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August 28, 2012 Articles

Cultivating the Courage to Ask for Business

Expressing your interest in working with someone can make a difference.

By Debra L. Bruce

Many lawyers, both men and women, blanch at the thought of having to ask for business, and I don’t blame them. In my opinion, it’s often a mistake, and it should be scary to do something clumsy or annoying. Common advice about “asking for the business” may drive sales in low-risk transactions but drive away potential clients with complex and risky issues.

Nevertheless, lawyers do need to develop business, and expressing your interest in working with someone can make a difference. How do you drum up the courage to do that? In short, it’s a lot less scary if you have laid the right groundwork beforehand. To help illustrate what potential clients want to hear from lawyers, I did an informal survey of a number of in-house counsel about how they like to be approached for business. My thoughts and their responses are intermingled in this article.

Identifying a Need First A number of in-house respondents indicated that men were bolder and more direct about seeking business than women were. They said men are more likely to make cold calls. Some of them have been too bold, however. “A strong sales pitch makes me squirm,” said one counsel. In their boldness, some men persistently pursued work when they didn’t really understand the company’s business. “I am probably not going to respond very positively to repeated inquiry from an attorney who is trying to convince me what a great lawyer he is, but whose experience and expertise simply aren’t on point,” another warned.

Lawyers commonly trip up by making a pitch for business before unearthing a current need for their services, much like my acquaintance at church who turned to me and said, “Debra, I’d like to put you in a new Camry.” If he had done a little research by accompanying me to the parking lot, or if he had asked me some foundational questions, he would have learned that my car wasn’t very old, that I liked it, and that a Camry wasn’t my style. He broadcast the message that he needed to sell a car and unwittingly implied that my needs were irrelevant. Similarly, asking for legal business when there’s not a need can expose a lawyer’s preoccupation with her own welfare over the client’s.

All that being said, an expression of interest in working with the client, without actually pressing for work, can have a positive impact. Some counsel indicated they appreciate a parting statement such as “Please think of us if you have a future need” or “Don’t hesitate to call if we can be of help.”

Knowing the Industry To understand clients’ needs, you must become familiar with their environment. Do your homework to get a good grounding in the industry. Every one of the in-house counsel respondents stressed the importance of industry knowledge. The absence of it is fatal, and the demonstration of it smoothes the way.

If you have a passion for some element of their business, that’s even better. If your sincere interest extends to the industry’s history, how it makes the world a better place, or some other facet of the business, bring it into the conversation. All of the respondents indicated that they seek legal expertise and a reputation for good work, but that’s really just the ante for getting into the game. They value lawyers who care about the client’s industry and know it well enough to combine legal knowledge with practical business solutions for their company’s challenges.

You can simultaneously demonstrate your familiarity with the industry and uncover needs by asking questions such as “A lot of our clients in your circumstance experience challenges with X, Y, and Z. Have any of those come up for you?” As you explore the nuances of their particular problems, it may become appropriate to say something such as “I have some experience in helping clients with that.” If they don’t take the bait, ease off a little. Don’t succumb to the temptation to press for the business just because you have uncovered a need. As one survey respondent said, the most effective business developers “recognize that forming a new professional relationship typically takes time and cannot be done overnight.”

First Downs Versus Touchdowns If your prospect hasn’t jumped at the chance to retain your services, he or she may not have the necessary confidence that you can bring real value to him or her. Or perhaps the prospective client doesn’t have the authority to move forward. Instead of going for a touchdown by asking for the business, just try to keep scoring first downs. Consistent first downs will eventually turn into a touchdown if you don’t fumble.

So how do you keep the ball moving? Perhaps you can ask, “Would you like to hear how some of my clients have solved that problem?” That’s a low-risk question that doesn’t require much courage to ask. It offers to donate something of value to your prospective client, building trust. It also naturally opens a door to tell a success story.

Your success story is more persuasive than a direct ask and often leads to more pointed inquiries about your services—initiated by the client. Maybe you won’t ever have to ask for the business, as the client takes the lead. If the client expresses interest in progressing to the next level with you, your follow-up question might be “What’s the next step?”

If signals seem positive, but still noncommittal, ask for a commitment short of a touchdown that keeps advancing the ball. Here are some possibilities:

“Would you like to set a time for further conversation to explore whether we can help you?”

“How about if I pull some data together on this to go over with you next week?”

“Would you like me to take a look at your agreement and give you some preliminary thoughts?”

“Are there some other folks with valuable input on this subject that you and I might like to talk to together?”

If you get a commitment for intermediate action by the client, you will know that you’re still in the game.

Even if this process doesn’t evolve into new business, you can avoid fumbling the ball, and scaring the client away, by proceeding incrementally based on previously developed information. You will have gained useful data and built a little trust toward a future opportunity. The client won’t avoid your next call, especially if you shared valuable insights in this process.

