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February 02, 2017 business development

Making the Most of the First Meeting

By Oran F. Whiting


Business development is key for lawyers in private practice. If you, as a practitioner establish a rapport with an in-house contact and are fortunate to secure a meeting with the organization, a comprehensive plan and specific pre-meeting preparation will increase your chances of success. Remember the axiom "you never get a second chance to make a first impression."

To improve the chances of successfully making a positive impression, implement several preparatory steps prior to the meeting. This article addresses steps you, as a practitioner, should consider prior to meeting with in-house counsel to improve your chance of achieving your desired objectives and those of the prospect.

Gather Intelligence

Knowledge is power. Learning the maximum about the potential client is vital. Begin with public sources of information, such as annual reports, Dun & Bradstreet reports, state filings, newspaper articles, and trade magazine articles. Contact alternative sources, including financial firms, accounting firms, and related entities, being careful to respect your prospect's confidentiality and business relationships. Be creative, but discrete. Identify and locate others in the potential client's industry with information about or knowledge of the targeted entity. If you are fortunate to have significant firm resources at your disposal, enlist your marketing department or associates to create a dossier on the entity, or pool information with your partners and colleagues. Avail yourself of information the prospective client discloses about the businesses and operations you would like to support.

Identify Meeting Prospects

Whether a senior partner with ample years of experience, a young associate, or an independent practitioner, you must learn about the individuals with whom you will be meeting.  Failing to do so, no matter your level of experience, could be ruinous to your opportunity. From the prospective of the potential client, an experienced practitioner's lack of preparation will be viewed as arrogance or indifference, whereas a younger practitioner will be viewed, at best, as simply unprepared, or worse, as incompetent.

If you, as a practitioner, have advanced to the meeting stage, you will generally encounter individuals occupying four positions: the sponsor (or contact); the ultimate user(s) of services; influencers; and, most important, the decision maker. Discerning and acquainting yourself with these individuals is important. Pinpoint the individuals with an interest in initiating or expanding a relationship. If you have performed your due diligence, your sponsor has identified these individuals and otherwise prepared you for this meeting.

Additionally, practitioners should determine the number of individuals they will bring to the meeting and from what disciplines. Focus on seating and positioning if making a formal presentation. Practicing or role playing is always beneficial no matter your experience level. 

Prepare Focused Materials for the Specific Event

If you have advanced to the meeting or presentation stage, a general firm or personal professional biography may be insufficient for your objectives. Detailed descriptions of your firm's and your experience and specialties tailored for your event and to the needs of your prospect are more valuable. Prepare an agenda and "leave behind" materials, including, but not limited to, business cards, bespoke brochures, articles, and visual aids.

Define Your Objective

The answer to the question of objective may not be as obvious as "to get the business!" Of course, this is, most likely, the ultimate aim, but slow down. Rome was not built in a day. You must have a focused, reasonable goal. Overly aggressive actions in an initial meeting could be ruinous to your overall objective. Is the objective a business objective? Is it a second meeting? Is it to secure a meeting with an individual not present? Or, is it as simple as getting more information to assist in plotting a more comprehensive strategy? Defining the desired outcome is determinative on how to plan.

Develop a script. State or define the purpose of the meeting. Draft easy-to-answer opening questions. Determine who will ask them. Adopt ideas for small talk and draft open-ended questions. Develop responses to objections and tough questions and decide who will handle them. Prepare transitions, including thanking the prospect and expressing your interest in working with them. List factors that may affect how the prospect will make a decision. Address your strengths and weaknesses relative to the competition.

Learn the Prospect's Objective

Ascertain what the prospect wants to accomplish at the first meeting or get from you. Is it a specific task? Is it a long-term relationship? Your sponsor will help you with this question. If it is a specific task, be prepared to describe how you would handle it from beginning to end, including estimated fees and expenses.

The Meeting

Follow your prepared script to the extent possible. Be prepared to control the meeting, but also to allow the prospect to implement his or her agenda. Do not panic if things do not go as planned. How you conduct yourself and react to scenarios reflects on how well you could perform the prospect's work.

Sometimes, it is appropriate to take calculated risks to demonstrate industry, product, or service knowledge. For example, during one attorney's visit to the office of an aviation prospect, the general counsel, running late for the meeting, employed his lieutenant to provide the practitioner with a tour of the entity's operations. During the tour of the entity's history museum, the lieutenant made several slightly inaccurate statements about the company's aviation history, which the attorney knew because of his experience with and interest in aviation. The attorney made a calculated decision to gently correct the record.

Intrigued, the lieutenant decided to expand the tour to the back office and factory operations. The practitioner impressed the lieutenant with his knowledge of engines and other airplane components and willingness to get his hands dirty inspecting the parts themselves. Though the attorney appeared before the general counsel somewhat dirty and grimy, the exchange helped secure a second meeting, as the lieutenant obviously relayed the attorney's in-depth knowledge to the general counsel.

Conversely, it is important to carefully read the situation and the individual with whom you are speaking. For example, do not be lulled into a political discussion, as politics is the third rail of any initial business discussion with an individual with whom you have no personal relationship.   

Next Steps

Specifically define your next steps. Do you want to secure meetings with other decision makers (if they are not present)? Is there a superior? Obviously, you must be careful with your approach so as not to be perceived as going over someone's head. Though not as obvious, meet with a subordinate. Meeting with the ultimate user of your services is important. Suggest a visit to your office to instill confidence that you have the resources to properly service the prospect. Conversely, the willingness to visit the prospect's base of operation or plant can be beneficial.

Closing the Deal

How do you get an assignment? If appropriate, ask for the business or what, in your prospect's opinion, the next steps should be. Take them, follow up, and do not give up.


Oran F. Whiting is executive editor for Litigation News.

Keywords: business development, meeting preparation, client meeting, tips, young lawyer

Copyright © 2017, American Bar Association. All rights reserved. This information or any portion thereof may not be copied or disseminated in any form or by any means or downloaded or stored in an electronic database or retrieval system without the express written consent of the American Bar Association. The views expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the positions or policies of the American Bar Association, the Section of Litigation, this committee, or the employer(s) of the author(s).