We are pleased that you have selected our firm to represent you. We look forward to serving you and will use our best efforts on your behalf.”

As the small business grows bigger, they will continue to call on you because you have exhibited core competency in the areas they hired you to help them in and helped find them other lawyers in areas you could not help them in. You have become their outside general counsel.

Build Your Network of Outside Lawyers

Understand your limitations and have your resources established for referrals of items outside your core competency. The big advantage of a large law firm is that it has more specialties under one roof and the ability to develop niche specialty areas, with financial resources to continue to pay for the beer and the beans while a specialty is developed. A small firm may not have the same financial resources, but it can develop a network of other solo and small firms that have the expertise required for nearly every legal issue that a client might have. Your relationships with other lawyers to hire them on a contract or of counsel basis or farm the work out to is important.

Referral Sources Inside the Business

Who in the business hands out the legal work? Identify them and get to know them. As discussed above, it may be an in-house lawyer, but it may also be the president, the chief financial officer or some other officer or employee of the business. You should know who this person is from the research you have already done.

You might start out by identifying someone you know that knows the target individual so an introduction can be made, or you can take them both to lunch. If you don’t have any common acquaintances, then a letter of introduction or a brief telephone call with some useful information might be of help. If you have developed an expertise in an area of law in their industry, then some of your publications might be appropriate or something to address a problem area that you are aware the business or the industry is having. Cold calling is often awkward and feels “unprofessional,” but it might be the only way to establish a relationship.

Referral Sources Outside the Business

Referral sources for a law practice do not always come from other lawyers. Many successful business practices are built from referrals from other professionals such as bankers, accountants, insurance salespeople, investment advisors, and others. It is important to develop relationships with these other professionals, and ask for referrals from them of their larger customers and clients.

One inexpensive way to market your practice to these prospective business clients is to co-host a seminar with a bank, accounting firm or insurance company on business structures, planning or other business issues. Put other professionals on your mailing list and on your calling list for breakfast and lunch meetings. A referral or an endorsement from another professional who already represents a business is worth its weight in gold. Remember to thank them – several times.

Trade Associations

Membership in trade associations in which one of your current clients is a member will not only generate good will and a better understanding of a client’s business, but it can also develop additional legal work from that business as well as other members of the association who you have met at the meetings (or better yet, have been referred to you by your member client). Demonstrating a genuine interest in the issues that are of concern to members of a trade association and developing an expertise in a particular industry are important tools in developing clients within that industry.

Being a lawyer in a trade association also opens the opportunity to being a lawyer for the trade association, or at least writing articles in the association’s publications. When you publish as a lawyer in a trade association magazine or newsletter, your “expert factor” goes up geometrically. Reprints from such publications are also important marketing tools for sending to clients and potential clients who might not be a member of the association.

Local Counsel

If you are outside a metropolitan area, market yourself to larger firms with big clients to be their local counsel. Often representing one large business as local counsel will lead to other matters through referral from satisfied in-house or outside counsel. This relationship can be developed through bar activities and old school ties.

Personal Representation Leading to Business Representation

You can begin to develop corporate legal business through representing the individuals who own or run the business. Remember, if a client is satisfied with your work in one matter, they are likely to hire you for the next matter, even if it is for a corporate issue in their business and totally unrelated to the litigation matter you last handled for them. As long as you have the core competency (or have a referral source that has such competency) your asking for and acceptance of the new work will lead to cementing the lawyer-client relationship.

As an example, estate planning is something many executives and owners need, and it can be leveraged into additional corporate legal work. You might wish to identify the key executives in the target business and get an introduction from a common friend or business associate. Since only about a third of the people in this country have wills, there is a good chance that the key executives in the company have inadequate or non-existent estate planning. Once you have demonstrated your core competency in this area and they are satisfied with your ability, it is much easier to ask for the corporate work, particularly if you can demonstrate skills in that area. Estate planning often leads naturally into corporate work through buy-sell and shareholder agreements, deferred compensation issues, etc.

Making Your Resources Look Bigger

You can look bigger than you are if you present yourself properly. You can do a number of simple, yet effective things to present a professional picture of your practice to your clients and prospective clients that convey a “larger look” than perhaps your firm actually is:

  • If you practice in a firm with other lawyers, your firm name is an important marketing tool. The letterhead for the firm should be individual letterhead with the firm name, address, etc. and the name of just the lawyer sending the letter (with a direct dial number if you have it). When someone sees a letter from Able & Baker with just your name and direct dial number printed to the side they don’t know if you are one of two or 200 lawyers. Word processing systems and printers can print this letterhead on demand rather than having to send it out to a printer or engraver.
  • How many big law firms answer their telephone “law firm”? None! How many other businesses answer their telephone “bookstore” rather than Barnes & Noble or “doctor’s office” rather than “Dr. Smith’s office”? None. Businesses spend hundreds of millions of dollars every year trying to get the public to recognize their names. Most solo and small firm lawyers seem to do the exact opposite by telling the caller they are no different than the other 3,500 lawyers in the telephone book. Your name is a valuable asset, so don’t throw it away by having your telephone answered as if you are indistinguishable from every other lawyer in town.
  • With proper networking, you can actually offer the services of a larger firm if you utilize contract lawyers for projects, and avoid the overhead and supervision that often accompany associates.
  • Have professionally done business cards (not the ones you print yourself). Have all the information on the card that a client will need, such as your e-mail address, website if you have one, fax, direct telephone number, etc.

We are not trying to deceive clients into thinking we are bigger than we are – only to demonstrate that at whatever size we are, we are presenting ourselves professionally. We don’t want to scream out that we are small by acting small, we want to say that size doesn’t matter.

Old School and Other Ties

You should develop a networking relationship with fellow lawyers who have gone into a corporate in-house practice. Stay in touch with your law school classmates. Many work outside your geographic and specialty areas, and some have gone in-house with major corporations. They should be a good source of business clients if they know where you are and what kind of clients you are looking to attract.

You should have school friends on your mailing list and send them the same article reprints, newsletters and marketing material you send clients and prospective clients. They already know you and should be a good referral source of new business.

Learn Business Speak

Read the books and magazines your business client is reading. Be prepared to discuss the critical business issues facing the client or prospective client, or that their industry is facing. You have to be able to "talk their language" to represent them.

I subscribe to more business magazines and purchase more business books than law books and publications. Why? Because that is what my clients and prospective clients are reading, and I need to be conversant in trends and issues that they are interested in. I clip out articles and mail, fax and e-mail them to clients and prospective clients every week. It keeps me in touch and often generates calls from the recipient about the clipping. It tells them that I care about their business and understand issues that are important to them.