Getting into a Conversation Of course, you have to get a conversation going in order to ask questions that uncover needs. The in-house counsel I surveyed don’t mind being contacted by prospective outside counsel, although one admonished that “cold calls . . . are almost never successful.” It’s better to have some kind of preexisting connection, or at least an introduction, to “warm up” the call.

Don’t hoard your expertise. In-house lawyers appreciate outside lawyers who help keep them informed and up-to-date. As one said, “We depend on connections outside the office to gain the knowledge we need to be effective. So I don’t mind being contacted by legal specialists who really know my industry and who may have some valuable knowledge that I do not have.” Another said that lawyers typically get on his radar screen by raising issues of importance to his company or by providing insights or examples of their work product that are relevant to the company’s business.

The Importance of Networking So how do you get into conversations with potential clients, or create the connections that can improve your likelihood of success, without making cold calls or being pushy? Networking is key. One in-house counsel said, “I enjoy talking to new people who introduce themselves at a conference or an event, particularly if they are confident, poised, and friendly—without being overly aggressive.” Another said:

In order for a law firm attorney to have some chance of getting my business, I almost always would need to have met that person and ideally have had an opportunity to interact with them in a legal setting, such as serving on a bar committee or participating on the same seminar panel or co-authoring an article with them.

So don’t give up on speaking, writing, bar service, and trade-association activity just because your phone doesn’t ring the next day. You are demonstrating your expertise and putting in place relationship building blocks. If you don’t meet a potential client, you might get to know someone who can later make an important introduction or referral. Corporate counsel frequently seek referrals from lawyers they trust, particularly other corporate counsel.

Understanding How Companies Value Interpersonal Skills Networking also gives you an opportunity to demonstrate your talent for communication and connection. If you get overly nervous or tend to keep quiet in group conversations, seek help in developing a confident presence. Decision makers use every interaction to evaluate your ability to work well with others. As one counsel said, “If the person I’m thinking about hiring is rude to the waiter at a restaurant, won’t make eye contact, or otherwise presents poorly in person, then I worry about how they will interact with business folks at my company, appear to a judge, etc.”

Asking for Business from Friends Who needs networking when your friend has the power to choose legal counsel? If you have the necessary expertise, it might seem as if you’re on easy street. However, as a lawyer-coach, I have often encountered women attorneys who worry that if they ask for business from a friend, particularly a female one, it might damage the friendship. Could the friend think the attorney is trying to take advantage of the relationship? Perhaps the client would feel uncomfortable providing candid direction or feedback to a friend. Maybe the client wouldn’t want to risk exposing her own mistakes, shortcomings, and fears to a social acquaintance.

It is interesting that my survey elicited responses from some female corporate counsel who felt quite comfortable doing business with friends and from some male counsel who didn’t. One of the women said, “My company has provided management training so that I am comfortable creating commitments and holding people accountable to their commitments, regardless of whether they are a business colleague, friend, or family.” Counsel who didn’t mind being asked for work by friends stressed that “the lawyer has to do a great job no matter who she is” and that lawyers should understand that companies have policies and procedures to follow.

Given the variety of preferences among corporate counsel on the subject of doing business with friends, a wise attorney will watch for indicators of a friend’s attitude. Does she often socialize with outside lawyers? Does he share his concerns about business problems with you or seek informal advice? Does she seem to have an interest in seeing you succeed? Has he ever mentioned that he might call on your expertise one day? Does your friend generally have an informal and approachable demeanor? Those are all good signs.

On the other hand, if your friend tends toward a formal, reserved, or cautious personality, tread carefully. If she never discusses work with you, she may prefer to compartmentalize things, keeping her home and social lives separate from her business life.

If you still aren’t sure whether your friends would be receptive, test the waters by showing interest in their career success and welfare at work. From time to time, venture casual questions about what they like about their work, what kind of stresses they deal with, or what they think about recent developments in their industries. Share information about legal news that may be relevant to their companies or their kind of work.

If your friends are responsive to such conversations, they will gradually begin to think of you as someone to discuss business issues with. They may begin asking for your casual advice. If they don’t, to safeguard the relationship, you can approach the subject obliquely. Mention that your firm helps with those kinds of issues, and you’d be happy to email a relevant white paper or invite them to the next seminar the firm conducts. If they brush off the offer instead of expressing appreciation and interest, back off.

Conclusion One way to bolster your courage is to eliminate the need for the activities that cause you fear and discomfort. Ask questions that ferret out a client’s needs. Generously share solutions and useful insights. Take incremental action. These behaviors help you avoid pointedly asking for business, while actually increasing your likelihood of success.

Keywords: woman advocate, litigation, networking, business, clients