As a young lawyer hungry to succeed, I had one goal—to WIN . . . at everything. It started in law school, and it carried over into many aspects of legal practice. Initial consultations with prospective clients were no exception. Winning in that context meant getting a signed retainer check before the person left the room.
To a young lawyer, making partner is the Holy Grail of lawyering, and partnership hinges on building a “book of business.” Like most young lawyers, I suffered from crippling imposter syndrome. The only thing I knew was that I knew nothing. Nothing useful, at least. To compensate, I did what we do—feigned confidence and acted like I knew everything. Although it was an act, it was often effective with potential clients. While I often left the initial consultation with a retainer check, I’d gleaned very little else. Years later, I realized I had missed the true value of the initial consultation. Not only did I not know, but what I thought I knew was wrong.
The Initial Consultation Is More than Landing the Client
The first meeting is not about “hooking and landing” the client. Well, it’s not just about that. Here’s the secret: the lawyer’s work begins with the first contact. The lawyer is both the interviewer and the interviewee. While the potential client must determine whether they want to hire (and pay) you, you must determine whether you can help the person, whether they are worthy of your help, and whether you even want to help them.
Listen Carefully and Critically
You may be thinking that everyone is entitled to legal representation. And maybe they are. They just aren’t necessarily entitled to yours. During your first interaction, you should listen carefully to both the potential client and the little voice in your head. You can avoid years of suffering by trusting your instincts. Let them talk—a lot. Don’t just posture and flex to impress them. Ask probing questions; listen carefully and critically. Try to determine their true motivations and goals. Get to know them as a person, build a relationship, and—most importantly—try to help.
One day, about 10 years into my legal career, I instituted a simple rule that changed my life: “Every potential client will feel better when they leave, even if I refuse to represent them.” Why? Because they’d be heard. Their feelings were validated. They would know more about the process and have more realistic expectations. And they would be less afraid.
Remember, no one goes to a lawyer for fun; they go because they are desperate, afraid, angry, or a combination thereof. See them as a person instead of a paycheck and treat them accordingly. If your only goal is to get a retainer check, you aren’t listening at all—you’re just planning your next brilliant and persuasive retort. And you certainly aren’t thinking about how to help.
Build Your Business the Right Way
Sometimes the best way to help is to discourage litigation and decline the representation. You can make a positive difference in their lives without even taking their case simply by being patient and kind.
It seems counterintuitive, but treating people this way can build your business faster than taking every case that walks in the door. People may forget what you said, but they always remember how you made them feel. As a result, if you are honest with them, they are more likely to refer their friends and family to you when they need advice they can trust—even if you didn’t take their case.
Yes, winning is important. Obviously. Just make sure you know what winning means. Treating the initial consultation as an opportunity to help, rather than a competition, made me a more successful lawyer and a happier, more fulfilled person. It may do the same for you, too.