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February 01, 2011 Articles

How to Build and Maintain Client Relationships

By Kathryn Harris

After opening your solo practice, it is essential to build and maintain client relationships. This was the subject of a recent podcast, "New Lawyer: New Solo."

The podcast presents steps to help a solo practitioner succeed after establishing his or her practice. The podcast host, attorney Kyle R. Guelcher, a solo practitioner from Springfield, Massachusetts, and chair of the Massachusetts Bar Association Young Lawyers Division, speaks with attorney Gabriel Cheong, the principal attorney of Infinity Law Group, LLC, in Massachusetts, about important steps a new lawyer can take after starting his or her own law firm—such as networking, budgeting, marketing (including alternative marketing techniques such as blogging), and building and maintaining client relationships.

Mastering the art of networking and obtaining referrals is critical to running a successful solo practice. Fresh from law school, many new lawyers think of networking as going to parties with a stack of business cards and handing out as many as possible. Cheong states that this practice is largely ineffective. Instead, to successfully network, Cheong recommends that a new lawyer get as many cards as he or she is able. Then, follow up with those contacts and arrange a face-to-face meeting. Although it will take time and effort to build relationships and establish a solid network, such a networking practice is crucial for obtaining referrals and developing new business. Attorneys will refer clients to you because they know you—not because they have your card.

An attorney should focus the budget on advertising and outsourcing the tasks he or she does not want to do or is unable to do proficiently so that the attorney can use his or her time to work on other enterprises, such as networking, writing, and marketing. Most solo practitioners have a modest budget. As a result, Cheong recommends allocating resources to pay for outsourcing tasks, such as marketing and accounting, instead of purchasing unnecessary goods for the office. At a basic level, running a law firm is like running a restaurant or a boutique: You are operating a business with the typical start-up costs and overhead. Lawyers primarily provide a service. The resources that are necessary are a telephone and a computer to operate your practice.

Writing is the best form of marketing; it shows consumers and other attorneys your expertise. A new practitioner is likely to have more time than clients. A lawyer should use that time wisely to study his or her practice area(s) and write about it. Cheong states that attorneys will have a decent chance at being published if they contact legal publications with a proposal or a submission.

The benefits of publication—be it in Lawyer's Weekly or the Wall Street Journal—are manifold. While an article may not be viewed instantly by clients or other attorneys or bring in clients, it still exists, and later, clients or other lawyers may read it and see that you have understanding of that subject. Second, as other lawyers see your name and read your work, they will be more likely to recognize your expertise and refer clients to you. Having a string of publications following your name shows clients that you are educated about your practice.

In addition to writing for publication, maintaining a firm website and writing a practice-area specific blog are excellent consumer-targeted marketing methods that advertise expertise to readers and help obtain immediate work. Cheong, for example, maintains the main firm's website, which provides a general overview of his practice, as well as separate blogs dedicated to each practice area (e.g., divorce, prenuptial, bankruptcy).

Blogging is important, as it is distributed immediately and widely to potential clients searching online for an attorney in that practice area. Be sure to update your blog regularly—at least bi-weekly—to show readers that you are passionate about and educated on the subject. A good blog can explain important legal issues to general consumers and teach them how to do tasks a lawyer could otherwise do for them. While educating the potential client may seem counterintuitive, Cheong believes that it actually attracts clients to his firm as it demonstrates his expertise.

Utilizing the Internet and its social media tools are also important forms of marketing to disseminate your knowledge and acquire clients. As an attorney writes and publishes more articles, he or she should link each article or blog post to social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn to more widely broadcast his or her expertise.

Finally, Cheong recommends advertising via the Internet or Facebook in lieu of the Yellow Pages, as the Yellow Pages has become obsolete. Most people will search on the Internet for an attorney, so invest time and money in making your name and knowledge available online.

Building Client Relationships
The key to acquiring and maintaining clients is demonstrating that you know what you are doing. Unfortunately, law school does not teach the skill of confidently providing legal advice. Attorneys need hands-on practice; if an attorney does not practice, he or she will never learn to provide confident legal advice. Prior to obtaining clients, an attorney should volunteer with the local bar association or legal aid and practice giving free legal advice. Volunteering is the best way to learn to give legal advice, because if an attorney errs, he or she has the bar association or co-attorney to fall back on. And, there is no better way to confidently provide legal advice than to adequately prepare your case. Good preparation takes time, but understanding what you are talking about when you walk into client meetings is invaluable and shows your expertise, passion, and confidence.

A client may choose not to engage an attorney's services. When this happens, Cheong does not recommend chasing the client and asking why he was not retained. Instead, he learns from the experience. When Cheong began practicing law, his rate of getting clients was low. Now, it is over 90 percent, because he has learned over time how to be confident and prepared. Cheong offers two other schools of thought for this situation. First, you can reach out to the client and ask him what you could have done to get his business. Or, you can offer to refer him to another attorney. The latter not only builds up a trust relationship with the client, but also adds to your networking efforts; referrals to another attorney may result in that attorney remembering you and referring another client to you.

Improving a New Practice
There are three golden rules that should be applied to all legal practices: (1) ask; (2) observe; and (3) practice. While networking, ask what other attorneys do. Observe how senior attorneys network. Then, practice what you learned. Likewise, with building your practice, do not hesitate to ask questions. Go to court ahead of time and observe how other attorneys handle their cases. Then, practice your craft. No matter how many times you observe another attorney give opening or closing arguments, you will not be able to do it until you try.

Join professional organizations, such as your local bar association and practice area associations, and sign up for their listservs. This can help you find mentors and network with other attorneys. Notably, the longer you practice, are active on listservs, and belong to associations, the more you will gain referrals. Cheong offers the following advice: Work for full price or work for free, but never work for cheap. As a new attorney, you will feel an overwhelming urge to charge a client less—or buy their love—but when you devalue your service, clients devalue you and your work. And at the end of the day, good clients recommend good clients and bad clients refer bad clients. Do not cheapen your work, and never discount your services.

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